Onueze C. Okocha SAN is a former president of Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and a former member of National Judicial Commission (NJC). He is also the chairman council of legal education, member of the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) and former Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice in Rivers state. In this exclusive interview, Okocha spoke to NAIJ.com regional reporter in Port Harcourt, Tony Ihunwo, on several issues of national interest.
There a lot defections from one political party to another. The biggest so far is the president of Senate, Bukola Saraki, some senators and governors and their cabinets. Did you see this coming?
It didn't come to me as a surprise. Let me say this, whenever elections are around the corner, politicians are seeking office and they want to belong to political associations, which they think can best offer them the opportunity to contest for political office.
It happened in 2015 just before the election of that year, all the people who you are telling me now are defecting to PDP were already in the PDP at that time. They moved en-mass to the party that was formed called APC.
Now, a new coalition has been formed but I can't remember the name they have given it. Now, PDP seemed to have bounced back on track because as their new chairman has said they have realised their mistakes.
PDP is a party which I have supported and I will continue to support it. So, it is important that they put their house in order so that they can continue to seek members. The defections are not unexpected. I encourage all those who feel dissatisfied wherever they are presently to do the needful.
The constitution guarantees freedom of association. Political parties are associations and a man in PDP today feels he is not getting what he wants may seek to defect to another party vice-versa. Those who are dissatisfied in getting what they thought they would get in APC are back to PDP.
We, in the PDP are happy that those who left are coming back because they have discovered that where they are is no longer helping them. We welcome them back to PDP. And I caution them that they should realize that in the PDP, there are rules and regulations and democratic principles should be upheld.
You know it happens everywhere in the world. Even in America Democrats have left the democratic party to the Republican party and vice-versa. But the important thing is the service to the people who have elected them.
But if indeed Democrats defect to the Republican Party and vice-versa as you said, the frequency and turnovers of defectors are not as much as we see in Nigeria. Could that be the lack of ideological principles in the Nigerian politician?
Not necessarily, I do not think so. The problem in Nigeria, in my humble assessment, is that democratic principles have not taken firm root because even these defections are supposed to be guided by rules. Indeed, the principal conditions that entitles somebody to defect is that there is a cleavage or division in the current party makes necessary for party members to defect if he feels that remaining there, he will not actualize his dreams.
Most political parties have similar ideologies. What is there is service to the people. People talk about ideologies there was capitalists and the socialists who were invariably called the communists, those dichotomies are no longer there.
Everybody is now talking about service to the people not ideologies and providing a level playing field for every citizen of every country to actualize his dreams, their God given potentials. Political parties' aims and objectives are basically the same. That is service to the people who have elected them.
We are no longer talking about communism and capitalism now. The most important thing is that democracy will take root. Defecting from one political party to another has been happening from the first republic.
In the days of the late Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo, it was called cross carpeting. It is no longer a strange phenomenon. We, in Nigeria are yet to fashion out watertight principles that guide against mass defections from one party to another. If we had such principles, many of those who defected from PDP to APC in 2015 would not have successfully done so.
This is because you were elected to represent the people. Those who elected you did that because you are in the constituency belonging that a political party. So, for you to go to the National Assembly and state Assembly and suddenly announce that you are decamping, what about those who elected you?
There is the speculation that PDP may implode due to mass defections of prominent members of APC into the party by those are merely seeking a platform to contest elections as against those who have been faithful to the party thick and thin. What's your view?
I don't think that will ever happen because those who are coming to the party are aware of the fact that everyone will be given a chance to test his popularity in a level playing field. They should not be given any preferential treatment; neither should the ones who have been in the party be given any preferential treatment.
Indeed, the PDP national chairman has said that everybody is welcome to join the party. The time for election is still ahead and when time comes, everyone will be better given a level playing field. The fact that you are there since 2015 and the fact that you left and later came back in 2018 must not count much.
The important thing is that there must be laid down rules and regulations for which everyone is given a free and fair opportunity to sell his candidature before obtaining the votes of those who constitute the electorates.
The national chairman of APC has called on the president of Senate, Bukola Saraki , to resign because he became president of Senate on the platform of the party. Sir, you are legal luminary what is your view?
It is funny because when defections happened in 2015, the then speaker of the House of Representatives was Aminu Waziri Tambuwal who was a member of PDP when he defected to APC. Everybody was hailing him including the national chairman of APC now and those who were with him.
The call by Oshiomole has no basis because the speaker and the president of Senate were not elected by the APC but elected by the lawmakers across the divide of all the political parties in the two legislative chambers.
