Making a ‘Dead End’ a ‘Living End’ was a Mission I Set to Accomplish at the NICN – Justice Adejumo OFR

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Hon. Justice Adejumo OFR, President, National Industrial Court of Nigeria

In continuation of our engagement with the President of the NICN, Honourable Justice Adejumo, His Lordship spoke to DNL Legal & Style on the various transitions and brilliant transformations and innovations at the NIC.

DNL L&S: My Lord, let’s  talk about the transition from the High Court to the National Industrial Court of Nigeria. How did this happen?

Justice Adejumo: I never dreamt of coming here (NICN) but I was called by Mr. Tokunbo Kayode SAN a member of the NJC who told me he would like me to go to the NICN. I asked him “what is NIC?” I didn’t even know the meaning of the abbreviation. He said National Industrial Court” I asked him what they do at the NIC and he said it’s a court for union and labour issues. I told him I was okay where I was as Judge in Ondo state. I told him my intention is to become a Chief Judge in Ondo State when the time comes or be elevated to the Court of Appeal whichever one God wills. He insisted and my wife also urged me to consider it. So I came to Abuja thereafter and I was briefed about the NICN and I later went to Hon. Justice Uwais for advice and he said to me “the NICN is a dead end” and advised that I should not go there but rather wait for possible elevation to the Court of Appeal God’s willing. I quickly said to My Lord, Hon. Justice Uwais “thank you Sir, but Sir don’t you think someone will have to make a dead end a living end?” He said to me, fine, if you want to come, tell your Chief Judge to recommend you. Justice Falodun was my Chief Judge then. I went back to Akure and met with my CJ for recommendation, he recommended me for the job. I later learnt that we were 19 who showed interest in the NICN and I was listed as No. 11 while only one position was needed. So I did not wait to consider anything, after all, I was not really interested anyway.  But after about 6 months and 5 days of the shortlisting, I was appointed as  president of the NICN on the 14th of April,

DNL L&S: My Lord, from a “dead end” to a “living end”, tell us about this journey.

Justice Adejumo: Thank you for this question. It is said that words of elders are words of wisdom. If a person like Justice Uwais the Former CJN whom I was working directly with could tell me that I should not go, it’s a dead end and I insisted then it was like refusing the words of wisdom of an elder. I saw indeed, a dead end but I took it  as a challenge and I felt I would make that “dead end”, a “living end”.  I resumed at the office of the NIC in Lagos at No. 20/22 Ojuolobun Street, Victoria Island and I saw what my Lord Hon. Justice Uwais meant by a dead end, and couldn’t compare my office as a Deputy Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court to what I saw at the office of the NIC. When it rained, both my official residence and the court were always submerged, the court was not busy and was having lay men and only two legal mind. I also discovered that the law establishing the court was just an omnibus  law; the Trade Dispute Act Section 19 established the court and just about 5 to 6 sections of that law spoke of the NIC. There was no definition of what the court could do. As at the date of my appointment, the NICN was 25years old as it was established in 1976 but nothing to show for it. The court had just 123 staff, in a duplex. I was perplexed but I remembered one of the poems I read when I was doing literature at the Teachers’ College: “The firewoods of this world, is only  for those who can take heart. And that, not all can gather it. This world is like a chameleon feces of which I have stepped my legs into. Moving forward may be difficult. But going backward is impossible.”

I became resolute and I said to myself going back was impossible. I cannot go back to the high court. I have been sworn in and I was warned.  I went back to my Lord, Hon. Justice Uwais and said to him, “sir you have warned me, I didn’t listen.” I saw everything you said but sir, see me as a prodigal child. I have come back. You just have to take me back. Help me out of this. He accommodated me into the semi mainstream and our allocation was increased. With his kind permission, we planned to move the court to a better place. One day it rained so much so that everywhere was submerged, both my residence and the court. I called my DCR and we didn’t sleep.  I raised a memo to the then head of service Ahmed Yayale and I also requested to see the then president Olusegun Obasanjo. On the day of our appointment with the president, we met him with his ministers and I told him “Sir, this court; your baby you conceived during your days as a Military head of state is now 25 years old and cannot crawl, let alone walking or bringing home laurels and I stated the reasons for my statement. Gen. Obasanjo was happy and said to me, “this is the first time a visitation panel is not asking for increase in salary, no money and so on. For the first time, I am being given a reason why a particular sector is not working.” He said to me “for this you have won my heart.” He then instructed the Minister for planning Ojo Maduekwe, Minister for Housing and the Minister for Works to include the NICN in the national planning for 3 year rolling plan and relocate us from Victoria Island to a Federal government property in Ikoyi. That was how he did it and we got everything we needed to move on. I also was opporturned to be informed that out of the 19 names that were shortlisted for the job, the DSS came out with only my name as the one without any blemish. With that, I promised the President that if it would cost the last drop of my blood, I will make sure that this court achieved the aim for which it was established. And he responded “may God help you”

DNL L&S: My Lord, it would appear as if NICN does not have problem with funding like other courts. Many times the issues relating to delays in administrative working of various courts, their Lordships often blame lack or insufficient funding. Does the National Industrial Court have special allocations from the Federal Government?

