Mr Uwemedimo Nwoko the 14th Akwa Ibom State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice wears two caps in his capacity of the Chief Law Officer of the oil rich, yet poor state. While he carries the responsibility to the defend the interests of government, he also carries the burden of defending the rights of both rich and poor in the state. He is particularly passionate about the rights of children.
This is understandable. In the recent past, Akwa Ibom acquired the unpleasant tag of labeling her children witches. Children were accused of being behind the misfortune of their parents in a society where poverty is stark reality. Nwoko therefore found himself in a situation where he has to use the instruments of the law to balance the interest of justice in the interest of all, not minding whose ox is gored.
The larger law abiding citizens, particularly children are better off for it. However, for the criminally minded ones, particularly those engaged in capital offences, he would ensure they pay with their lives if caught and tried by a court of competent jurisdiction.
Nwoko was born on October 27, 1964, in Abiakana, Urua Inyang in Ika LGA. Before his appointment as Commissioner, Nwoko was the chairman of the board of Akwa Ibom State Polytechnic, Ikot Osurua. He attended St. Augustine Secondary School, Urua Inyang, from 1977-82 before proceeding to the University of Calabar, Cross River State and Nigerian Law School, Lagos between 1987 to 1992.
The 52-year-old attorney-general obtained his LL.B from the University of Calabar in 1991 and his BL in 1992 at the Nigerian Law School, Lagos. He participated in the National Youth Service programme in Lagos. After his service year, he went back to the classroom for his Master’s degree, still in law ( LL.M Degree) at the Lagos State University (LASU) in 1998. Prior to his advent into government service, the Commissioner had been in private legal practice since 1992. He has been deeply involved in building our democracy through landmark election petition and constitutional law cases.
In this interview with Mustapha Ogunsakin, Publisher, Gavel International, Nwoko advocates death penalty as capital punishment for capital offences. Excerpts:
Before you came on board the justice system in Akwa Ibom, what was the road map you had for the system?
Basically, the central concept given my background, is respect for the rule of law and quick dispensation of justice; both criminal justice delivery system re-engineered to meet international best practices, and in the civil justice delivery system trying to make sure that we create a general system that enhances quick disposal of cases. What informed my thinking is in two fonts. One, as an activist and a defender of the people’s rights over the years I’ve been bothered about the protection of the rights of individuals particularly when it has to do with the criminal system and to that extent, I have worked towards ensuring that criminal trials move as fast as is possible allowed by the rules of procedure. What I did principally was to ensure that with one that is firmly and squarely within the powers of my office, which is the giving of legal opinion concerning people that have been charged to court and remanded in custody awaiting the DPP’s opinion that we have managed. I inherited files that were up to 10-12 months old of people who were awaiting trial and opinion yet to be given. In the last 2 years, I have been able to reduce it to one month. As I speak to you now, we are treating July files in my office, if I run into any file that is of May/April, I won’t lie we still run into them I’d like to find out why a file of that age is still in the office.
Sometimes we find out that it may be due to the complicated nature of the particular offence alleged and the nature of the investigations that had to follow. Or in some cases where the police could not tie up all loose ends when it comes to investigations and then you have to send the file back to the police to clean up some aspects because cases are won or lost at the point of investigation. If the police do not give you a file that can sustain your case, then it is dead on arrival so when we find such cases we send it back to them to clean up.
That could cause a delay in what we do but then, generally speaking I have been able to reduce the time of opinion delivery between one month/ three weeks maximum. That way, we don’t have cases where people are unduly detained. What broke my heart mostly when I entered office was that you can get a file where someone has been in custody for 5-10 months and at the end of the day, the opinion is that he has no case to answer and should be released. You can’t easily account for the time loss or pains that the person had to go through so I believe that such a thing should not occur and that is what I have been able to achieve to the credit of the team I’m working with. That one is within our powers but when it comes to full trials; it is now the combination of the judiciary and us so it takes a longer time.
In the civil side, the major focus of the present administration in this state is industrialization and industrialization has to do with investment; both foreign direct investments, local investments and all that it has to do with business and every businessman that is going into business expects that if there is a problem arising, maybe a dispute arising from issues should be very quickly disposed of so that money would not be tied down and then the business can start up and get concluded within time and this became a challenge given the slow nature of our procedural process in trials. So what we have done is to create both the multi-door courts operated by the judiciary and the Alternative Dispute Resolution center operated by the ministry of justice. These two arms of the unorthodox court system with less contentious approach to dispute resolution and is helping us try to resolve issues so as to build investors’ confidence in our judicial system. So basically these are the things we have in mind and to a very large extent, we are achieving our targets.
How will you rate the criminal justice system in Akwa Ibom? What is the crime rate compared to other places?
