Vanguard (Lagos)

4 April 2003

Nigeria: I'm not embarrassed by Sharia courts' death penalties-Jigawa Chief Judge

He is the first and current Chief Judge of Jigawa State. He served as a judge in Kano State till August 27, 1991 when Jigawa was carved out of Kano by the then military administration of President Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida. Only he and three other judges moved from Kano State to lay the foundation for the Jigawa State judiciary. Today, more legal practitioners have been appointed to the bench by the National Judicial Council (NJC).

Justice Abubakar who was a conferee at a Judicial Independence Workshop organised by National Centre for State Courts in Abuja recently, spoke with Vanguard's Law and Human Rights on his experience on the Bench. He regretted the slow pace of development in Jigawa State judiciary. According to him, when pressures were being mounted on relevant authorities for the creation of NJC, it was the contemplation of many that the Federal Government through the national supervisory body will apart from handling judicial officers' salaries and allowances, fund both capital and recurrent expenditures of all state judiciaries.

Commenting on the application of Sharia legal system in the Northern part of the country, he said there was nothing wrong sentencing convicts of offence like adultery to death, after all "drug pushing was made a capital offence in this country at a time"

Excerpts:

Q: Who is Justice Tijani Abubakar?

I was a judge in Kano State. But immediately after Jigawa was carved out of Kano State, I was moved to the state alongside three others. I have been the chief judge of the state from 1991 till date.

Q: That is pretty long time. How challenging is your office?

There are three arms of government in Jigawa State like other states of the federation. These are the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. As the chief judge, I am the head of the judiciary. And as the head, you see to the administration of justice between authorities and the citizens, citizens and citizens, citizens and corporate individuals. You dispense justice according to the law and not according to the wishes of the appointing authorities. Mention them. The office is no doubt a challenging one especially against the background that you are among the first set of judges establishing judiciary in the state.

Q: Has there been any teething problem worth mentioning?

Yes, there were some minor problems. Like I said earlier, Jigawa State was created from Kano State. And at that time, the state had no single high court. The high courts in the state then were in Kano. So what we did when we were moved from Kano State judiciary was to establish the state judiciary headquarters in Birnin- Kudu. We couldn't operate from the state capital in Dutse because we do not have any single building of our own. Birnin-Kudu, where we have four courts is not far from the state capital. It is about 45 kilometres to Dutse hence we have no problem interacting with other arms of government in the state capital. But Birnin- Kudu is a rural area. We do not have accommodation there. There are no social amenities there.

As at the time we were moved from Kano which had 16 judges then, only four of us were from the area carved out called Jigawa State. Just the four of us moved to the new state. But all of us resident in Kano before the movement had to travel from the city to Birnin- Kudu everyday to perform our duties. Our judiciary headquarters is 84 miles, about 268 kilometres to Kano.

Q: That is a long journey. Presently, how many are you in the state?

There are 9 judges in the state now. One of us is serving in an African country. Nigeria is assisting the country presently to develop its laws. One of us is serving there. It is for two years. The other 8 judges are sitting in the state now.

Q: You have been talking about high courts. Don't you have Sharia courts here?

Jigawa is a Muslim state. We have Sharia courts. The courts are headed by the Grand Khadi. There are 5 other khadis serving under him in the state, deciding Sharia-related cases.

Q: What about the operation of the Sharia courts? Do you have any problem with it, as in, whether you are in support of Sharia legal system in the state?

I don't have any problem with Sharia courts and their operation in the state. Why? Because Sharia legal system has been applied from inception even before the colonial era. When the colonial master came, they did not tamper with the operation of the civil Sharia legal system. They only tampered with the criminal aspect of it. Civil Sharia legal system has been with us for long and it is still existing with us today. But at the inception of this administration, there were pressures from our people for the extension of the Sharia legal system to cover the criminal aspect of their lives just because what constitutes offence under Sharia can not be punished under our written laws which is the constitution. So, since the House of Assembly has powers to make laws, they now incorporated the criminal aspect of it into the Sharia legal system with the procedure for trying anybody caught flouting the laws. This has been fully in operation since January 2000 till date and we don't have any problem in the state.

Q: As the chief judge of the state, is the operation of the Sharia legal system under your control?

Not directly. Before this new dispensation, all the area courts which were applying both the Sharia civil law and the penal procedure court were directly under the chief judge. But under the new dispensation, there was a creation of a special statute for Sharia in respect of criminal matters, taking away the jurisdiction of the chief judge on its operation, vesting same in the Grand Khadi.

But again, the control of the court is indirectly under the chief judge because all the staff of the judiciary are under the Judicial Service Commission of which I am the chairman.

Q: Recently, some Sharia courts in the North were clamping death sentences on convicts of offences like adultery which many human rights activists nationwide and international community condemned. As a Muslim and judge of a regular court, would you say you are comfortable with these judgments?

