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Nigeria’s criminal justice system in 2017

By Tosin Osasona
02 January 2017   |   3:42 am
‘CHANGE’ did not come to the Nigerian criminal justice system in 2016. The fundamental flaws and defects that have customarily blighted the justice system manifested themselves in 2016...


‘CHANGE’ did not come to the Nigerian criminal justice system in 2016. The fundamental flaws and defects that have customarily blighted the justice system manifested themselves in 2016 with increased intensity, despite having a president and a political party who campaigned for office on the mantra of ‘change’ in government. The crisis of awaiting trial inmates got worse, with the percentage of persons standing trial in custody rising to 72 per cent; the sum allocated for the maintenance of police operational assets in 2016 only lasted for three months; the judiciary got the lowest budgetary allocation in five years; prison breaks and escapes increased in number and regions; successive reports catalogued instances of extra-judicial killing and human rights abuses by security services; the institutional integrity and independence of the judiciary was assailed like never before; bureaucratic bottlenecks, inter-agency rivalry and policy inconsistencies lessened the effectiveness of government’s intervention and mob justice became a regular social feature, highlighting loss of confidence in the Nigerian criminal justice system.

Every one of the five components (the law, the community, law enforcement agencies, the court system and corrections) on the criminal justice line is important, interrelated and indispensable; that is why efficient criminal justice systems across the world create linked and reinforcing structures. Unfortunately, the Nigerian criminal justice system lacks a coherent policy framework that states the roles and expectations of the components. It is therefore not surprising that in 2016 components on Nigeria’s criminal justice team tackled themselves rather than crime, scored policy own-goals and persistently misaligned and engaged in institutional turf fight rather than cooperate. 2017 might not be better unless the relationship framework and institutional arrangement of components on the Nigerian criminal justice line is proper delineated.

The basic laws dealing with crime in Nigeria (with the exception of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015) are shameful old colonial bequeaths both in orientation and drafting. President Muhammadu Buhari should in 2017 along with other critical stakeholders at both national and sub-national levels initiate the process of creating a network of laws that reflects the dynamics of Nigerian realities. Criminal legislation is one of the most important components of the criminal justice system because it defines rights, duties, obligations and relationships with other components and continuous changes in social interactions and configuration demands a progressive review of all criminal legislations. A piecemeal isolated reform is at best a Band-Aid Effect and would not improve outcomes.

The judiciary’s financial proposal of N143 billion was slashed by more than 50 per cent by the National Assembly to N70 billion in 2016 and that can be partly blamed for the poor performance of the judiciary in the year. Delivering expeditious and balanced justice as a social good is expensive and that is why democratic states globally allocate a critical fraction of their annual budgets for servicing and maintaining their court systems. While the level of funding that a country allocates to its court is a political decision and it is largely contextual on its unique circumstances, it however must not upset the principles of separation of powers and judicial independence. Adequacy and quantum of funding available to the judiciary in a state is a marker of its ideological orientation as well as its institutional priorities. The 2017 budgetary allocation must aid the performance of the judiciary as the essential gate-keepers of the Nigerian criminal justice system.

This insufficient budgetary allocation of resources affected not only the judiciary but also other service rendering components on the criminal justice line- police agencies, corrections and intelligence agencies all alike. According to the last Inspector General of Police, the sum allocated for the fuelling and maintenance of the approximately 317,515 vehicles and motorcycles in the fleet of the Nigerian Police Force in the 2016 budget only lasted for three months. Prison riots broke out in some locations basically because of lack of basic provisions; staff members of one of Nigeria’s traffic management organisations threatened to resort to bribe collection to maintain themselves because of non-payment of salaries. It can be concluded from the pattern and implications of budgetary allocation to the security services in 2016, that the government expects the service rendering components on the criminal justice line to maintain their operational assets out of their pockets, pay for uniforms and other operational exigencies and handle work-related trauma and emergencies privately. It is no brainer that these agencies in 2016 used their guns and statutory position to extract illegal security tax from the public.

Lack of institutional accountability is one of the hallmarks of the criminal justice system in Nigeria in 2016. The concept of accountability is critical to democracy and the rule of law and it is the expectation of citizens that all public institutions and agencies are accountable to the electorate. Out of all the institutions in the criminal justice system, accountability of the judiciary is paramount. Unlike the executive and the legislature, judges are appointed through a system over which the public has no direct control and judges even in cases of proven misconduct can only be removed from office after a laborious procedure which is not easily invoked and yet judges wield tremendous powers. The Nigerian judiciary as an institution is complicit in the current failure of the criminal justice- the road to custody for everyone of Nigeria’s about 45,263 awaiting trial inmates went through courts, no one got into custody (and for some forgotten in custody)without remand warrants issued by courts. But why has the judiciary been operationally indifferent to the crisis of awaiting trial inmates in Nigerian prisons beyond the worn ritual of Chief Judges’ occasional visitation releases of inmates and what can be done to change this in 2017?

The seemingly increasing prevalence of mob justice in 2016 is one of the key consequences of failures within the Nigerian criminal justice system and a grave warning to the managers of governance spaces in Nigeria about the gradual unraveling of social order and an unmistakable low public confidence in the capacity of the security services and the courts to fairly and independently punish crime. The problems of criminal justice system in Nigeria is represented and manifested at every processing point of the entire criminal justice line, therefore stopping this national descend will take more than the passage of a bill- nothing short of an holistic and cross-cutting reform will save the system.

Resolving these identified blights in the Nigerian Criminal Justice architecture would involve the collaborative efforts of all tiers of governments in Nigeria as well as all stakeholders in governance. However, the political elite have benefited from the problems in the administration of criminal justice by exploiting weaknesses in the system to delay or frustrate their trials. Can this same group be trusted to superintend over a sectoral reform that will substantially weaken their hold? Year 2017 will answer this question.

Osasona is a research associate at the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives.