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Judiciary, so far, so challenging…

By Bridget Chiedu Onochie and Oluwaseun Akingboye
05 June 2016   |   1:14 am
In spite of its effort in the last 16 years to return civility to the system, the judiciary has been lampooned on several occasions for allegedly not doing enough in the fight against corruption.

The third arm of government, the judiciary, no doubt, in the last one year, has witnessed some degree of vibrancy. This vibrancy may not be unconnected to the sudden increase in activities of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which has led to several arrests and charges of alleged corrupt people; and also, the National Judicial Council’s that has equally carried on self-cleansing of the judiciary.

The Council has had to wield the big stick as part of measures towards redeeming the battered integrity of the judiciary, partly occasioned by allegations of corruption practices as well as some ridiculous decisions and judgments, which are beginning to affect the overall impressions of the acclaimed last hope of the common man.

Consequently, few judges have been sanctioned through suspension, compulsory retirement or even outright dismissal to serve as deterrent.

In spite of its effort in the last 16 years to return civility to the system, the judiciary has been lampooned on several occasions for allegedly not doing enough in the fight against corruption.

The most recent was the frontal attack on the judiciary by Mr. President at the 55th Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), on August 21, 2015 when he openly confronted judges for trying to frustrate his efforts at recovering funds allegedly stolen by previous governments.

His frustration could be understood. He had earlier, during the campaign period, assured Nigerians that he would prosecute corrupt individuals and recover all that was stolen. Consequently, his expectations when he assumed office might as well be that his perceived alleged corrupt people would be given accelerated trial and convicted instantly.

Some, however, have argued that the judiciary is equally a part of the society and that it would be rather inconsiderate to expect anything extraordinary from the third arm of government, especially, as their colleagues in the executive are busy helping themselves to public resources.

According to a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Ahmed A. Raji, any judge that is worth his oath couldn’t be easily influenced.

“In any event, a proper judge, who has subscribed to his oath before assuming the office and who live by that oath will resist any kind of untoward or unholy pressure either from government or people outside the government,” he said.

But the fact remains that even with the new Administration of Criminal Justice Act of 2015, which has helped in reducing some of the liberties enjoyed by the accused in criminal trials, the wheel of justice grinds slowly.

The Act attempts to forestall instances where accused persons engage the option of frivolous interlocutory applications to frustrate trial. It also provides that applications for stay of proceedings shall no longer be heard in respect of a criminal matter before the court.

This provision has put a stop to the delays occasioned by interlocutory applications to stay proceedings pending appeal on preliminary matters when the substantive issues are yet to be tried on the merits.

The new Act stipulates that upon arraignment, the trial of the defendant shall proceed from day-to-day until the conclusion of the trial, while each party is entitled to only five adjournments not exceeding two weeks each. And where the trial is not concluded, the interval for adjournments would be reduced to seven days each.

In response to his body language by the anti-graft agencies, a number of high profile corrupt cases are ongoing. These include the celebrated trial of the Senate President over alleged falsification of assets declaration.

Some others facing trial within the last one include the former National Security Adviser (NSA), Colonel Sambo Dasuki; former National Publicity Secretary of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Olisa Metuh; former Chief of Defence Staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh as well as former Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Mohammed Dikko Umar. Some former governors are also currently facing criminal charges before different courts.

They include, former Benue governor, Gabriel Suswam; former Abia State governor, Orji Uzor Kalu; former Jigawa State governor, Alhaji Sule Lamido; former Sokoto State governor, Attahiru Bafarawa; former Adamawa State governor, Murtala Nyako as well as former Imo State governor, Ikedi Ohakim.

There are also other former ministers and political office holders, whose trials are ongoing. Yet, in as much as judges would want to accelerate these trials and save the judiciary from being convicted in the court of public opinion, which Mr. President has empowered through his allegation, they must not undermine certain rights accorded the accused by the Constitution, as well as, the need for competent prosecution.

Be that as it may, renowned lawyer, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), believes in efficient prosecution to ensure an innocent person is not convicted at the end of the day.

While commending the present administration for the political will to prosecute alleged corrupt political office holders, he said:” If you say a public officer has breached public trust or that he stole money, you have to try him in accordance with the law.

“It is a very wrong concept from certain quarters that you just take them to court and jail them. It does not happen like that. For you to say I have stolen public money, you must prove it beyond reasonable doubt. It is not a new law. It has been with us since 1948 and it is not only in Nigeria. It is a global law. It is a standard.

