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Should we have juries in criminal trials in Nigeria?

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A few weeks ago, the Chairman of the residential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Professor Itse Sagay, was reported as calling for the reintroduction of the jury system in criminal trials.

His reason was that, in his opinion, there is so much corruption that some judges can no longer be relied upon to uphold the integrity of the judiciary.

Now, far be it from a baby lawyer in only his 15th year post-qualification, such as myself, to attempt to speak with similar authority about corruption in the judiciary.

However, as a dyed-in-wool watcher of Boston Legal, The Good Wife, Suits, and such TV shows all the way back to Matclock, and as one who dreamt as a naïve boy of one day making those killer closing arguments that swayed juries, it got me wondering about what jury service would look like in today’s Nigeria.

The first issue that comes to mind is the means of selecting people for jury service.

In most commonwealth countries that practice the jury system, jurors are typically drawn from the electoral register for the locality within which the court hearing the trial is situated.

The jury summonses are sent to their individual addresses and employers know that they are required by law, save in exceptional circumstances, to make their employees available for jury service during the period indicated in the summons.

Immediately, one sees at least three challenges here – the process of voter registration (mandatory in the UK and most of the US), a record of verifiable and valid addresses for said voters and the employer component.

Voter registration remains far from painless in Nigeria and we still have not quite sorted out street naming, house numbering and post codes (“when you get to Salami junction, you will see a big red kiosk; ask for Mama Tosan’s house there. The number is number 19 but you won’t find it with the number…”).

Additionally, in the current austere times (perhaps even in the best of times), it is not clear that employers would be happy to pay wages to staff who are called away.

There’s certainly no guarantee that they will be held to account by the government for failing to do so – just look at the recent, widely-publicised allegation of a company sacking all its newly married female staff.

Another challenge is the state of the average Nigerian’s mind. We are absolutely livid with our politicians and strenuously hold on to cultural stereotypes.

We are given to jungle justice and trials by ordeal. We are misogynistic and gerontocratic.

These all seem like harsh, hasty generalisations but please take a sample, if you will, of the comments section of any popular blog, newspaper website or Facebook post on any national issue and see what views are exchanged. Visit our market places and offices and see how the opinions of female or younger colleagues and customers are widely treated as inferior.

As a result, I am not sure that any politician accused of corruption can get an acquittal, even in the face of exonerating evidence (“that’s how they have all chopped Nigeria’s money!”); or a young, successful and confident woman accused of murdering her husband (“see how she walked in with pride – she didn’t look at us with any respect; or a Calabar man accused of stealing his neighbour’s dog (“He’s a Calabar man? No Jupiter can tell me anything, he did it!”).

To be clear, the notion of being tried by one’s peers is of course a good thing. Judges will, in many instances, come from backgrounds different from the accused and might completely miss the context of the facts around a crime in the way that a jury might not.

Again, is there a better way to show that facts were, or not, established beyond reasonable doubt than the consensus of a group as large as 12? Furthermore, there is the tactile, tangible feeling of playing an important democratic role that it confers on those who serve as jurors.

However, for the system to properly work and to achieve reasonably even outcomes across the country, many significant hurdles need to be scaled. For instance, on issues such as rape and child marriage, I fear that cultural differences are virtually irreconcilable.

On other issues such as domestic abuse, jungle justice and non-financial fraud, the broad public perception of what is wrong or right is very suspect.

Then there’s our broken civics architecture, with nearly two generations having grown up not knowing what obligations the state owes them and vice versa.

There is also our lax attitude to personal data and the state of security across the nation, generally. How can jurors be assured that their identity will not be sold for purposes of intimidation?

How can the wider society be assured that juror details will not be sold to suspects who wish to bribe them?

Finally, moving to a jury system still does not address the elephant in the room that is the capacity of our police force to conduct investigations in a painstaking, forensic manner.

The task of investigating crimes and building cases with a reasonable degree of success on prosecution will largely remain with the police.

The shortcomings of the police have been highlighted ad infinitum but I am unable to resist adding a final word on how it underscores the issue that an Inspector-General of Police is unaware that he does not have the power to ban protests.


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