Uthman Mohammed Argungu, an octogenarian, served for 12 years in the Supreme Court, from 1993 to 2005 when he retired. In this interview, he spoke on life as a judicial officer, family, the 2014 Constitutional Conference and important national issues.
How would you describe your early years?
I was born at the end of November, 1934. My uncle, Madawaki Umaru, recorded when I was born, but we could not get the exact date. But officially, I gave my birthday as February 20, 1935.
My father was the treasurer of Argungu Native Authority (NA). I was admitted to a Quran school at the age of five, where I studied for two years. When I was seven years old, I was admitted into Argungu Elementary School, where I spent four years. In 1946, I was admitted into Sokoto Middle School.
I stayed in Sokoto Middle School for five years. At the end of my training there, I went to the School for Arabic Studies, Kano. This was in 1951. I was there for four years. I studied Islamic Religious Knowledge, Arabic Language, Islamic History and some other subjects. English was also taught in the school.
When I completed my studies there in 1954, I came and took employment in Argungu Native Authority as a teacher in Senior Primary School. I was a teacher there from 1954 to 1957. In 1958, I went on scholarship to the Republic of Sudan. I was at Bakht El-Ruda Institute of Education for two years and obtained a diploma in Arabic Studies, Islamic History and Islamic Theology. After that, I went to Egypt, where I had a comparative study for three months, comparing their system of education with that of Nigeria. I returned in April, 1960. Thereafter, I was appointed a teacher at Government College, Zaria, now Barewa College. I taught there for two years. One of my students was Professor Abubakar Gwandu, former vice chancellor of Danfodiyo University, Sokoto. The Emir of Yauri was also one of my students.
How did you go into the law profession?
I was teaching there when Sardauna wanted northern Nigerians to study law. At that time, there was only one University College in Ibadan. He approached the University of London and they agreed to admit us if we had a crash programme in Part One of English Law. They sent lecturers from London and Sardauna employed them. We were assembled at Congo, now one of the campuses of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria. We were there for one year.
They organised courses for 12 students and I was in the third course. After satisfying the examiners, we were admitted at London University. After the studies, we took courses at the Council of Legal Education. We were also admitted into the Gibson College of Law, where we were made to prepare for Barristers Examination.
We took the examination and most of us who went from Zaria passed. While we were there, Sardauna also organised some very senior lawyers to give us tutorials at night so that he could get northerners qualified as lawyers before and after independence.
Happily, almost all of us satisfied the examiners and were called to the English Bar. I returned to Nigeria as a lawyer.
On arrival, we were told that Nigeria had opened a law school, so we had to go through the school because we could not practise law in Nigeria without doing that. After that, I was called to the Nigerian Bar. Immediately after that, I went back to Kaduna, which was the headquarters of northern Nigeria.
While we were at the Law School in Lagos, the first coup was staged and Ironsi decreed that all regions had been abolished. He named them Group of Provinces.
So Northern Nigeria became Northern Group of Provinces. When I went to Kaduna, I was appointed a magistrate and posted to Kano. I was in Kano as a magistrate from 1966 to 1968. In 1968, there was the problem of working in states of origin because 12 states were created by the Federal Government and Sokoto was part of North-western State.
At that time, magistrates were very few. There were Europeans among us as magistrates and judges. We were made to go back to our states of origin.
The North-western State comprised Sokoto and Niger Province, so I was posted to Minna, while my colleague, Umar Mai Damma, was posted to Sokoto. I worked in Minna for about three years, and in 1970 I was posted to Sokoto, where I started work as a chief magistrate. I was chief magistrate for just two years when I was appointed a chief registrar of the North-western State. This was 1972. In 1974, I was appointed a High Court judge with the jurisdiction to practise in Sokoto and Kano states. I worked in that position up to 1978 when I was promoted to the Federal Court of Appeal.
On February 20, I retired as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and came back home. I have a house in Sokoto and Abuja, but I preferred to come back here and stay in Argungu because I wanted to engage in farming, which is my job now. I farm sorghum, millet, beans and a few herds of cattle.
Considering the manner you got into the judiciary, it is obvious that it wasn’t your ambition; what was your initial plan?
My ambition when I was leaving school was to be a clerk. A senior European officer brought me into his office and made me the clerk of the school and I was very proud. This thing went into my head, so after completing school I came to Argungu and told my father that I wanted to go to the clerical school in Zaria. But he said no, explaining that we were there to help in educating people on the principles of Islamic religion. He said I would go to the School for Religious Studies instead of a clerical school. That was how it happened. And as Allah would have it, most of my appointments were based on my knowledge of Islamic Religion, Islamic Law and Islamic History.
