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Weak justice system and anti-corruption war in Nigeria

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Justice Walter Onnoghen

The scourge of corruption has overtime been described as one of the most discussed causes of under-development in any nation. But much cause for concern, is the weakness of the justice sector delivery system, the pervading low integrity of the judiciary, which is only an aspect of the justice system, has suffered greatly due to the alleged despicable acts of some members of the bench who most times collude with the bar to weaken the law thereby allowing corruption to grow on fertile ground. The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen alluded to this recently stating  that ‘corruption in the judiciary is not limited to bribe-taking but includes giving of judgments or orders based on any consideration other than legal merit.’

Also the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), a human rights group based in Lagos, has also posited through a report titled: “Letting the Big Fish Swim” How Those Accused of High-Level Corruption are Getting away with their Crimes and Profiting from Nigeria’s Legacy of Impunity, lamented that investigation, prosecution, and judicial determination of corruption cases is perceived by the average lay citizen to mirror Edwin Sutherland’s description of “white collar crime”, wherein street level, economically and politically marginalised offenders are efficiently sentenced to prison while the rich and powerful (which typifies high profile corruption offenders in Nigeria) are treated differentially by the criminal justice system.

According to the report presented to the media by a senior lecturer at the Nigerian Law School, Abuja Campus, Dr. Esa Onoja who speacialises in Litigation and Professional ethics, in the investigation, prosecution and trial of high profile corruption cases in Nigeria, justice is imprisoned by snares contrived by actors in the legal community in aid of looters.  Specifically, it explains that while the main anti-corruption agencies secured more than 1,500 non-high profile convictions between 2000-2017, they could only muster 10 high profile convictions between the periods. “High profile cases of corruption prosecuted by anti-corruption agencies between 2000 and 2017 as numbering 177 out of which 167 are pending. Total convictions are just 10. Out of the 10, only three convictions were obtained after full trial while seven convictions were based on plea-bargaining. Yet one of the three convictions based on full trial was discharged by the Supreme Court while three of the seven convicted were granted Presidential pardon” Most corruption cases against high profile defendants witness delays tactics and tricks by defendants to truncate fair trial. The cases depict the stark reality of a captive justice system at the mercy of high profile offenders and their platoon of defence counsel.

Apparently, the negligible number of conviction for high profile defendants explains the probable calculus of offenders that the risk of apprehension and conviction is low. For instance, the former Governor of Adamawa State, Mr. James Ngilari, was convicted through the effort of the Attorney General of Adamawa State. Mr. Salisu Buhari was convicted of forgery under a plea arrangement in 1999. It is worthy of note that Buhari’s sentence was a slap on the wrist as the then president; Olusegun Obasanjo later granted him a pardon. Former Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun, former Governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion and former Governor of Bayelsa State; Diepreye Alamieyeseigha all entered plea agreements with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

Also, the case involving the former Chief Executive Officer of Bank of the North; Alhaji Shettima Bulama who was convicted after trial cannot be forgotten. The sentences in each of these cases did not reflect the gravity of the offences. There is a sense that all the offenders, including Tafa Balogun among others who publicly returned large amounts of money, were able to retain substantial proceeds of crime. Alamieyeseigha and Bulama were granted presidential pardon by President Goodluck Jonathan. The outcome of conviction of the high profile offenders seem to be a clear signal that crime pays when you are high profile. Records of proceedings from courts and law reports paint a vivid and irrefutable picture of the causes of truncation of prosecution of high profile in Nigeria. It is therefore clear, that the trajectory of cases through investigation to trial reveals strong evidence of a nexus between weak institutional capacity on the one hand and attitudes of actors in the criminal justice sector that hamstring orderly and efficient collation and presentation of evidence in court, which militates against impartial determination of corruption cases.

Suffix to state that the sense of simmering undercurrent of commodification of justice and commercialised legal contortions and reasoning pervades investigation, prosecution and trial of high profile corruption cases in Nigeria . At a recent programme organised by SERAP, foremost legal luminary, Femi Falana’s had remarked that, “With the abolition of stay of proceedings politically exposed persons and their lawyers are no longer permitted to frustrate their prosecution.” SERAP report also states that: “The immunity clause has metamorphosed into a potent vehicle of corruption and ignoble conduct. The immunity clause effectively fosters corruption and has become a cloak of immunity to commit heinous crimes in our society. For indeed there seems to be some sacred cows amongst the governors who hide behind the cloak of immunity to commit atrocities.” It added that, “Suspicious decisions/rulings by courts in favour of high profile defendants in corruption cases abound. Successful prosecution of high profile cases unduly suffer because of the tendency of courts to favour legalism and technical construction of criminal and procedural legislations instead of real justice. High profile corruption defendants have conveniently latched on to claims of alleged breach of fundamental right to prevent investigation, prosecution and orderly conduct of cases by courts. Instances of sly and twisted claims of breach of fundamental rights by high profile defendants against anti-corruption agencies abound and are readily available from law reports”.

Obviously, the problem with administration of criminal justice in Nigeria is not the absence of laws or institutions, but the will of actors within and outside criminal justice institutions to put aside their personal or group interests and apply the law. This largely, is the main reason for the low level of conviction of high profile corruption defendants in Nigeria hence there is the need for periodic reforms to ensure that the laws and institutions keep up with the times. It is also advised that the National Assembly to amend provisions in anti-corruption legislations, criminal justice legislations, and the Evidence Act that enables defendants to prolong trials or that are disadvantageous to efficient presentation of cases in court. The Executive should avoid interference with the work of anti-corruption agencies. Money appropriated in budgets should be released as and when due. The anti-corruption agencies should not relent in weeding out compromised officials. These agencies should also demonstrate that they are truly independent while training and re-training of investigators and prosecutors should be a priority. Furthermore, there should be less dependence on personnel from other agencies. The Nigerian Bar Association should establish a monitoring mechanism to check abuse of court process by legal practitioners. The Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee should be empowered to discipline even those considered as the sacred cows.


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