I am comfortable with them. I am in no way embarrassed because for every Muslim, sovereignity under Islamic laws is directly from God. No Muslim can feel embarrassed. It is the power of the state House of Assembly to make laws for the progress, peace and prosperity of the state. It is a constitutional power. Nothing stops the legislature from creating an offence which is capital like robbery. After all, at a time in this country, drug pushing was made a capital offence in this country. So, why not adultery? I don't feel embarrassed as a Muslim. Besides, it is the wish of the people in the state to operate Sharia legal system and everybody is happy with its application.

In all honesty, it has reduced the rate of crime in the state and by extension in the country, especially with regards to armed robbery. You know, alcohol and prostitution are the cause of all evils in the society.

Q: Are you satisfied with the state of the judiciary in Jigawa State?

I am satisfied with regards to its official aspect. Our problem is in respect of funding. The judiciary of this country has been fighting for the establishment of the National Judicial Council as a central funding organ for all the judiciary in the federation. But when the 1999 constitution came into operation, we had high hopes that both recurrent and capital expenditure of the state would come from the Federal Government through the NJC. But unfortunately, it turned otherwise. We are only funded with regard to salary and allowances for the judges from the high courts and not with regards to the supporting staff and the capital expenditure.

Our main problem in the Jigawa State judiciary is lack of building. Most of our courts are in temporary sites, rented houses, and this is not helping matters at all.

Q: What are you doing to address this problem?

I told you earlier that we had high hopes that the Federal Government would come to our assistance but unfortunately, with the new interpretation of the constitution, each state will bear its own capital expenditure. Before the 1999 constitution, we have no problem with the payment of salary and allowances. Our problem was mainly with regards to the capital expenditure and now that it had been made clear through the Supreme Court judgement that the Federal Government is not responsible for the capital expenditure of the state judiciary, we have to go back to state for funding. And most of our courts are in temporary sites, no houses. We have to plead with both the legislature and the executive arms of government to make good budgetary allocation to the judiciary for building of more courts and provision of accommodation for the judges. This would definitely enhance the integrity of the judiciary. It is one of the fundamental principles of the Sharia that judges should be looked after, they should not go cap in hands seeking for money to do their job.

Q: Would you say that people have confidence in the state judiciary?

Yes, they have. We have been asking people to lodge complaints if they are not satisfied with the administration of justice in the state and each complaint received is treated with despatch. We have established committees in the judicial service commission for receiving complaints if they are not satisfied in respect of criminal cases. We have Sharia courts directorate, receiving complaints from litigants and such are dealt with immediately.

Q: Nigeria is attempting to transit from one democracy to another. How do you situate judiciary in ensuring a peaceful transition programme in the country?

I am not pessimistic. I am optimistic that all Nigerians should work towards the success of the programme. The judiciary, on its own, has changed for the better especially with the issuance of frivolous exparte order. The judiciary has made it a duty now that it will not be made a scapegoat again for the failure of transition from one civilian to another civilian government. It is up to the task now. It is really performing especially under this new constitution, doing its statutory duty of constitutional interpretation. I hope that there will be a successful transition. Judiciary is taking the lead and everybody is following now. You know, the media even made the Supreme Court, the man of the year. And that means a change for the better.

Q: Would you say the judiciary is independent in your state?

With respect to the exercise of our judicial powers, judiciary is independent both in the states of the federation and even at the centre. The pronouncement of the Supreme Court on a number of cases that came before it lately is an evidence. Because in some of these cases, judgments were given against the executive. However, I can say that judiciary is not really independent in some other areas (not in the area of deciding cases) because essentially, we depend for fund on the legislature and the executive and that is not to say that the other arms are independent too. Essentially, there is seperation of powers but there is still need for checks and balances.

The mode of appointment and discipline of judicial officers, the executive and the legislature have a role to play. Talking about the impeachment of governors too, the judiciary also has a role to play. So no arm is completely independent and that is for the purpose of checks and balances. To answer your question, I know the judiciary in my state is independent. I say this because the most important thing is for the court to have its independence of deciding cases according to law, facts before it and the oaths of office the judge presiding over the matter has taken.

Q: Are you satisfied with the performance of the judiciary in the country?

Certainly yes.

Q: Are you satisfied with the performance of National Judicial Council?

I am very satisfied, and as a member of that council, I am privy to the operation of the council and I know that they uphold the integrity of the judiciary. Contrary to some public opinion, its operation is not a total departure from true federalism as being touted by others . You know some are saying there is no need for NJC because as a national body, it should have no business in appointing or disciplining of judges in the states. But they forget that some of the cases which begin in the states do not end in the state courts. Some go to federal courts like the appeal courts and the apex court of the land which is the supreme court of the land. They ought to posit too that each state should have its supreme court. So, what I am saying is that each country practising federalism has a way of moulding its federal system of government to suit its peculiar position.

Q: Do you have any advice for your colleagues both at the bar and in the bench?

Yes. I want to call on all legal practitioners and litigants alike who may have one complaint against one judge or the other to always be bold enough to put into writing their displeasure with such judicial officers with their names underneath their letters for investigations to be conducted and necessary action taken.

In Jigawa state, we plan to put complaint boxes in the courts to make lodgment of complaints easy.

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