Hon. Justice Adejumo OFR

Justice Adejumo: We don’t have any special allocation, in fact the NICN is the least funded of the Federal courts in Nigeria, but whatever we might have achieved in this court, has been based on prudent spending and prudent spending depends on the goals you have set for yourself. With my shallow knowledge of public service, there are two main things that people go in for; either to make money for yourself or to leave legacy and develop an institution that can stand tall anywhere in the world. The two cannot go together, so I chose the latter. I set out to grow a labour court that can stand tall anywhere in the world. I was able to achieve this much because I have good staff and my judges were all very supportive.

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When we started like I mentioned earlier, our allocation was being increased gradually, but here we are prudent about spending and I can say with boldness that anything anybody does with one billion naira I can do it with about N600 million to N700 million because when my contractors bill I am always there to scrutinize. Tomorrow I would be at the site meeting for my Head Quarters, (a 5 storey building and another 3 story building) because I want to talk one on one with the contractors and since I didn’t collect money from  you I would tell you the way I feel and you cannot tell me “shebi you understand?” understand what?

We have 26 divisions of the NIC for now and about 40 houses in different parts of the country. All other federal courts had official quarters allocated to them, apart from the one I am living in Lagos, all other  residencies of the court were built by us; more than 2/3rd of it and the rest we rented. We were not given because we were not in the constitution where it is required to be. The gamut of what I am saying is that it depends on what you want to do. If you want to build legacy, then you face it, if you want to be rich, then it is up to you. I am not a poor man but am also not a wealthy man but wealth depends on contentment  and contentment is individualist. Today when I look back I am happy. From 123 staff I have over 2000 staff, from having senior officers who were not up to 20, I have senior staff today who are more than 400 graduates. I have about 5 to 6 level 17 and a permanent secretary grade which is the CR. Today I have 38 judges among them about 3 to 4 professors and well qualified individuals. I have about 50 lawyers in this place today and we are planning to employ about 50 more because the judges must have research assistants and each registry must be manned by lawyers who would understand processes when they are filed and even those sitting in courts must be legal minds. So I was able to do this because I have good staff, judges and we all work together and I was lucky I had a lot of time. This is about the 9th CJN I am working with. So I give God the glory for everything. I have enjoyed their good favours.

DNL L&S: What was my Lord and the NICN’s reaction to the decision in the BPE case?

Justice Adejumo: In 2006, the National Assembly came out with the National Industrial Court Act, 2006 and gave us our jurisdiction and power and made the NICN a Superior court of records and we were operating under the Act as a superior court of record. Apart from the 2006 Act we also came up with the 2007 Rules of Court.

When in deciding the BPE case the Supreme Court said we were not a superior court of record but subordinate to the high court and that notwithstanding; the provisions of the 2006 Act violates Section 6(1) of the constitution to the extent of its inconsistency, it was a real bomb. Before one week I received about two orders from the Federal High Court that I should be submitting our judgments to them for judicial review.

We were all taken aback, my judges came here and we were all downcast. But the Supreme Court had spoken. I encouraged my judges and told them we would find a way out. So we had to read the judgment of the supreme court in BPE and found out that the supreme court in their wisdom also proffered solution when they said that, for the NICN to become a superior court of record, the National Assembly needs to amend the 1999 constitution. We made extensive research on the powers and jurisdiction of the labour court; we travelled wide to see how a labour court is being managed and then raised a memo to the Chief Justice of Nigeria, the president of the senate as well as the speaker of the house of representative attaching the judgment of the Supreme Court in BPE. The amendment of the 1999 constitution was kick-started and public hearing was called, we wrote our memo and defended same and one year after it was passed and 33 states out of 36 states supported us.  The amendment was overwhelmingly passed by the National Assembly. On the 4th of March, 2011, the National Assembly passed the 4th alteration of the 1999 constitution making the NICN a superior court of record with its own powers and jurisdiction. The then president Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan GCFR said and I quote “today’s occasion signifies the synergy between the three arms of government, the judiciary has spoken the legislature acted upon it and today the executive has accented to it. This would further bring direct investment with the investors knowing that where a dispute arises, there is a place to go and settle same. This particular event was the happiest day of my life because the struggle has come to fruition and we are now no 4 in the land and by virtue of the amendment the President of the NICN becomes a permanent

DNL L&S: Your Lordship, and the recent SkyBank Case on appealing the court’s decision?

