Barrister Umemedimo Nwoko is the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Akwa Ibom State. He bares his mind to TONY ANICHEBE on sundry issues. Excerpts…
Prison congestion has become a major issue in Nigeria, owing to the delay in the dispensation of justice. What could be done to ease it?
We don’t really have much congestion here, unlike in most states. Uyo prisons was a medium term facility for 600 people and it is accommodating about 1000 people now. The Minister for Interior said it is not too bad here but that it is very bad in many states. The truth is that Akwa Ibom State has no prison facilities. By the laws of the country, prisons are in the exclusive lists. No efforts made by our people here will actually solve the problem because immediately you remove one prisoner; they will bring another one even form Sokoto to replace him. We are not in control of who comes to prisons here. After our efforts to get convictions, once people leave, they send more people from already congested prisons to us here, so the prison congestion here is not because our justice system is slow but because we don’t have control of our prisons. They are federal prisons and the owners manage it their own way.
Why is Governor Emmanuel Udom not using his prerogative of mercy to free prisoners in the state?
Prerogative of mercy is not what the governor just wake up and carryout. There is a specialised board that advises the governor. Their job is to study most cases on their merit and advise the governor according; we have not really taken time to brief him accordingly. Another reason is that the Chief Judge who also has that power had been doing so periodically. The Chief Judge has power to study cases and free suspects. Every Chief Judge visits prison facilities at least three times a year but we still draw the attention of the governor on exceptional cases. So what he would have done, the Chief Judge is already doing for him.
In about one year another general elections will hold, how will you access your Governor’s performance so far?
Well, using what has become a common expression, it has been years of superlative performance. Whether you to take it wholistically and sectorially, the final conclusion is that, he has performed excellently. I happened to be privileged of sitting in an office which is more like the roundabout of the administration. I am very well positioned to observe the government and access performances, social, economic and political wise. So my opinion is one which is well informed. The government has done very well. I am not just speaking now as a commissioner, but as an Akwa Ibomite.
I have no fear of contradiction when I said that the governor is a performer; let me take it from economic perspective. In our state what the governor has done is almost a miraculous approach to governance. If you remember the moment the nation slipped into recession or economic depression, when government was completely starved of cash, our governor tapping into his wealth of experience as an Investment banker brought succor to the people of the state. He told us that all we need to succeed is that we have and not what we don’t have.
To him in a situation when there is no cash and you need to execute projects, you need just money and we asked him if there is no cash, how you will get money. He said money is being created out of instruments. He had engaged investors in the state to carry on with their investments even when there is no cash because he has instruments which guarantees cash mainly his renowned integrity. You are aware that the National Bureau of Statistics recently confirmed that Akwa Ibom is the second most sought after state for investment after Lagos state.
The Governor was able to do this because the governor created that enabling environment without cash which makes him distinct and successful. Even though the Governor may not have been career politicians, he has what has endeared him to the people. One he is very honest, so even in the murky waters of politics where people hardly trust themselves, politicians have come to trust him.
Governor Emmanuel had brought trust and confidence into politics, people can take his words and assurances to the bank. He is hardly three years in politics but people trusted him because he never promises what he cannot do. During my recent interactions with him over some sensitive issues, he told me pointedly that he will never say what he cannot do. He said he gets sick the moments he make promises he cannot fulfill and there and then I saw I was dealing with a man who has passion for truth.
I felt depressed that politics has a man like him but was elated that good Christians are needed to change the face of politics and governance in the state and country. With people like Governor Emmanuel in politics here, in a while people’s mindset, attitude and life will soon be adjusted to live according to the biblical standard. It is good when a man calls a spade by its name.
Today with him, politics is no more a game of deceit, his honesty and strength of character has become a high profile political capital for him. Politically the Governor has built massive goodwill for himself among the people and socially he has a lot of investment in terms of education, youth empowerment, skill acquisition, women empowerment among others.
He has created both primary and secondary health care facilities in each senatorial district. He has kept his social contract with the people of the state. Educationally, he has upgraded facilities in the state owned educational institutions and equally ensured that academic standards are enhanced to produce quality students. One of the greatest unsung legacies of Governor Udom Emmanuel’s adminis-tration is the sustenance of the legacy of peace and security of the state.
People don’t know the value of sleeping with their two eyes closed until they lose it. Recently, you have heard of a dreaded cult operating between Lagos and Ogun states called Badoo relishing in killing spree of innocent people. We will never have such here because of the strategic planning and security architecture put in place.
However, we are in the Niger Delta region and we know what has been happening in the states across the region because we share the same water front. But you are aware that they never operated here because the governor built a security system that discourages their operations here. There is no special spirit that blocked them from operating here but the enormous investment the governor made in securing the state.
I want to tell you that Governor Emmanuel do embark on night patrol sometimes with the state police commissioner. He has the most personal and minute report of every crime activities in any part of the state. He challenges us to sleep little and keep tab of activities happening around the state to know how the state is faring at all times.
The security architecture in the state is good but information is also very necessary. Information nib crime at the bud. As the state Attorney General, I do take time to move round and see times for myself. Again the incumbent administration has not only help us to put criminals in check but have successfully secured convictions of many under trial within the framework of prosecution. I handle most criminal matters, like the kidnap issue at Ikot Ekpene court, by myself, because I don’t want to hear of lack of diligent prosecution which they will blame for prison congestion.
Akwa Ibom has been able to secure itself and provide a peaceful environment. When the Minister of Interior visited the state, he described the state as one of the most peaceful and secured state in the country, it has been generally acknowledged as part of the additional achievements of the governor, he had done enough for Akwa Ibom people to give him another four years as governor.
You earlier said that the Governor uses instrument like money in place of cash during economic crunch. Are you talking about taking loans and other facilities?
No, instruments are not loan. The kind of instrument the governor is relying on is not one you go and structure alone. And you are aware most banks are not even giving loans to state government again. If you need any major loan, you may have to go through the central bank and getting approved is difficult.
The instrument is not even buying bonds because you go through the House of Assembly to have that, why I talk about instruments, I put his banking experience into cognizance. For instance sometimes the governor contributes his equity contribution with land but not one that will become problem to the state tomorrow because we plan how we structure our agreements and memorandum of understandings so that we know what we are investing into, at any particular transaction. Also, we are mindful of the fact that there are some people who claim to be investors, they only come to get your land and use it to seek loan, claiming to be investors.
During the last budget defense, most ministries complained of lack of funds. Is your ministry affected?
Well in times of economic recession, everybody adjusts, it’s mandatory that you adjust so that everybody moves on. We sincerely adjusted on our approach to issues. One area of demand you cannot prevent is that when you are in court, what must be filled must be filled. There is no postponement. So we prioritize our needs and the governments have been extremely supportive. Management of cases is a complex thing.
As I am talking to you there is a criminal trial that has to do with kidnapping around Oron in which soldiers and DSS arrested them, but one of the key witnesses a solder is now serving in Maiduguri Borno State and we will always need him to come and testify. He was the head of that operation and all the Arms and ammunition received were in his custody. He is serving there and pulling him out to come testify means writing military commands and we have lost two adjournments to the matter. And you can’t close the case without him to avoid destroying the case.
But when you are facing a difficult situation you must devise a means to navigate out of it. We related well with security agencies to assist us. Then notwithstanding, the lack of funds just like every other sector is adjusting, we are doing so too but that will not deter us from ensuring quick dispensation of justice when necessary.