Uche Ihediwa, Abia State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice is a lawyer with long standing repute, a reason why his appointment to head the ministry of Justice did not come as a surprise to discerning minds. In this interview with the NewsCritic Editor, Ihediwa lamented the level of human suffering that inmates pass through, saying that he has initiated reforms to speed up the prosecution of awaiting trial suspects and eliminate corruption in the system. He also applauded Governor Okezie Ikpeazu for his vision to make Abia better. Excerpts:
Q: What is the situation with respect to the appointment of new judges in Abia State?
A: The procedure for the appointment of judges is that the Abia Judicial Service, JSC, interviews applicants and then we shortlist the number of people that will be forwarded to the NJC. Normally, if there are three vacancies, the JSC will shortlist six people. In the last exercise the NJC asked for six nominees and Abia nominated six people. They are a permanent secretary, Mr Enyinnaya Okezie, he is from Umuahia South, Barrister Ogubunka the present Director of public prosecution, then we have Barrister Ugwuegbu, who is also from Umuahia, Benson Anya from Bende, the Chief Magistrate Adiele from Obingwa and one other from also from Bende. They have just recently been interviewed, hopefully when the NJC makes its recommendations they will be appointed.
Q. It happens that you were the first commissioner to be appointed and sworn-in even without a proper state executive council in place, why was it so?
A: The services of the Attorney General is very strategic; in fact, it is one position that is specifically mentioned in the constitution…’there shall be for the state an Attorney General’. The position is so crucial to the state that it is always advisable to have one in place. It is one of those offices that shouldn’t be left unoccupied for so long. The other aspect is that we have so much going on in the judiciary, in the legal circle that will need the Attorney General to be able to guide the government. The Attorney General is the chief adviser to the governor when it comes to issues of law. Imagine that democracy itself is a creation of law, so there is no way the government can function without the office of the Attorney General. That is not diminishing the office of the permanent secretary. There is Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, so what the permanent secretary will actually be filling in is that arm of commissioner for Justice, but the Attorney General arm may be left fallow. For instance, there are certain things that require the consent of the Attorney General, if he is not there to give consent that thing might just be lying fallow.
Q: Don’t you think the delay in constituting the state executive council is impacting on governance in the state?
A: Don’t forget we are in a democracy where the governor will be greeted with a lot of requests in this appointment, so he has to sieve through the list. It is a tough call on the governor to decide who the members of the state Exco will be because this is an area where stakeholders are involved. He started by asking stakeholders to give him names of people he will appoint, and I’m sure the stakeholders have done that. The house of assembly is presently on recess, I’m sure the list will be ready before they return for screening.
Definitely the fact that we don’t have an Exco yet impacts on governance. This present regime is a continuum from the old one, so what it is presently doing is to conclude most of the things it has started. It means most of those things have gotten Exco approval because there are certain approvals that only the Exco could give. So, what I can say is that the government is going ahead executing its projects that have been approved by the previous Exco, that is not to say it should not have new ones. I think it is better to finish the existing ones before we start new ones. For instance, the roads that are being implemented already have approvals.
Q: In your ministry are there any new reforms initiated and being implemented to enhance the quick dispensation of justice?
A: Yes, right now Abia has 1541 people in the prisons awaiting trial, so one of the things we have done is that some of the file of these awaiting trial suspects have been here since 2013. I have put machineries in motion to see that we tie up the persons to their files, know why they are still there and if they are still being prosecuted. For them to be in awaiting trial means they are not being prosecuted, so we have to know why…if the file is there in the next one month they will go to trial. That’s one innovation I have brought. I have shared the office of the DPP and I have also told the office of the Public Defender for citizens’ rights to brace up to be able to represent accused persons that are indigent. Before now nobody was rendering that service because it was felt the department in the ministry of justice cannot defend someone being prosecuted by the ministry of justice. But that is not true.
Q: What do you have to say on the recent change of the name of Nigeria Prisons Service to Nigeria Correctional Service, will it bring far reaching reforms to the service?
A: I don’t think it will help the service in any way because when you change somebody’s name and he is still wearing the same old cloth, the change of name has no meaning then. I will rather suggest that we leave the name and do something to solve the numerous problems confronting the service. The Umuahia Prisons that has the capacity of 500 inmates is holding about 800 inmates, it is congested. Meanwhile, Arochukwu prisons don’t have enough people and there are no vehicles to convey suspects to court. So, it is better to find the means of conveying these suspects to court than changing the name. it is one of the things about Nigeria, that’s what they call them in USA, so they have changed to the name so that it will look like USA, meanwhile nothing has changed inside. They are not well fed, the Umuahia prisons is congested and if you go there you will see the level of human suffering.
Q: It’s 100 Days in office of the second term of Governor Okezie Ikpeazu, what is your assessment?
A: It’s a good thing because the 100 days becomes like the benchmark for checking whether you have taken off the ground. You want to show some things that you have actually taken off, so it is like a period of self-assessment, when you signpost what you want to do. Like the relocation of the Isi-Gate traders, the Aba-Owerri road project that one side is being properly tarred, the Osisioma flyover if you go there, work is going on. So 100 days is a time to showcase what you want to do, then thereafter you begin to cruise. So far Governor Ikpeazu is on the right path to reposition Abia in line with the vision of the founding fathers.