The outgoing chief justice of The Gambia has assessed his three-and-half years at the helm of the Gambia judiciary, highlighting his numerous reforms and other developments that have helped in redirecting the third arm of the government towards a more effective and efficient dispensation of justice.
In a one-hour exclusive interview with the Daily Observer Tuesday afternoon at his office at the judiciary in Banjul, the Nigerian-born chief justice, who came to this country 12 years ago, dwelled on an array of issues confronting the Gambia judiciary.
Set to leave The Gambia in a few days time to pick up a Court of Appeal job in his home country, Chief Justice Agim, who has served in various capacities within the legal system of the country including the director of Public Prosecution, and president of the Court of Appeal, amongst others, described his time in this country as one characterised by many accomplishments. He told the Daily Observer that so many things have happened that have made the judiciary more efficient and more effective today.
"Let me just give you a few highlights. First we cleared backlog of cases and we met the delay process of the trial. We have changed all that by reforming the rules particularly in the High Courts and through orientation of judicial personnel and changing judicial policy on adjournments, and some case management techniques. We have also expanded the reach of the courts to the provinces and then we have revived the Cadi Court system, which was virtually dead and unattractive, but now it is manned by more trained judicial personnel and they are following fair trial procedures.
There are now rooms for Cadi Courts and they are now more attractive to people and we have some of them in the provinces now, which was not there before. Formerly there was none in Brikama, none in Basse, none in Kerewan, but they are all there now and one would soon take off in Mansa Konko. Apart from these structures, the personnel were formerly not equipped, but they have now been retrained in so many areas. There were no rules at law but we now have rules and we have instituted monthly trainings.
There is litigant satisfaction as they way the members of the public attested, and those who obtained judgments get them quickly enforced without problem; you do not stay too long in the courts before you get your remedy," the outgoing CJ highlighted.
Backlog of cases
Elaborating more on the backlog of cases, which was a problem in the judiciary, CJ Agim said the issue is a phenomenon that is found in all jurisdictions and that one must have a mechanism for response to such issues so that they don't have delayed cases accumulating into backlogs. To this end, he disclosed that the sort of mechanisms that he put in place to tackle the backlog of cases included the amendments of the rules to make sure that they don't have that kind of situation. He said that judges are more aligned to their responsibilities now through changes in the judicial policy and that they have zero-tolerance stance on unnecessary adjournments.
"We employed more judges to reduce the workload and establishing more courts to ensure that people don't suffer too much to come all the way to a particular point and only unable to go along with their cases. Example is the children courts - formerly there was one in the whole country and that kind of thing caused a clog on the whole process. But now we have more courts and the cases are redistributed and that means, we are reducing the delay," he explained.
'Gambianisation' of judiciary
Quizzed on the most outstanding reforms executed in the judiciary that his administration can boast of, Agim cited what he called the success in the 'Gambianisation' process of the legal system; something he underscored has been far-reaching.
"It is one thing that stands out and its' been very far-reaching. In the magistrates courts for example, you have 98 percent of Gambians as magistrates. In the High Court, you have about 87 percent Gambians, in the Supreme Court, you have two Gambians and in the Court of Appeal, you have about three Gambians. This wasn't there before," he explained.
The chief justice also commented on his administration's zero tolerance policy for corruption, noting that today personnel are more professionally oriented.
He added: "In Africa, I speak authoritatively as somebody who works across jurisdictions. The Gambia judiciary today is outstanding in terms of speedy trial of cases and in terms of lack of corruption. People today have been more re-orientated and made to think more professionally."
Commenting on other achievements, the chief justice pointed out that he has gone beyond the judiciary to do a lot of things, citing the fact that he virtually piloted the establishment of the Law School of The Gambia against all odds.
"When I was in the Law Reporting Council, I revived it and today the Council has money to publish. I made it possible; it was not there before and people used to wait for donors. But I brought about local funding, got banks to sponsor the funding, and when we published, we paid back. Then the money that is now sitting in the account become available funds to be able to carry out publications very easily. I have published all the backlogs from 1960 to 1995 and I got all the current ones published up to 2008.
