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From Malami to Fagbemi: In search of holistic reform for judiciary

By Yetunde Ayobami Ojo
13 September 2023   |   3:07 am
There are plenty of issues militating against effectiveness of the justice sector. Among numerous others, part of the problems includes an ever-increasing population of awaiting trial inmates and lack of judicial automation.

Lateef Fagbemi

The justice system is bedeviled by a myriad of challenges. How they are addressed will not only define the current administration but also the place of the new Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) in history, YETUNDE AYOBAMI OJO reports.

There are plenty of issues militating against effectiveness of the justice sector. Among numerous others, part of the problems includes an ever-increasing population of awaiting trial inmates and lack of judicial automation. All these constitute a disconcerting clog in the wheel of the justice sector.

President Bola Ahmed Tinubu is credited with introducing far-reaching reforms as governor of Lagos State between 1999 and 2007. Perhaps, the desire to introduce a similar concept at the federal level may have informed the choice of Mr Lateef Fagbemi (SAN) as the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice.

However, aside from reforms, some issues are at the front burner, requiring prompt action by the AGF, salient of which is the review of obsolete laws including the Land Use Act 1978.

A central objective of the Act was to make land readily available at an affordable rate to all Nigerians. Opinion suggests that not much has been achieved owing to issues around implementation, the entrenchment of the Act in the Constitution, the inalienability of land in rural areas, the vesting of all land in government for the use and collective benefit of Nigerians only, inadequate compensation provisions, compensation outside the jurisdiction of courts, clarity regarding rights to land for grazing purposes, and the age of the Act.

Revocation of the right of occupancy by the government is yet another challenge faced by the landowners. The issue of implementation lies in the abuse of power by the governor, the inefficient public service and bureaucratic red-tapism, as well as the lack of political will. Institutional weakness is seen as the cause of the astronomical rise in land value and the increase in land speculation in Nigeria.

Yet another issue Mr Fagbemi should explore ways of providing an answer to, is the threat of acquisition of more Nigerian territory by Cameroon. Since the Nigerian government withdrew from the disputed oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula following the October 10, 2002 judgment of the International Court of Justice, the Nigerian government technically went to bed.

There are allegations that Cameroon has started encroaching further into more Nigerian land, appropriating more land to itself. The challenge is that the government does not seem to realise the magnitude of the humanitarian disaster this could result in. As it is, will the government advocate the review of the judgment?

The late eminent lawyer, Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN) had queried the reluctance of the then President Olusegun Obasanjo-led administration to do anything to contest the ICJ judgment at the appropriate quarters.

He stated that the judgment of the International Court of Justice was a mere opinion of the court to the UN Security Council, adding that Nigeria ought to have fought the battle at the Security Council.

He, therefore, suggested three options for the country. First, Nigeria should revoke whatever treaty it entered with Cameroon by the Obasanjo administration on the matter. This option, according to him, is nationalistic since the treaty robs Nigeria of her territory and is against her national interest. He maintained that the Nigeria-Cameroon Joint Commission on Bakassi should continue to work until the matter is resolved amicably.

Secondly, Nigeria and Cameroon could declare Bakassi a Special Administrative Area (SAR) like Hong Kong in China. Under this framework, he noted, the territory should be administered jointly by the two countries and the oil resources, which is the bone of contention, judiciously used to develop the area.

The lawyer suggested that if the foregoing fails, the Bakassi people could declare national sovereignty for the region like Brunei and East Timor. According to him, the two nations cited here are tiny, so the size of Bakassi is inconsequential because there are even smaller sovereign territories and nations in the Pacific Rim and the Caribbean region.

The former Foreign Affairs Minister, Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi recently emphasised the need for the Nigerian government to confront the issue of Francophone countries around the country’s porous borders. He stressed that the insecurity problem, which the country is having with regard to porous borders may be exacerbated, if left unchecked.

While noting that there will be grievous consequences, Prof. Akinyemi called on policymakers to pay attention to the issue of porous borders. “Nigeria is bordered by Benin, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. It shares maritime borders with Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, and São Tomé and Príncipe. With an area of 923,768 km, the country is almost four times the size of the UK or slightly more than twice the size of the U.S. state of California,” he noted.

The government of former president, President Muhammadu Buhari in 2019 came up with the idea of Rural Grazing Area (RUGA) settlements, an initiative the administration claimed would put an end to a recurring conflict between nomadic herders and farmers. However, not a few Nigerians criticised the move some of whom claimed it was a plot to appropriate land for Fulani herders across the country.