The fact that Bukola Saraki was an APC member does not mean that he has lost his position as Senate president. Only he can terminate the occupation of that office by resigning or the Senate members voting him out.
Yakubu Dogara was not elected by APC but members of the House of Representatives. APC national chairman must have misunderstood the position and he has no legitimacy to back up his claims.
Before the long adjournment of both chambers of the National Assembly there was budget for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which is considered as an urgent national importance for INEC to plan for the 2019 elections. How can we get out of this this logjam?
There is no logjam unless people want to create one. You must look at it holistically. The president’s advisers particularly in the budget office prepared the 2018 budget.
Did they forget that we will be conducting elections in 2019? Did they make provisions for INEC? I think there is a gimmick there. The National Assembly is independent of the presidency. And they have every right to decide when to go on recess and when to reconvene.
President Buhari also has powers under the constitution to summon the both Houses any time he wants to if there are pressing issues of national importance. So, the Constitution makes adequate provisions for the convening of the National Assembly.
The only thing is what is the pressing need? You prepared and you did not include the budget for the forthcoming elections and you know that preparations have to start in 2018.
Now, you are seeking virement from the funds of certain funds to serve the purpose of INEC and conducting elections for 2019. I think there’s something fishy here. The National Assembly has gone on recess and whenever they reconvene they will consider it.
But if President Buhari wants to summon the National Assembly, he can do so because he has the power to as long as he follows the procedure laid down in the constitution.
Don't you foresee any rancour in this?
I do not foresee any rancour. The Senate will resume in September. Budgets and supplementary budgets have been dealt with during their legislative periods. And I hope people will understand that the three arms of government are independent of each other.
Recently there were protests on the streets of Port Harcourt over the prevalence of cancerous soot in the atmosphere which medical experts say is dangerous to human health. Both the state and federal government have taken different positions on it. As a respected elder statesman, how do we get out of this?
We have a federal environmental protection agency which is the chief operator in this sector of environmental protection. I do not think that the federal government through the environmental protection agency has done enough to unravel the root cause of the problem and find solutions to it in Rivers state.
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Pollution happens worldwide and those concerned are supposed to rise to the occasion by taking upon themselves the duty of cleaning up the environment. How do you start cleaning without identifying the source?
Second, you must deploy sufficient men and materials to commence clean up. The federal government should realize that ball is squarely in its court. The Rivers state government has its environmental protection agency under the ministry of environment. They have been doing the best they can. But when you hear that the companies that are implicated are supported by the federal government and they pay dividends to it.
Military services have also been implicated this and so the bulk of the responsibility stops on the table of Mr. President. Not on the table of the governor of Rivers state. So let us place the blame on who it appropriately belongs.
The federal protection agency should be able to rise to the occasion. Look at the Ogoni clean up as recommended by the United Nations. The federal government came here to make a lot of fanfare of the clean up two years ago. Ogoni land is yet to be cleaned up, so is Rivers state's polluted Rivers and creeks. They should regulate all these companies whose operations produce this soot and pollute the environment.
In the midst of all that is happening like mass defections from the ruling party to the opposition and killings across the country, Mr President has taken a 10-day leave ad traveled out of the country. Does this show a very confident leader that all is well and nothing can go wrong in the political sphere in his absence?
Well, I am not in a position to advise Mr. President and those who are his advisers should know that at a certain point in time when crisis erupts in certain nations, presidents cut short their holiday abroad and return to their country to deal with the situation at hand.
I do not know why he traveled. Some are speculating that he traveled medical check. His advisers should be able to tell him that there are certain situations when foreign trips ought to be shelved.
So, that he won't be like the Roman Emperor who busied himself playing fiddle while Rome was on fire. Again, medical exigencies cannot be toiled with if indeed he needed to see his doctors.
What do you consider as the threat to the judiciary which is the vital arm of the democratic system in Nigeria?
The main threat to the Judiciary as the third arm of government established under the constitution is the refusal of other institutions of government particularly the threat executive arm of government and its ministries, departments and agencies, particular officials who are manning the departments and agencies and their refusal to obey the rule of law.
We failed to enthrone the rule of law as the cornerstone of our democratic process. The rule of law is the one that that will solve our problems in Nigeria. This is because when you hear about that government is not obeying the rule of law, then, you know that there is a problem somewhere that is seriously militating against the democratic process.
And you know that if you refuse to obey court’s orders, you discourage the Judges. You render the judiciary impotent and it cannot augur well for any democratic government anywhere in the world. To those who are in the other arms of government, we must enthrone the rule of law everywhere in this country.
Even at the executive arm, we still have lawyers who are advisers, legal aides and attorney generals who are supposed to insist on the obedience of the rule of law. So don't you think that the lawyers in executive take part of the blame?
We are trained to advise that the rule of law is strictly obeyed to best of our ability. I cannot speak for any of the legal advisers or attorneys general whose principals disobey court orders.
Every attorney generals has an obligation to advise the chief executive to ensure that court orders are duly implemented. So, it will be unfortunate if any attorney general will be in office and advise contrary to what I just stated.
There was an attempt to shut down the courts in court complex in 2014 and recently when some aggrieved APC members had a case in court. What is your take on that?
It happened on May 13 this year, and there was an attempt by some miscreants to shut down the Judiciary complex in Port Harcourt.
If you recall, this happened in 2014 when the former administration under the former Governor Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi shut down the court because they were bent on taking a position that was contrary to the advice of the National Judicial Council (NJC) on the question of the appointment of new chief judge of the state of the state.
While the National Judicial Council (NJC) had recommended the most senior Judge who happened to be my sister, Justice Daisy Okocha as the most suitable. And that recommendation emanated from the recommendation of the state Judicial Commission to the National Judicial Council, yet the administration at the time preferred to appoint somebody else called Justice Peter M. Agumagwu, who was already a head of the customary Court of Appeal in Rivers state as the chief judge but the NJC said no that there was a recommendation from it and the government cannot depart from it.
In response, they thought that the best way to go is to shut down the court. But thank God a Daniel came to judgment with the election of the current Governor, Chief Ezenwo Nyesom Wike as the Governor.
He was sworn in on the 29th day May 2015. At that ceremony, he formally announced the appointment of the dully recommended persons to be chief judge and president of the customary court of appeal respectively.
This one that happened in May this year was done under his watch as governor. When he heard about it, he rose from his residence with reinforced security forces and reopened the courts. That is what is expected of a God fearing and law abiding governor.
These governors should know that they swore to an oath to uphold the constitution of the federal republic of Nigeria and to serve without fear or favour and in accordance with the law. It was unfortunate that a certain governor at a particular time he thought the only way he could achieve his predetermined position was to shut down the courts.
It does not happen anywhere in the world. Even in the legal fiction, courts are opened 24 hours every day of the year because it is a symbol of the liberty of the citizens to seek redress and if the courts are shut down where else should they go? Are they to resort to jungle justice? Anarchy will take hold of the society and we will be worse for it.
You are a respected elder statesman of Ikwerre ethnic nationality just as the former governor Amaechi and the current Governor Wike even though they are of different political parties. Has there been any attempt to reconcile the two prominent Ikwerre sons?
There have been several attempts to reconcile them. Indeed, I have participated in some of those attempts. From the religious leaders to notable political leaders made up former governors to current governors, from members of the APC and PDP.
As I said, I have participated in such efforts. Indeed there is an eminent persons group of sons and daughters of the state that have also gone into this matter. But it is regrettable that somewhere along the lines, we run into troubled waters.
And things become intractable and we are at a loss about what to do. I believe such attempts are ongoing and should continue because there is nothing that cannot resolved by amicable means.
Even the most devastating wars between nations and between ethnic groups are eventually settled through dialogues and peaceful resolutions. There is quarrel that cannot be settled. It is my hope and prayer that this one will be settled in no distant future.
What are the issues you get to and run into trouble waters because in other states even people belong to two opposing political camps but when it comes to state matters both opposing camps work together? Can we know the intractable issues why the governor and his predecessor cannot reconcile?
Well it will be unconscionable for me to say what those issues are because they are issues as you say you know when two strong individuals are involved in intractable dispute each one will have his issues against the other person.
The other person will have his strong points against the other opponent. But it is not right for me as a person who has participated in the peace process to tell what those issues are. A lawyer or a marriage counselor trying to resolve issues between a husband and wife whatever is discussed is being discussed without prejudice.
You know it becomes unhealthy to broadcast them to the world. We hope that they can resolve the problems and we can embrace ourselves as brothers of the same ethnic group of the same state and the same nation.
Meanwhile, NAIJ.com had previously reported that the former governor of Cross River state, Donald Duke, said that the crises in the National Assembly particularly the Senate is as a result of the red chamber being used as a retirement home by former governors.
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