Generally, not in local statistics but in national statistics, Akwa Ibom has one of the lowest crime rates in the country and we have also been rated as one of the peaceful and secure states. One, it has to do with the sociology of the place, Akwa Ibom people are not given to crime. A lot of the crimes we have in Akwa Ibom are cross-boundary events. We are very drastically affected by our proximity to Port-Harcourt and Aba in Abia state and some other cities like that. So it makes it possible for criminals to cross the border/boundary into our state, strike and then disappear. It is something that has been there over time but the security architecture in our state has been designed in such a way that any person that wants to commit crime has to prepare for war because if you enter Uyo capital city for example, you hardly move 200 meters without finding a stationary patrol vehicle located at major junctions, entry/exit points and then within the city. So we have a response time that is less than 5 minutes for all locations.
If there is any event or incidence and there is a radio message, within 5 minutes from all locations, there must be contact with the location where the alarm is raised from. That makes it very difficult for people to operate and exit. If you follow the history from 2007-2009, we had very high rates of kidnappings. Now kidnapping is not a very good business in Akwa Ibom State because once you kidnap, except you don’t want to make money and the whole essence of kidnapping is to get ransom so you must call. You must be in contact with the victim’s family and to that extent you would have exposed yourself because we have an investigation network that monitors you to the very location you are making the call from no matter how many places you want to move from, we’ll locate you. Those who have tried it realized that it is not working so, kidnapping business in Akwa Ibom has practically reduced but that is not to say that we aren’t facing challenges.
We still have our own challenges which we battle but generally speaking, the crime rate in the state is low but even at that, we still have prison congestion and the prison congestion we face is basically because of the effective federal system we are running, assuming there is even a federal system in Nigeria. Why I say so is that no state government owns a prison facility in Nigeria. All the prisons belong to the federal government run by the ministry of interior. I recall when the minister of interior called the governor some months ago; he had observed that Akwa Ibom has one of the lowest congestion records in Nigeria. But then we are still suffering it. The reason is not because the criminal justice delivery system in the state is not working. It is, but the point is that the prisons are owned by the federal government so even if you clear Uyo prisons today or any other prison, 2 weeks after, the owner of the prison will relocate other prisoners from other states and come and fill up the space there because other states have worse records than ours. So no matter how many prisoners you remove in a month or in a year, it cannot change because once there is a space created, the owners of the facility relocate people from other places so we work in vain.
One of the areas that I am really particular about is the area of child protection. There have been several cases of child molestation, calling them witches and all that. What have you been able to stern this tide?
It is practically exterminated. In the last 4/5 years here, prior to 2013/2014 it was very bad. The battle started with the passage of the child’s rights law when it was domesticated under the Akpabio administration. The government took it very seriously, a lot of people were prosecuted, homes where children were kept were raided and it brought a lot of war.
Eventually, the government was able to overcome it so those issues where children were given all manners of victimization all in the name of spirituality doesn’t occur anymore. If it happens anywhere, that person ends up in jail. We don’t even waste time about that anymore. There is no negotiation for it in Akwa Ibom so all the spiritual houses have closed business. If it were to be an adult, he can do whatever he likes but when it comes to children it is not tolerated in Akwa Ibom and the level of intolerability is 100%. If we check through now, they don’t happen again. We have exterminated it completely and that actually became possible by the passage of the domestication of the child rights law in Akwa Ibom state. It’s no more an incident that we are suffering from
So as a further question on prison congestion, recently, the Federal government directed state governors to begin signing death warrant to inmates on death row. To what extent has your state complied?
It could help, but I don’t really know how many people are on death row as far as we are concerned. The problem is this, in most cases, a lot of the people who are awaiting execution or have been condemned to death have appeals pending and some of these appeals take a long time to dispose of and until the appeal is disposed of, any execution carried out is against the law. If you recall the case of Bello vs AG Oyo in 1986 where Bello was convicted of armed robbery and while his appeal was still pending, the military governor signed his execution warrant and he was executed. His family went to court saying that their breadwinner was executed while his appeal was still pending and the court granted them. He won in the Supreme Court eventually.
So the issue of execution statistics, I don’t have it off hand particularly arising from our own state. But I tell you, the governor of Akwa Ibom says anybody that is convicted and his case has been closed as far as the execution is concerned, he will sign the death warrant. Particularly in the case of kidnapping he said “listen, give me a conviction that is confirmed finally by the court and I will sign it for you”. Our governor is ready for it anytime, any day but then, it is not signing of the death warrant that is the issue because the Federal government itself has the executioners. I think there was only one left in the country at a point in time who actually had become old in fact he was living on contracts because he had passed retirement age and all that. He was the only one in the whole country going round like spirit of death, killing from one place to another and how many was he killing in a year? So the government actually needs to recruit and these are not things that can be owned by the state, it is only federal government that can employ.