Justice Adejumo: In section 12 of the NIC Act, the history and antecedent and the psychology and sociology behind the establishment of the NIC from day one is set out. It was established not to be a court of rigmarole. It was established as a court that would be so easy to approach without delay and the technicalities of the law would not becloud the interest of the economy of the country. This is because it is an economic court. “You sack me, you don’t sack me, you go on strike, you don’t go on strike”; these are all economic issues. If workers are not going to offices, leaders cannot do anything. So when this happened, Section 12 said that the court shall abide by the Evidence Act but may depart from it in the interest of justice. To do away with unnecessary techinicalities and not give judgment without justice. When there is judgment without justice there would be anarchy and that is why you see some judgment they refuse to obey. The affected party is always reluctant to obey. But where there is judgment with justice you see there would be no appeal in most cases because the looser believes justice has been done. At times you convict a person and he still thanks you because he knows you didn’t victimize him. On day I was coming back from court, I was sitting in Ondo and living in Akure. We ran into armed robbers around 4 o’clock. One of them asked Oga “se omo mi”? I said mi omo yin, I don’t know you who would claim to know someone with gun. He said “you sentenced me but you did well, I thought you will give me heavy but the one you gave me was ok”. So if I had given judgment without justice, maybe he would have shot all of us and finished us there. So we believe that the aim of Section 12 is to see that fairness prevails. If you do judgment in labour matter, you must look at the consequential effect of your pronouncement on the larger society. If there is a strike and government, employers and judges did not handle well, they would go and wait for you on the street. If you say you must strike without thinking of the consequential effect on the larger society; many would be killed, there would be no food on the street, economy of the country would be grounded because there would be no oil production. International relations would break down and may lead to heavy damages. Many may die in the hospital, banks may not work, armed robbers would be on rampage knocking room to room to collect food and money. If there is a breakdown of law and order in industrial relations the result is too bad for any civilized. That is the philosophy behind an Industrial Court. It should be a court with special consideration. However, all these are academic now since the Supreme has made a policy decision. I am of the view that as time goes on something better would happen.

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DNL L&S: My Lord another milestone achieved by the NICN is the deployment of Technology in its administration of justice, what drives my lord in this regard?

Justice Adejumo: What motivates us is that at this jet age, if you are not moving with the train you will be left behind. The world is not a global village but a global room, it is a small room you can get things done in any part of the world and we at the NICN can’t afford to be left behind in the scheme of things. In recent times lawyers and litigant complain of coming to court and being informed that the court won’t be sitting, can we continue like that? The question is what will be the public perception? And lots more and there are lots of things we can correct using the electronic scheme system. During my 1st to 3 years as the president I traveled wide to see how courts are being managed and had to go electronically and informed the judges on the need to do E-Judiciary where the NICN rules is on the App and can also read your judgments on the app free of charge. We will still spend more on E- Judiciary. In the NICN every judge has an E-Library and can access any judgments anywhere in the world because we are determined to make a difference by making a dead end a living end. We are developing the one that would allow me to see the activities in any of my court rooms from here, so if you don’t sit, I would know, and ask questions. We are trying and moving as we are yet to get to our desired destination even though its expensive.

DNL L&S: May I say my Lord is looking into the future already?

In the beginning I said that people look at personality and not the institution. When you look at an institution, you would realize it didn’t start with you and even if it did, it won’t end with you as generations yet unborn will come after you. Our desire is that we are building the foundation and looking towards an avenue where a case will be dispensed with within 4 to 6 months. When you said it seems am looking into the future, any good leader must not limit himself to his tenure alone as there are many things that can’t be achieved in your tenure alone but one must lay the foundation for others coming to thrive. For instance in some jurisdiction people are asking why we are building more than a court room and I replied that in the next 10 to 15 years when the bulk of cases starts to trickle in and there’s no fund to build new court wont this already built court serve the purpose. When I came I know what I met and I know by the time am retiring we would have made our mark. One must be futuristic if the country needs to develop, it must not be shortsighted. We must do things to build the institution.

DNL L&S: A lot of senior members of the legal profession have complained that there has been remarkable deterioration in the quality of lawyers now produced by the law school. What is Your Lordship’s take on this?

