Following the recent raid on the homes of some justices of the Supreme Court and High Courts, Emeritus Professor of Virology and former minister of petroleum and energy, Prof Tam David-West, has given the Federal Government the thumbs down over the handling of the investigation of allegedly corrupt judicial officers by the Department of State Services (DSS).
While firmly stating his support for the anti-corruption campaign of President Muhammadu Buhari, David-West, is however, uncomfortable with how it is being carried out. In this interview, he sheds more light on his position.
How would you appraise the arrest of judges alleged to be corrupt by the Department of State Services (DSS) and the reaction of critical stakeholders as well as the public on the manner of the arrest, though they have been released?
I don’t want to be dragged into this national issue. But there is no how a major issue will be going on in the country, and I will not have an opinion. That is not me; I have my opinion. I will be the last person to say, don’t fight corruption. In fact, the punishment being given to corrupt leaders, to me, is too lenient. Every leader found to be corrupt should be prohibited from holding any public office.
In the case of the judges, two wrongs don’t make a right. Corruption is monumentally wrong. But in fighting corruption, you should also be careful not to give room to the person you are fighting to have an edge over you in any way. I give 100 per cent support to the fight against corruption. But we disagree on how the corruption is being fought in this country, but we don’t disagree on what it should be. I am not comfortable with the how. And nobody will convince me to be comfortable with the how.
Should we fight corruption? My answer is absolutely yes. I want it more decisive than what we are doing. But we must be very careful with the how. Sometimes, you spoil your case by over-reaction.
I am a very pro-supporter of this government and the President himself appreciates it. Every time we meet, he (Buhari) congratulates me for being steadfast with him, cold or hot. I cannot say I love him if I don’t see fault in some of the things the administration is doing. Any leader that has someone who does not see fault in him should suspect that person. He is not a good person. You are not God and you are not perfect. A good friend will tell you where you are doing very well and where you should change.
I know it is euphemism When the former president of the United States, Richard Nixon, was caught lying about breaking into the Watergate Hotel, he told the committee investigating him that he did not lie, but he told less than the truth. I would not gloss over what I consider should have been done better or differently.
So, I phoned somebody in Abuja, who is close to the Presidency and said that the government would make things difficult on this subject matter of the arrest of judges. I am not saying you should not probe them, whether a judge, professor or governor or whoever.
I support the probe and punishment for corrupt persons irrespective of social status; make them public show of contempt. But you have to be very careful how you do it.
On the case of the judges, people are talking more of what they did to them than what they did. I have followed discussions in the media and what the government did to them is on the frontline, and what the judges allegedly did is downplayed because of lack of tactics. You must carry the public along; that is why you are in government. Whenever you find out that there is public outcry against what you did, examine yourself. Government exists for the people, and the voice of the people is the voice of God.
If the public is largely saying this is the right way to do it, please, don’t dismiss them; sit down and be retrospective and see whether there is an atom of sense in what they are saying so that you can do it differently.
What of if some of the judges are hypertensive? Assuming some of them had heart attacks and died, how can we explain that? It will be there in history. You are not helping the President in his campaign on zero tolerance for corruption, by being excessive in your approach.
In a paper I delivered at a public lecture organised by Justice Chukwudifu Oputa in 1975 when I was Commissioner for Education in Rivers State, I said to get a corrupt politician is bad, but you have a right to change him after four years. But when the judiciary is corrupt, we are finished because that is the last hope of the common man.
I am not saying we should tolerate corruption in politics. If a politician is corrupt, punish him by the law. If the politician is too clever, next time he comes to ask for your vote, don’t give it to him. But if a judge is corrupt, what do you do? If the judge is corrupt, then the system is finished. We cannot afford a corrupt judiciary. Are judges above the law? No, nobody is above the law.
Before the law, everybody is equal. But the same law also says you are innocent until proven guilty. But overzealousness can spoil your case. This matter will be dragged on for a long time. By the time they realise it, many people would have forgotten what they did. All sorts of loopholes will be opened to them. To be a judge is not a simple thing now.
A judge asked me for bribe before in Lagos in a case I had before him. I was the complainant. I will not mention my lawyers because one of them is already a judge, the other one is now a royal father in Yorubaland. The defence counsel is also now a popular Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). He asked for the bribes through my lawyer and I said ‘no, I will not give him.’
I found out that this judge had worked as a junior lawyer in one of the greatest chambers in Nigeria. I went to the chambers and reported him to his former principal. I was told that he had also asked the chambers for bribe before in another case; yet that was the Chambers where he worked!
Of course, I did not give him. Unfortunately for the judge, we met at a social function organised by a big legal luminary many years later, after I had left office, and he too had retired. When the programme ended and we were on our way out, I went to him and said
‘My lord, did you rule on the case before you?’ He said, ‘Professor, that case had some implications.’ I told him ‘My lord, I am not a lawyer, but what is so difficult in making a ruling on a case that was not defended.’ I actually sued the person for libel. He could not defend himself. Then, the court kept adjourning the case. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) presented 15 witnesses for my case.
On one occasion, the defence counsel asked for a week adjournment and the court gave him one month to look for evidence to prove his case. So, the judge that asked me for bribe did not rule on the case till he retired. But I left the case because my case was proved. The only thing I did was to ask the defendant to apologise to me. On that case, the newspaper, Concord, apologised to me on the front page. So, I left the case.
How much bribe did the judge in question ask from you and what year did it happen?
I will not tell you. But it happened after I left office as minister of petroleum under the regime of former military president, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida.
So, what will you suggest should be done to really sanitise the judiciary of corruption?
What should be done is to introduce very drastic punishment. Litigation process should be expedited. Justice delayed is justice denied. Corruption not punished is corruption condoned. Don’t allow too long litigation. In confronting the person suspected to be corrupt, follow the rule of law. I don’t agree with people that said don’t follow the rule of law. A nation that is not following the rule of law is a nation in anarchy.
So, corrupt cases should be tried expeditiously with very serious punishment. I will not subscribe to plea-bargaining. Any public officer that is found corrupt should be sentenced to life jail with hard labour. When a judge is seen cutting grass or sweeping the street, this will serve as deterrent to others.
But I must correct the wrong impression that the DSS carried out a sting operation on the judges. What they did is far from being a sting operation; a sting operation is done by undercover agents and they cannot be identified at all.