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Time to mend Nigeria’s broken criminal justice system (1)


JusticeTHE Nigerian criminal justice system is fundamentally flawed and the defects manifest at every processing point on the entire criminal justice system line – from the failure of governance institutions to design a suitable criminal justice policy that serves the current needs of the country, to the inability of the legislature to appropriately transform policies into laws, from an oddly designed judicial system plagued by massive corruption, incompetence and crippling bureaucratic bottlenecks to an outdated and counterproductive style of policing and a correctional services that inhumanely warehouses those considered ‘innocent’ by the very law of the society that imprisons them.

The above assertion is a fact that can be proven using different parameters.

If one uses share of conversation and general perception as a standard of measurement of performance of the system, then one can conclude that the system is badly broken because of the overwhelming negative appraisal of the system by experts and policy makers. Amnesty International tagged the criminal justice system in Nigeria a “conveyor belt of injustice, from beginning to end”.

A senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Bolaji Ayorinde referred to the system as “dysfunctional, outdated and absolutely not fit for purpose.”

The Speaker of the House of Representatives once stated that “our criminal procedure has remained largely old and unresponsive to the quick dispensation of justice.

” Abdullahi Yola, the solicitor-general and permanent secretary in the Federal Ministry of Justice, also stated that the Nigerian criminal justice system lacks the necessary policies and legislation that facilitate fair trial.

Using age and relevance of criminal legislations as another standard of measurement, then the outcome is equally not good as the system’s critical components are out of sync and underperforming.

Four out of the five major legislative pieces that collectively regulate criminal justice in Nigeria- the Penal Code, the Criminal Code, the Criminal Procedure Act and the Evidence Act are all substantially relics of colonial legislations and culture and all amendments have failed to effect a Nigerian-specific agenda on criminal legislation. The same can be said of the Police Act of 1943, which was re-enacted by a decree in 1967.

The Judiciary in terms of speed and quality of Justice does not fare better, as it takes an average of 5.9 years for a contested case to move from filling to delivery of justice according to the Lagos State Ministry of Justice.

The prisons are nothing but overwhelmed human warehouses, the actual capacity of the Nigerian prisons is about 47,284 but the prison holds around 56,785 inmates. 39,010 of these are awaiting trial inmates by a 2014 figure.

According to the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, Nigeria has consistently been placed in the lowest performance quintile on the criminal justice component. The same tale of consistent underperformance is repeated on the World Bank’s Aggregate Indicator for the Rule of Law.

Why is it critical for the incoming government to, as a matter of utmost urgency, pay attention to the criminal justice system in Nigeria? Simple, the criminal justice system is the most important institution of social control as well as law and order in any functional society.

And how well a country manages its criminal justice system affects its overall performance on the governance index. An effective criminal justice system is one of the key pillars upon which the concept of the rule of law is built because it serves as a functional mechanism to redress grievances and bring violators of social norms to justice.

A country that gets its criminal justice system right has effectively addressed a quarter of its governance concerns because of the centrality of the criminal justice system to order and stability.

The incoming government should in the first 100 days be able to put in place a criminal justice system policy document that reflects Nigeria’s unique social and diverse cultural orientations.

The envisaged policy should, like all effective criminal justice policy documents, define the institutional objective of the system in coherent and practical terms and create a framework for effective relationship between the components of the criminal justice system.

It should also create unique and adaptive Nigerian institutions of social control, which reflects popular societal mores and social demands.

Also, there is the need to totally overhaul Nigeria’s criminal justice legislations. The social framework of our criminal legislations is foreign and outdated.

Criminal legislations are the most important component of the criminal justice system because it defines rights, duties, obligations and relationships among components.

The basic legislations dealing with substantive crimes in Nigeria are the Criminal Code, which is applicable in southern states and the Penal Code, which operates in the northern states.

These pieces of legislations were originally enacted in 1902 and 1960 respectively and are more reflective of British colonial interests than current Nigerian social needs.

These pieces of legislations are not products of public policy processes that are targeted by a Nigerian government at defined social problems within Nigeria’s current social milieu.

Although some states have enacted new criminal codes, but how far do these new codes depart from inherited colonial ones is debatable.

Continuous changes in the social interactions and configuration demands a progressive review of criminal legislations.

Basing a criminal justice system on outdated criminal codes that has limited alternatives to imprisonment, in an age of non-custodian sentencing, indeterminate sentencing systems and community supervision is certainly one of the reasons for Nigeria’s dysfunctional criminal justice system.

The incoming executive and legislative branches of government at the national and sub-national levels should do whatever is possible to amend the current codes and pass new legislations that reflect global best practices in criminal justice system and our unique realities.

Moreover, the following critical bills: Administration of Justice Commission Bill, Police Act Amendment Bill, Community Service Bill, Victims of Crime Remedies Bill, Prisons Act Amendment Bill and The Elimination of Violence in Society- should be represented to the National Assembly if they are not passed before the current legislative term expires.

Also, a lot has to be done to create a court system that truly serves our national purposes as the court system is the second most important component in a triangulated relationship of the criminal justice system involving laws, courts and enforcement agencies.

The court system is the only formal institution through which legal actions against accused persons are channelled and the decisions and disposition of the court system bears important marks on other components of the criminal justice system, such as the investigative and the imprisonment stages of the process. To be continued.

• Osasona is a research associate at the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives, Lagos. He can be reached at-

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