You retired after 51 years of service, what legacies did you leave?
When we started as magistrates we were working with Europeans, so we behaved like them and stayed away from the public. That’s how judges should be. As a judge you should not mix with people because you don’t know if litigants are there. So we were taking ourselves away from people. And because of that we were sure that we would adjudicate without thinking of getting reward from people. It’s unlike what we hear nowadays – that judges receive money. It hurts me very badly to hear that judges receive money for the work they are doing. In our days you could not get that at all. We never allowed anybody to influence our decisions, no matter how highly placed.
I remember a case of one lawyer whose passport was taken away by Abacha and he demanded that it should be given back to him. Abacha refused and the lawyer went to court. He did not succeed in the High Court and he went to the Court of Appeal. He also did not succeed. When he came to the Supreme Court, I was one of the justices. We decided that Abacha was wrong. Though he was the head of state, we directed him to give back that passport to the lawyer. He immediately accepted our decision and gave him back his passport. So we were not afraid of anybody at all.
It was not the same when we were at the Supreme Court.
Today, I am the oldest surviving justice of northern origin that went through the Supreme Court. My colleague, Justice Wali, who was older than me, died two weeks ago. We did not play with our decisions at all. I was very happy the way we handled our duties and decided our cases. I am very happy to have gone through that system
You were appointed Supreme Court judge in 1993. What can you say about June 12?
I knew about June 12 when I was appointed.
I was approached by one of the members of the Supreme Military Council who asked my opinion on June 12. I said I had been reading in the newspapers what made them decide against giving Abiola his mandate. He told me there was corruption during the primaries between the supporters of Abiola and Babagana Kingibe. The two were fighting to be elected as candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) for the presidential election. They directed that nobody would enter the stadium with avehicle
I was told that two vehicles marked as ambulances were permitted to enter. Actually, the two ambulances were packed with money, which was later shared by participants. Abiola won the election and Kingibe objected. He said the money was used in directing people to vote for Abiola. There were photographs.
They insisted that Abiola won the election. It might be true, but the election was held against a court order. And having done so, as far as I am concerned, that election was null and void since a court had directed that it should not hold. The best thing they should have done was to go to the Court of Appeal and file a motion to vacate the order of the High Court.
What about the annulment of the election?
President Babangida nullified the election, but he shouldn’t have done that. And the group that wanted to contest the legality of that election could go up to the Supreme Court, where a decision would have been made on whether the election was right or wrong. That’s what should have been done, but unfortunately, Babangida announced that he had nullified the election, which was another wrong decision.
You served for 12 years at the Supreme Court and witnessed many administrations, from military to civilian; what was your experience under the different dispensations?
The administrations did not interfere with work in the Supreme Court; not even one of them.
Have you made any observation on the judicial system?
What I do not like is when a court takes a decision and the president of the country refuses to abide by it. It is wrong when a person has been permitted to go on bail but the president refuses to release him. It is either you release him on bail as the court has directed or you go to the Court of Appeal. That’s what should have been done, up to the Supreme Court, instead of refusing to abide by court order.
Looking at your years in the judiciary and now, what do you think is wrong with the system?
When I was in the Supreme Court, there was no way you could convince the justices to decide in your favour. And I believe it is still the same. Decisions are made based on the law and what have been put before the judges. We look at the record and proceedings, the decisions of the lower courts and consider them correctly, according to our understanding of what the decisions should be.
I do not say they do not mistakes; everybody makes a mistake. To err is human, so you cannot stop a person from making mistakes. Allow the courts to look into your complaint and they would decide what they have seen concerning your case.
Can you share the most memorable experience during your active days in the judiciary?
I have many experiences. When I was a High Court judge I conducted many inquiries. The most important of them was an inquiry against the administration of a governor appointed by Gowon – the governor of North- western State, Usman Faruk. It was a very wide inquiry concerning all the activities of the government.
I really did not like inquiries much, but they insisted I should do it. I conducted the inquiry and made my recommendations to the government.
Then, there was a dispute about “Ali Must Go.’’ Students went on riot because the government then increased school fees. During that riot, 15 students were killed in ABU, one was killed in Lagos, another in Ife. There were injuries in Calabar, so I was appointed to conduct a commission of inquiry in all the universities in Nigeria.
I started in Lagos, then went to Ibadan, Ife, Benin, Enugu, Nsukka, Calabar, Calabar and Zaria. I also handled the cases of Jos, Kano, Maiduguri and Sokoto.