And not talk of what I did at the Attorney General Chambers as director of Public Prosecution (DPP) - I mentored a lot of young Gambians; most of the strong judges you have seen today are my products. So if I want to talk about all the things I have done, we will sit here from morning till in the evening."
Pressed on what his words are to those people bent on besmirching the Gambian judiciary by referring to some judges, especially the foreign ones as "mercenary judges", the chief justice stressed that it is "very painful" to be described in such terms.
He said: "I don't think that there is anything like mercenary judges whether foreign or local. Where a judge gives a decision whereby [someone] is dissatisfied, the laws and constitution provides for avenue to challenge that decision. If you go to the international press, or on the internet, and called people all sort of names, that is very unfair to the individuals because they don't have an opportunity to say anything; and also true to the country because you are running down the national institution of a country and that is not fair.
There is no judge that would engage in some kind of an activity, which we would call it mercenary rather than to do justice. Well, I believe that at wherever we find ourselves in life, you should ask yourself what I can do to improve this system or to improve the lives of the people. It is what you do in this respect that makes you a success; that is what makes you a human being and nothing else. So today I am leaving The Gambia, I stand tall and look out and say, yes to the best of my ability, this is what I have done to improve the system I met.
How many peoples' lives have changed? There are over a hundred Gambians that I have changed their lives. This is what I consider as my success and I don't need any certificate for that and I don't need anybody to come and praise me - it is just for my self-edification over self-satisfaction. I think this is what should guide us in whatever we do."
Relations with the private bar
Commenting on the bench's current relationship with the bar, CJ Agim said: "Well it's okay and throughout my stay, we had good moments, low moments, and high moments. But ordinary as at now, it's okay. All members of the legal profession must cooperate to get the legal system forward and each one of us must respect that. I think we have been interacting very well with the leaders of the bar and I think we don't have any problem."
Relations with sister arms of government
When asked about the judiciary's current relationship with the first and second arms of the government - executive and the legislature, Agim described it as 'cordial and fruitful'.
His words: "When that question is always asked, I imagine that the focus is on the executive. One of my strongest points as chief justice is that I was able to maintain an excellent relationship with the executive and I was able to secure respect for the judiciary. Sometimes people don't understand people and misread them. I realised that President Jammeh is one such person who believes that the right thing should be done; who believes that people should be responsible when they hold public trust; that they should not betray that trust.
His government has a policy direction; he has a revolution that he is carrying out and so every component of government must do certain things towards the realisation of the overall objectives. So if he finds out that in your own area, you are rather doing things contrary to your oath of office, or contrary to law, then it means you are defeating the overall objective of governance.So the judiciary cannot stand in isolation because it's part of the government in accordance with the constitution of the country. There was never any executive interference with the judiciary in the way some people may want to look at it."
"Purported impassionate online messages"
Quizzed on his response to the impassionate messages being circulated on the internet purportedly from him, CJ Agim was unequivocal in his words, saying his decision up till now has been not to dignify it with a response.
However, he lamented: "It is sad that people deal with their country in that way. A man comes to your country faithfully, honestly, committedly, patriotically and served that country for 12 years with clear cut visible signs of the great contributions he has made to national development, and all you can do is to persistently vilify him, and even when he is going, you forge email addresses and messages against him.
If not my faith in The Gambia and the kind of relationships I have built with people, I will be totally demoralized and discouraged about the place. That's not fair. I don't deserve that. So that is not my email and anyone can create an email address even in two minutes. But it's unfortunate that people can get to that level."
Court of Appeal job in Nigeria
The chief justice also confirmed his new job as a Court of Appeal judge in native Nigeria. He said that the decision is in response to a call back home. "In my state, the slot in the Supreme Court is still occupied; so it was not possible for me to get to the Supreme Court. So I will be in the Court of Appeal and by the grace of God, not too long, I will get to the Supreme Court," he explained.
He added that while some would see this development as a step down from a higher court to down, the chief justice said the call to national duty is what really matters. "It's about service, I was called back home to serve so I have to obey that call. What is important is I am to contribute to national development and that's all I look for," he concluded.
For more on this and other issues surrounding the Gambian judiciary, its achievements and shortcomings, please do not miss our subsequent Bantaba editions where we will publish both the questions and answers.