So it’s not just to ask the state governors to sign the execution warrant. Do you have enough people that will carry out the execution when it is signed? And that is squarely on the table of the Federal government. They are the only ones that can do that because the state government has no prisons or facilities to do so. It is not even entitled under law to keep one. So another major thing the Federal government needs to face is that they must have persons that will carry out the execution. I don’t even know how you people are waiting but whatever the case is, even if you take out one person it creates room for another person so it could help decongest prisons to a large extent.
Do you believe in the death penalty as a deterrent for capital punishment even when some countries of the world are moving away from it?
Completely. It depends on the psychological and sociological state of health of those countries. If it’s me now for the next very many years, I will execute convicted people if you give me the charge. There are crimes that I will not even discuss twice whether or not it should be death penalty. Murders, robberies, kidnappings. These capital offences, I stand on two legs anytime even in the church I will pronounce it. I stand for death sentence and I am not negotiating it. Until we get to the level of sanitizing our psychology where people begin to give value to other people’s lives anybody that kills should be ready if you are caught to also face consequences. I don’t have second thoughts about that. I believe in it. Even if it does not serve as a deterrent, it serves for the person that has been taken.
My mother had been kidnapped. I know what I went through for the 5 days that she was kidnapped at the age of 70. She was in the bush for five days. Thank God she came out alive. There are people who are not that lucky and have lost their parents due to kidnapping in the bush. And then if the culprit is arrested and someone comes to talk to me about human rights I will not listen. What he has done is to kill the person. There are people whose mothers or sisters were not just kidnapped but also raped and dehumanized by all standards. And there are circumstances where even after collecting the ransom, they still go ahead to kill the person.
I have a situation in one of my local governments in Akwa Ibom, Ukan-ufan local government where a retired top Shell official came back home and established a polytechnic in his village and tried as much as he could to bring up youths from his community and they kidnapped this man, took him to Abia state, Rivers state, just carrying him around. The family was told that they must pay about 200 million naira; they said that they didn’t have it. They did everything.
This man had just retired from service and all the money he had he committed into establishing a polytechnic for the village but the kidnappers said that there is still money and that they should go and bring it. You know what? These guys had the temerity propelled by the devil himself. Since he said he didn’t have money, they put his right hand on wood and cut it off before they eventually released him. They cut off the man’s hands! Those are not human beings. And if I get such a person that is put on trial and convicted, I don’t discuss anything, he is a dead man. Going back to the story, when the man was picked up he had almost bled to death after they cut his hand and threw him out of the road then left. Nobody was even ready to assist him. He was screaming and bleeding until blood eventually finished in his body. After which people now rescued him and took him down to Uyo. I went to the governor to see him and you can imagine what was running through my mind. So those things are not to be discussed. Death sentence is a necessary mechanism for criminal justice delivery system for now.
Let’s look at the civil procedure rules sir, moving away from the crime aspect. Like you rightly said, Akwa Ibom is open to investors and investments both local and foreign. What are the legal instruments that the state has put in place to attract and make it easier for people to invest in the state?
One, we are partnering with a lot of private investors in the state to ensure that they come basically because government capacity to carry out major projects now is very low due to finances and so it is necessary to get people who have the money to invest. And what we put in place, particularly my office is directly involved in cases of MOU’s, joint venture agreements and all that. What we have done is to ensure that apart from providing security and a peaceful climatic environment for them to operate; we also structure each agreement depending on the facts and structure of that investment. We structure it to make sure that it is attractive. There is no investor that comes to your place to invest that does not have good legal advice so it is a question of negotiation depending on the investment, what we put in place is what we make sure that the terms of negotiation would favor us and the investor. It is a business partnership where the investors would be happy that they came and we also would be happy to have hosted the investors.
This includes the percentage of the public private partnership in such environment and then we also partner with them in terms of contribution, our equity contribution sometimes is in land we give them land but we structure the agreement of the donation of land in such a way that the people will not lose out and there will be provision to compensate the community that is giving the land away. For instance, the first line is that wherever it is possible to have manpower from that community or village where that land is donated, they will be the first to be considered for employment.
Then some other areas of businesses that will provide and also help the people of that community be part of that business and have a sense of partnership, a sense of belonging in that business is what we also create as part of the structure to make it attractive for investors into the state. So far, it has been very good. By the statistics recently released by the National Bureau of Statistics, Akwa Ibom is the second most sort after destination for foreign direct investments apart from Lagos in Nigeria. We are the second and that is because we are providing an environment that is attractive enough for them to come.