It was a very serious matter. When I came to Zaria, the vice chancellor, Professor Iya Abubakar, tried to quell disturbances within the Samaru campus. He was so disturbed that he called the police, who came and used their teargas, but that was not enough. The vice chancellor was still afraid, so he went to the commander of a small army garrison in Zaria and asked him to allow soldiers to go into the campus to quell the disturbances. The commander told him to put it in writing, adding that they needed a judicial officer to be a witness of what would happen.
They got one Magistrate Maigida to join them about 3am and they went to the university campus. The students somehow knew what was coming, so they barricaded all the gates of the university. The vice chancellor opened the garden gate of his house and the soldiers entered. When they entered they started shooting black ammunition, but the students there were those who knew about petrol bomb (they probably participated in the Biafra war), so they started attacking the soldiers. Some of the soldiers lost their eyes, and so on. Some of them were really injured, so they retreated, loaded live ammunition and went back. It became a war situation and they were shooting everywhere.
When the situation was under control, the vice chancellor did not come out to see what happened. In the morning, the registrar came out and saw students down all over; 56 were injured and 15 killed. It was a serious matter. I was made to conduct an inquiry into the problem.
During the inquiry, the commander said, “My lord, we are not trained to shoot to maim, we are trained to shoot to kill. We do not know the idea of shooting legs.’’
Obasanjo and Yar‘aduwa took their decisions after seeing my report. This was one of the most serious inquiries I ever conducted.
I was also part of the panel that looked into the decisions of the tribunal that Buhari established when he was military head of state. There were some tribunals that made some very serious decisions and most of them were wrong. I was one of the members of the panel that looked into those decisions, and we reversed most of them.
Again, I was made to go and represent Nigerian judiciary at a conference on money laundering in Vienna, Austria. There, they were talking about heads of states involved in money laundering; obviously, Abacha would be mentioned. During that discussion, some members of the World Bank came and asked for permission to have discussions with me. I agreed. They advised if I could get the government of Nigeria to decide and share the loot with Abacha’s family.
The amount was $1.2billion. The government of Germany, France and other countries would have no alternative but to release the money because there was an agreement between the Abacha family and government that the money would be shared.
I came back and met Obasanjo. He was happy and said he was ready to accept the arrangement, provided Nigeria would take the lion share.
So we decided that Nigeria would take $700million while Abacha’s family would take $500m. Obasanjo agreed.
I went to Kano and tried with much difficulty to convince Maryam Abacha and her son to accept this proposal. She said she was opposing it because Abacha started saving money in the West, Switzerland, Germany and so on, before he became head of state.
I was there with their lawyer and adviser, the late Kaloma Ali and we convinced her to accept this proposal. First, she accepted, but after sometime she consulted other members of the family and they reneged.
I told the government that the Abacha family had accepted but they later changed their mind. That was the end of the matter until a year later when Ali became ill and was taken to London. I went to see him and he told me the decision had a problem because Switzerland had legislated that they would not accept any money from any government. They said that monies lodged in their banks would be sent back to governments of respective countries. If a person who lodged the money wanted it, he should go to the government and convince them that he got the money lawfully.
Kalomi Ali told me that if the money was sent to Obasanjo he would not give a kobo to Abacha’s family. And that was it. They lost the $500million I recommended in the beginning.
You were a member of the 2014 National Constitutional Conference, what would you say about it?
It was about constitution amendment, but some of them said we were going to establish a new constitution.
How would you establish a new constitution when the National Assembly was still working? Lawmakers in the National Assembly are representatives of the people, we were not. We were candidates selected by Jonathan’s administration, so we could not establish any constitution. The only thing we could do was to decide and put our recommendations to the National Assembly and they would look at our decisions and see what they would accept as part of the amendment. But they were so ignorant that some of them called northerners names, saying we didn’t like to abide by a decision that would save Nigeria from balkanisation. But that’s wrong.
There are some good recommendations I think the National Assembly should consider when they are amending the constitution. But amending the constitution is not easy because even a coma has to go through a procedure, which involves the Senate, House of Reps and the Houses of Assembly of all the states. They have to agree that a coma should be made in the constitution. You can see that it is not easy to amend the constitution.
Can you mention any of the recommendations you think is critical to addressing some of the country’s prevailing challenges?
No doubt, there are good recommendations. We recommended the establishment of state police to help the security of the country. I believe that if state police were created, this country would be free from banditry.