“When you jail somebody for corruption or for any crime, you have not only destroyed the man but whatsoever he stands for. In a civilised place, somebody who has been jailed for corruption or any criminal case cannot raise his head up again in that country and anybody jailed in this country cannot get up tomorrow to contest for any political office. That is why the law expect you to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt.”

Aside from constraints imposed by law, the judges are equally confronted with several other challenges, some of which the general public might be oblivious about.

In the face of the increasing arrests and charges, Judges have been under immense pressure emanating, not only from the workload but also, due to lack of certain essential facilities necessary for job enhancement.

According to Awomolo, every judge now in the high court has his table full. Unfortunately, there is no commensurate increase in the funding of the judiciary.

“Some Judges have 20 cases a day. Those are pressures but we should try and see how to modernise our judiciary. The problem with Judiciary is funding.

“They consistently cut down the budget of the judiciary. Every year in the past five years, it has always come down because they believe the judiciary has so much money without realizing that in the last five years, about 5,000 cases were filed, following year, it was 5,700, another year, over 6,000.

“Democracy has thrown open the doors of courts and everybody wants to taste the law, enforce his fundamental rights and enforce the position of the Constitution. It is a right.

“That opportunity has opened a flood gate to litigation and you cannot throw away anybody out of court unless they have examined his matter. So, to equip the court, we need to increase the number of Judges, we need to encourage even the work environment,” Awomolo stated.

However, that is not to absolve the judiciary of blames. The body is still grappling with the issue of perceived corruption among Judges.

Conflicting judgments and orders witnessed recently has further put the integrity of the judiciary on trial. When discordant judgments become the order of the day, the question of the basis and ingredients for judgment become doubtful.

Only recently, the judiciary displayed high level of disunity when two Federal High Courts in the country gave conflicting rulings in the case involving members of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) over their national convention.

While a Federal High Court sitting in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, granted an interim injunction restraining the immediate past National Chairman of the party, Ali Modu Sheriff and Professor Adewale Oladipo, who were removed from office from parading themselves as national officers of the party, another Federal High Court, this time in Lagos, declared as invalid the caretaker committee constituted over the weekend to take over the affairs of the party. The court of concurrent jurisdiction in Lagos presided over by Justice Ibrahim Buba sacked the seven-man interim committee led by Makarfi.

Same confusions and contradictions also characterise election petitions, where the Supreme Court has to intervene at every point.

The winner of Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) and leading public sector management specialist at the World Bank, Prof. Ladipo Adamolekun, noted that the performance of the nation’s judicial system is far below expectation and calls for an overhaul of the system.

Adamolekun, who spoke with The Guardian in Akure, said the shortcomings in the judiciary necessitated the inauguration of NPCC.

According to him: “The 20-man National Prosecution Coordination Committee (NPCC) inaugurated last month by President Buhari to handle high-profile corruption cases is strong evidence of the incumbent administration’s dissatisfaction with courts’ handling of corruption cases since May 2015.

“But the poor record of the courts as effective partners in combating corruption pre-dates the Buhari administration. Is the NPCC the solution? Time will tell.”

The former Dean of the Faculty of Administration, Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, said there has been a long history of controversial decisions of courts in respect of election petitions from the infamous 12 2/3 states verdict in 1979 to the upholding of the assumed massively rigged elections in Rivers and Akwa Ibom states in the 2015 election cycle.

The NNOM Award winner said courts cannot solve the problems that arise from an underdeveloped political culture, affirming that a polity that seeks judicial answers to political questions runs the risk of undermining the capability of its judiciary, while simultaneously perpetuating the underdevelopment of its political process.

Adamolekun, who is also one of the leading scholars on administrative and political management in the continent, stated, “over-exposure to the complexities and murkiness of the political terrain is not good for our judges and justices. They could make honest mistakes due to their limited understanding of some issues in the functioning of the political process. And there is the temptation of bribery and corruption as witnessed in successive election cycles since 2003 through 2007, 2011 and 2015.”

He said that as long as democratic politics in the country remains underdeveloped, reliance on the arbitration of the courts in electoral and inter and intra-party contestations matters would be inevitable, with all the attendant consequences.

Adamolekun said that meritocracy; educational excellence and strong institutions are the catalysts to help the judiciary regain its lost glory. He believes that the judiciary and other sectors of the nation can be sanitised to regain their integrity and live up to the expectations of all Nigerians to gain prominence.

But with the renewed resolve by NJC to discipline erring judges, it is hoped that the judiciary, which is the last bus stop, the last hope of the ordinary man would be discharged and acquitted.