The policy was later suspended with the government coming up with the National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP). NLTP is a N179 billion 10-year initiative (2018-2027) that champions ranching as the way forward for cattle rearing in the country.

To date, herdsmen move around with their cattle across the country, at times bearing arms and ammunition. The AGF is expected to provide answers to this lingering conflict.

Another germane issue is the cases pending against the government wherein the court ordered the government to pay a huge amount as judgment debt. One of the numerous cases is the P&ID (a company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands), which got a judgment against Nigeria and the amount is accumulating. This also requires the AGF’s intervention.

Meanwhile, the Solicitor-General of the Federation, Beatrice Jeddy-Agba, recently reacted to the issue of settling judgment debts. She said that the Ministry of Justice has not received any budgetary allocation for the settlement of judgment debts. She said as a matter of due process and the Federal Ministry of Finance fiscal policy, payment of judgment debt by any agency must be based on clearance by the Attorney-General and requisite budgetary appropriation.

So, the AGF needs to investigate judgment debts, including those involving violation of rights by government agencies and security personnel. Fagbemi was said to have resolved various crises through reforms when he chaired the Yaba College of Technology Governing Council.

During his screening by the Senate, he reeled out plans on how to fight corruption, the need to invest heavily in investigations by the anti-corruption agencies as a key priority, the daunting challenges of Nigeria’s justice sector and other sectors, including the economy and security.

Mr Olawale Fapohunda (SAN), a two-time Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in Ekiti State, said Mr Fagbemi’s reform must aim to build a justice system that is affordable, efficient, independent, transparent, professional, and accountable to Nigerians. He believes every aspect of the infrastructure of the justice system requires fundamental rethinking.

“Our approach to policing, adjudication, bail, sentencing, and imprisonment need to change in significant ways. Priority interventions in the judiciary should include a review of judicial salaries and allowances as well as supporting constitutional amendments that ensure that only matters of significance are heard in the Supreme Court. No less important are related matters of judicial appointments and affirming the sanctity of our courts and their decisions.

“In policing, the Attorney-General must be interested in police reform. The absence of credible and reliable data on the human, equipment, and other resources available to the police is a concern that retards crime prevention and obstructs criminal justice,” he said.

On the pending cases in court such as P&ID, law lecturer, Mr. Wahab Shittu (SAN) admonished the AGF to effectively take charge of the proceedings internationally, locally and engage experts.

Shittu said the AGF needs to strategise to empower experts of Nigerian orientation and correlation with a deeper knowledge of the working of domestic and international law to study the case.

“He should also seek the expertise of Nigerian lawyers with sound knowledge of the British legal system, particularly those who are Queens Counsel (QCs), eminent lawyers with the knowledge of international arbitration and orientation to study the case and come out with an informed legal opinion.

“Secondly, he should do everything possible to prosecute the accomplices within our shores. Some of these cases are in court. They should study the case and empanel lawyers who can do thorough prosecution. Where the culprit or convict ought to make restitution, it should be quickly made; where forfeiture of the asset needs to be carried out, it should be done promptly.

“There should be effective civil or criminal forfeiture of assets linked to the crime with the objective of achieving maximal result. I think the approach before now has largely been politicised and not professionally handled. I don’t want to single out anyone for blame. But we can keep that behind us and elevate national interest beyond all other considerations so that Nigeria does not end up servicing debts perpetually,” he advised.

He suggested that the contract that gave rise to the judgment should be thoroughly examined to see whether it is enforceable because necessary approvals that ought to have been obtained were not obtained.

“The EFCC has commissioned a comprehensive investigation into the matter. I think the AG of the Federation should call for an update on the state of investigation and ensure that the local collaborators are brought to book,” he suggested.

On the call for a review of the Bakassi judgment, Shittu said: “Bakassi judgment is a judgment of the International Court of Justice. If you know how interest in the Court of Justice operates, the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice is optional and not compulsory.

“Having submitted voluntarily to the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice to adjudicate over the Bakassi issue, it may be difficult to question the outcome. But that does not mean we cannot also explore other mechanisms available within the framework of the International Court of Justice to see how Nigeria’s interest can best be protected,” he added, saying seasoned international lawyers may be recruited for that purpose.

For Dr Yemi Omodele, the new AGF should consult the different departments under him, such as the Solicitor-General of the Federation, directors, deputy directors and secretary to the government of the federation to know what is on ground.

“The P&ID issue before the court is subjudice. He should ensure that the needful is done to bring the matter to an end with a view to getting the accrued interest. He should set machinery in motion in getting what belongs to the government,” he advised.