HOW EBONYI REVIVED JUSTICE SYSTEM
Ebonyi State Justice Commissioner and Attorney-General, Chief Cletus Ofoke in this interview with UCHENNA INYA, speaks on justice delivery system, rule of law, police, and prison reforms, among others.
How has it been as Chief Law Officer in Ebonyi State?
Well, God has been faithful and government is a continuum. When I met activities in the ministry, I quickly adapted to them and started discharging my duties accordingly. So, it has been God all the way. That ministry belongs to a lawyer and as a trained lawyer, nothing is strange to me. In terms of administration, I have the experience. I have run my law firm for seven years before I got the appointment. I have also held many positions of trust that had to do with administration. So, combining administration with practice of law to me is not a strange thing.
What is your assessment of justice system in the state?
In Ebonyi state judicial system, the spirit is very high. The justice sector to me, is living up to its expectations; it is not a one way traffic. There are stakeholders in the justice system; the judiciary, the prison and others. Those bodies brought together have been collaborating to ensure that justice is done to all manner of people in the state.
But as a ministry, we have been discharging that which the Constitution says we should do; we have been vetting files, filing information, ensuring that people who are not connected with any offence are discharged accordingly because that is our mandate and ensuring that people that has one case or the other in court are prosecuted accordingly. Immediately I came in as Commissioner, I had a series of meeting with Heads of Departments of the ministry and in those meetings, we were able to marshal out points on how to deliver effectively on the issue of justice dispensation in the state and they all agreed that those points were apt and that they were going to abide by it.
I think the HODs are doing their best. One, no file from police stays more than a day in our ministry without being vetted. Immediately it is vetted, if we find out that there is a prima facie case established against the accused person, we charge that person accordingly. I have also made sure that the Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) is unburdened. In other words, I met backlog of cases files that were not given attention but immediately I came on board, I ensured that that those files were given urgent attention.
Again, the Department of Public Prosecution is a life wire of this ministry in terms of justice sector dispensation. Because of this, we injected more people into that department so that it will not lack manpower and that has really paid off because the law officers in that very particular department has to do with justice sector we are talking about and they are up and doing.
So, we brought on board people that are seasoned, people that have done the job for years and people that know what it takes to prosecute and what it takes to counsel where necessary. It has not been without challenges anyway but we have been able to surmount them. The problems we are having is that at times we don’t get case files from police as quickly as possible the way they are supposed to be doing and that hinders the operation of justice dispensation in the ministry. By and large, the ministry is doing very well.
In what way would you say the backlog of case files you inherited affected justice delivery system?
The effect although we have cleared them, innocent people were languishing in prison. People that were not connected to the offences they were charged with were languishing, praying that God should intervene on their behalf. But with the promptness and with the zeal the people we have deployed to the ministry have shown, we have been able to clear those backlogs and that is what gave rise to filing of information.
In fact, more than 60 informations have been filed since I came on board and I can assure that authoritatively that we have discharged not less than 20 people. This has to some extent decongested our prisons. Like I told you, justice sector is not about ministry of justice alone; we have other critical stakeholders. So, in terms of prison decongestion, that has really helped. Situations up to 50 files have been given attention by way of filing information and more are still coming. As a matter of fact, last week, the Department of Public Prosecution filed eleven information awaiting assignment by the state Chief Judge.
For the other ones, we discharged them because we looked at the files, why they were brought to prisons and we saw that they were innocent of the offences they were charged. When I came on board, we had about 70 case files that were not given attention but we have cleared them.
What role is the state government playing in prison decongestion?
The governor has done a lot in the area of prison decongestion. He is constructing an ultra-modern building for the state federal prisons which is about 90% completion. He has also charged the state Advisory Committee on prerogative of mercy to be up and doing and that committee is headed by myself the Honourable Attorney General. The Advisory Committee on prerogative of mercy has met with the Chief Judge of the state; we have met up to three times and part of it is the release from prisons about 26 inmates sometime in February this year. You can agree with me that a situation whereby 26 inmates were release from prisons will go a long way to decongest the prisons. So, the government is doing quite a lot. The Advisory Committee on prerogative of mercy is currently looking at cases of inmates who deserve to be granted state pardon.
How cordial is the relationship between your ministry and the security agents in the state?
The relationship is very cordial. Of course, we are all partners in justice delivery and when I came on board, the first point of call was to meet with the state Commissioner of Police, Titus Lamorde and we had a robust discussion on how to be getting case files from police as when due so that we can vet them accordingly in line with the directive court. And I can assure you that that meeting has yielded positive result because the office of the officer in charge of legal gives us attention. Anytime my ministry staff goes there to get those files for vetting, he treats that as a priority. In respect to the prison, we are very strong partners in progress; the relationship is very cordial. In fact, you cannot talk about prison decongestion without involving the prison officials. The Controller of prisons is a wonderful woman; Mrs. Oputa is a good woman. She came up with an idea of decongesting the prison and that position of her gave birth to a meeting with the Chief Judge of the state which resulted to releasing of 26 inmates like I told you. If the relationship is not there, that wouldn’t have been possible. Other security agencies; SSS, Civil Defense are good partners and we have not had any challenge resulting from their various offices. We work hand in hand to make sure that our state remains number one in terms of prison decongestion.
Is rule of law on trial in the state?
Well, you already know the answer. In Ebonyi state, everything is done according to the rule of law and the dictates of the law.
Our governor believes in due process and let me inform you that he has not only been acknowledged in Ebonyi state, in the south east, but in Nigeria. He has won prestigious award of Ambassador of rule of law, good governance and anti-corruption. That summarizes the state of rule of law in Ebonyi state. For somebody to have won the laurels among other states, tells you that in Ebonyi state law is supreme.
In terms of checks and balances, in terms of accountability, in terms of due process, our governor is number one. Whatever he does, he ensures that it is backed up by law. He is a man that listens to the wise counsel of not only jurists but also the ministry of justice which primary role is to advise government on law. And you can see that in the state, people can sleep with their eyes closed because of the attention he has given to security, because of the attention he has given to human empowerment. In terms of the legislature, the Ebonyi state House of Assembly is an organ of government that does its own constitutional job the way it pleases the Honourable members. His Excellency, the governor does not interfere with the running of the House of Assembly.
They are free to legislate on any matter that has direct positive bearing on the people of the state and that is democracy and that is the rule of law we are talking about. So, if our governor does not believe in rule of law, he would have been interfering with the functions of the legislative arm of government and that of the judiciary. Our Judges go about dispensing justice; our government does not interfere with how judgments are giving. In fact, some judgments are even given against government and government obeys them. We advise government and government to obey them. So, rule of law reigns supreme in Ebonyi state.
What role would the newly created Criminal Prosecution department play in justice system?
It is to monitor the inflow of criminal cases in all the courts in the state. I told you that we vet files and other things we do to ensure that there is justice delivery in the state. The department is a very vital department in the ministry of justice and it has helped to a very large extent in ensuring that criminal prosecution go very well in the state. The job of the Senior Special Adviser to the Governor on Criminal Prosecution, who is in charge of that department, does not stop at criminal prosecution. It looks at other cases that of interest to both government and individuals. In other words, inferring with the police, the office of the O/C legal, the Nigerian prisons, the DSS because these are the agencies responsible for apprehension of criminals. He interfaces with those security agencies in respect to criminal matters that are to be given attention by both the agencies and the ministry of justice.