Justice Adejumo: When there’s a scratch on the body, you don’t cure it by applying pomade or a cream and think it may go. One must look for an antibiotic as the cause may be from within the body. One cannot be blaming the quality of lawyers being produced; no doubt the quality has dropped without stating the reasons. In our days we complain of 4 in a room, only God knows how many is in a room now, these days the economic hardship is there which was not there then, no new infrastructure, lecturers teach in 4 or 5 university which should not be so. You have overcrowded lecture halls, no research centre and with archaic text in the library. Lecturers are not taken care of; support staffs as well, industrial actions interfere with academic activities. A situation where a school is on strike for the better part of the academic session and resumes to give exam after one week. There are so many issues but, this is on the part on the government. On the part of the student, nowadays the young ones are too money conscious, in my days I had just three dresses I alternate to school, back then, no cultism. There were clubs who acts as campus journalist who makes the campus lively and we lived a serene life on campus all night but now none of this is possible. School fees are high, lecturers mandate students’ to buy handout which was not during our days. And most importantly, the very day a lawyer is called he starts dishing out complementary cards, someone who does not have a stock let alone a store and calling people to come and buy, what is he selling and what are the people coming to buy? Nothing. At that point one does not have the knowledge as what was thought in the university is Ought law (the law as it is in the statutes book), the Is law is what happened in the court room, you can only know it is law based on what the court has decided. In our days my principal was not paying me. The lawyers have their own fault, the government, the institution and the society as well. The judiciary also has a role to play, instead of downplaying young lawyers in court, the court is to assist them in court. Yes there’s a drop and it’s still curable and the cure is not making law a second degree as it will make the course an elitist profession. If law should have been a second degree, I won’t be here today. We all have roles to play, lawyers should subject themselves to learning and relearning and unlearning.

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DNL L&S: Is my lord an advocate of streamlining being an advocate and solicitor in Nigeria?

It is a difficult thing as it is not our practice. In other jurisdiction a solicitor will not tell you he is an advocate, all he does, is to interview and review your case. But here in Nigeria, if we are to split it, we need to look at the purchasing power of the citizenry. Who will go to a solicitor first for advice before being directed to an advocate. I am not soliciting for the split but rather at the law school, there’s need to emphasize the duties of a solicitor, what are the conflicts and where did they meet. Everything boils down to curriculum and curriculum both at the law school and the university needs to be reviewed as we are not ripe for the splitting. We complain that junior lawyers are not well paid yes, but instead of streamlining its better to improve. First five years of every lawyer is struggle, one must not blame the lawyers entirely because once the system is faulty, you must sort it out from the root first.

DNL L&S: We have also learned that My Lord’s wife, Honourable Justice Adejumo is a Justice of the Court of Appeal. By Judicial hierarchy, Your Lordship’s wife is Your Lordship’s superior. Does this have any reflection at the home front?

Justice Adejumo: At the home front there’s no superiority. Any successful woman must kill her Ego when it comes to the home front. Whenever we are in the public I give her that respect as a justice of the court of appeal but after the event she becomes my wife and I become her husband. A woman who wants to be successful in the home front must kill her ego vice versa. It is my pride that she’s where she is. A man should not be inferior to his wife’s progress. My wife has been a very good woman and has never for once shown superiority both at home and even in the public. So there is harmony at home.

DNL L&S: How does my Lord relax?

Justice Adejumo: I don’t think I do. I resume office around 8am and close around 9pm to 10pm. I sleep around 1:am and wake up 5am routinely. I have not had siesta for over 20years I have been in the judiciary. Relaxation is a thing of the mind, at times I drive alone, put on my face cap and nobody recognizes me. I am a member of the Ikoyi Club but I can’t remember the last time I attended the meeting though I pay all my dues. I relax more when I am in Akure especially with my old school mates and go round my garden. One must not fraternize too much as this job is a delicate one. I like music a lot and listen to good old music like the Haruna Ishola’s.

DNL L&S: What is that thing my lord wishes to be remembered for as the president NICN?

Justice Adejumo: I will like to be remembered for a singular fact that, this court is a court every Nigerian believes that when he gets there, justice will not only be done but will be seen to have been done without fear or favour and in accordance with the constitution and justice, fairness and equity is followed.

DNL L&S: Will I be right to use the Latin Maxim Veni Vidi Vici (I Came, I Saw and I Conquered?)

Justice Adejumo:  I have not conquered yet, I am conquering

DNL L&S: My Lords birthday is October 1st, if my lord is to make a wish, what will that wish be?

Justice Adejumo: My wish is for Nigeria to be a better place for all of us to live and thrive in harmony, egalitarian, peaceful society where everybody will be proud of being called a Nigerian.

DNL L&S: Thank you my Lord.

Justice Adejumo: Thank you for coming, we appreciate you.

Photo session with my Lord. L-R Mubarak Tijani (DNL L&S, Justice Adejumo, Ifeoma Peters,(DNL L&S) Chief Registrar  National Industrial Court , Olurotimi Daudu and Kayode Komolafe (DNL L&S)

Read the 1st part of the interview here

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