What about the argument that state governments would use state police against the opposition?
I have heard about this several times, but I oppose those ideas. The governor would not direct the police to shoot his people; rather, he would direct them to defend the people being attacked. Even if he wants to use them against the opposition party, for example, his power is limited because the Nigeria police are still around.
We are not saying they should abolish the Nigeria police and establish those for state. State police will help the Nigeria police in handling local matters.
Mind you, America even has Local Government Police, Britain has Metropolitan Police, France has Local Police who know the people and can protect them because they are members of that society. It is not like what we have.
I worked with the Native Authority Police when I was a magistrate. I was still a magistrate when it was converted to the Nigeria Police.
In the era of Native Authority Police, a local person must be appointed to look at the activities of local criminals because he knows all the nooks and crannies of the area; he knows their language and everything about them. Policemen should be appointed locally to look at local crimes.
What do you think can be done to address the alarming rate of kidnapping, banditry and other crimes in this country?
Local police should be established to tackle local crimes and assist the Nigeria Police. Mind you, we are under-policed in this country. So, community or state police is the answer.
Let’s talk about your family.
Whenever I talk about my life, I talk about almajiri. This is one issue I have been concerned about for many years. It started with my own life when I was in Quran School. I was then about six years old and my father was the treasurer of the Argungu Native Authority and councillor in charge of finance.
My Quran teacher was married to my father’s sister. One day he brought small calabashes (there were no plastic items), gave each of us and said we should go and beg for food. I stood up and said Malam, I am not hungry. He said, “Well, Usman you have to beg in order to learn the Quran correctly.’’ I said, “Malam, if my father learnt that I have gone round begging, he will punish me, so let me go to him and ask for permission.’’ He said I should go and ask for permission. As far as he was concerned, he was right.
I went and told my father that Malam Abdul said we should go and beg for food and he asked for the reason he gave. I said the reason he gave was that we could not learn the Quran correctly until we begged for food.
He said I should call him. When he came, my father asked why he told us to go and beg for food.
He said it was because we would not learn the correct Quran without going to beg for food. My father said it was a wrong belief, adding that nobody begged until he was in a difficult position. He said you could not send people who were not hungry to go and beg for food. In fact, he said it was wrong to beg.
Islam does not permit begging. He said he knew that the children in his school were sons of local government employees and their parents could feed them. He told him not to allow anybody’s son to go and beg.
This thing went into my head and I was against the almajiri system. Now, the thing has become a problem. I have preached many times against begging and the almajiri system. I once wrote a paper when I was a presiding justice in the Court of Appeal, Kaduna and gave to governors of northern Nigeria, stating that they should tell those Malams who brought children into towns and cities to take them back to their parents.
I told them to establish Quran schools where those children would attend and go back to their parents’ houses for accommodation and feeding. I said if that was done you would not see any child begging. The practice as it is done today is wrong. It pains me greatly.
I do not like to see these children roaming about in rags, looking unkempt everywhere. I told them that Maitatsine who caused a terrible riot in Kano, where many were killed, got his brigades from those children. Most members of Boko Haram were from the almajirai.
How many of your children are in the legal profession?
I have three lawyers, two High Court judges, both males and females. The rest are working in one sector or another. Surprisingly, I have a granddaughter who is a now lawyer.
We learnt that your hobbies are photography, painting, reading Arabic and Islamic Literature; is that correct?
When I went to Sudan, one of the subjects I took was painting. I started painting and photography when I was in the School of Arabic Studies, Kano. Some of my paintings were taken for exhibitions in Khartoum.
People of your calibre are usually bestowed with traditional titles; do you have one?
Sultan Maccido asked if I would take a title, but I said no. Sultan Dasuki also asked if I would take one and I refused. This one did not offer because he said he knew I would not take it. Also, the Emir of Mera, Muhammad Mera, the father of the present emir, gave me a title, but I said I did not want. The present emir gave me and I said no. The Emir of Gwandu also gave me and I said I was not interested.
Why did you refuse to take any traditional title?
I do not just like it. I want to concentrate on religious books. I am up to date in that knowledge
Again, people of your status hide in Government Reserved Areas, but you are here in Argungu in the midst of your people; why is it so?
That is quite correct. I wanted to retire in Sokoto, but I stopped because I would be in the GRA there. I want to stay in the midst of our people. I have a house in Abuja, but it sometimes takes a year before I go there. As I told you, I engage in farming, mainly rice. I plant rice every year. In fact, I encourage most of our people here to plant rice during the dry season.
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