Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The many travails of Nigerian judiciary

Amidst the cacophony of the roforofo fight between the “Old Peoples Democratic Party and the “New PDP”; the distraction called the national conference and the tragic Associated Airline plane crash of Thursday, October 3, I have chosen to beam my searchlight and lend a voice to the clarion call for the rescue of the Nigerian judiciary from an imminent collapse.  Nigeria on October 1 marked its 53rd independence anniversary while the Supreme Court also marked its 50th anniversary.  How has the judiciary fared in the last five decades?
There is no doubt that the judicial arm of government plays a pivotal role in nation building. The courts interpret the law and adjudicate disputes among parties, be they individuals, persons and the states, different levels of government as well as different legal entities. It is often said that the judiciary is the last hope of the common man. This is true. But for the judiciary, many crimes would have gone unpunished.  If not  for the judiciary, former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar would not have been able to contest the 2007 presidential election;  Peter Obi, Rauf Aregbesola, Adams Oshiomhole,  Kayode Fayemi  and Olusegun Mimiko would probably  not have been governor of  Anambra, Osun, Edo, Ekiti and Ondo states respectively after their mandates were initially stolen by the  Peoples Democratic Party candidates;   Chibuike Amaechi would not have been governor of Rivers State in his first term as his victory at the party primary was annulled by the powers-that-be in his party until the Supreme Court installed him as the winner of the 2007 PDP governorship election;  some governors would have spent six to seven years  as one term instead of four  because of the spurious claim that their first election was annulled and their tenure started to count from when they won their re-run. The judiciary helps to redress injustices and maintain law and order in the country.
I give kudos to the magistrates, judges and justices as well as all those who work in our temples of justice, the courts. They have done well in spite of the daunting challenges and the inclement work environment in which they operate. These ladies and gentlemen at the bench have been working assiduously with the police and other security agencies as well as the Nigerian Prison Service to dispense justice and sanitise the society of crimes and criminality.
On Monday, September 23, 2013, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mariam  Aloma Mukthar inaugurated the 2013/2014 Legal Year which also coincided with  the swearing in of 17 new Senior Advocates of Nigeria. The CJN at the event laid bare the plethora of challenges currently facing the country’s judiciary. Among the lot mentioned are untoward attitude of litigants, lawyers and judicial officers alike (some of whom are corrupt and indolent); ill equipped court rooms (some courts lacked basic facilities like furniture, well lit and ventilated environment, library); inability of judges to embrace ICT (most judges still write their reports, rulings and judgments in long hand while relying on court clerks to type them. This practice does not guarantee confidentiality and also lead to delay of justice).
Mukthar described some of our laws as being archaic and culturally irrelevant and condemned the unwholesome practice of some security agents involved in the criminal justice administration system.  According to her, “It is common knowledge that our security agencies usually rush to the courts with suspects, before looking for evidence to prosecute them. The persistent use of the ‘’Holden charge’’ by these agencies to detain awaiting trial suspects, is a major contributor to the high number of cases pending in our courts”. The CJN opined that, “An extreme consequence of these glaring lapses may lie in the loss of confidence in our domestic justice administration system which rubbishes our often brandished favourable investment climate and translate to a huge disincentive to potential foreign investors in Nigeria”
She expressed dissatisfaction with our civil and criminal procedures. According to her, “By our criminal procedure, I believe we have a variety of unnecessary dichotomies – felony and misdemeanour, indictable and non – indictable offences, etc. This has made commencement of criminal proceedings complicated. Jurisdiction is very paramount in a case and often times, a lot of time is expended on jurisdiction on account of this dichotomy before the proper commencement of the case”. She added that “In civil procedure, the situation is scandalous to our notion of justice. To exhaust the complete remedy in a case, i.e. from trial court to Supreme Court, could take up to 20 years with the original litigants dead and substituted and in some cases the substitutes also dead and substituted. The process of interlocutory appeals aggravates the situation to the extent that by the time the Supreme Court decides that they be continued in trial court, most of the witnesses might have died or are alive but senile, with documents no longer traceable”. Isn’t it a settled legal dictum that justice delayed is justice denied?
Most worrisome of all the concerns raised by the CJN is the recurring dwindling subvention to the judiciary. In her words: “Statistics have shown that funding from the Federal Government has witnessed a steady decline since 2010, from N95bn in that year to N85bn  in 2011, then N75bn  in 2012 and dropped again in the 2013 budget to N67bn. Indeed, with this, if the amount allocated to the extrajudicial organisations within the judiciary is deducted, the courts are left with a paltry sum to operate”. There is no doubt that the judiciary is being treated unfairly among the three arms of government just because it has no say in appropriation matters. While the executive prepares the appropriation bill in terms of budget estimates, the legislative arm does the actual appropriation as the executive is duty bound to implement what the parliament passes. Unfortunately, the judiciary is at a receiving end, having to make do with the little envelope handed to it by the other two arms. The National Assembly has been taking N150bn in the last two or three appropriation years, the executive has equally being taking good care of itself with more jets being added to the presidential fleet and humongous amount in the neighbourhood of a billion naira appropriated for meals and incidentals, yet the fortunes of Nigeria’s judiciary dwindles. This is preposterous!
Another disturbing development capable of destroying the judiciary are the acts of blackmail, intimidation and terrorism being visited on members of the bench. In the last couple of years, a lot of stories have been weaved on some judicial officers by the political class in the main as well as other categories of litigants. Many of the judges were accused of corruption and miscarriage of justice unfairly. No doubt, there are corrupt judges (some have actually been suspended or compulsorily retired on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council) but I am of the opinion that that they are in the minority. The unfolding trend of kidnapping of judges, justices or members of their families is an ill-wind that blows no good. If our judicial officers are being harassed and molested with impunity, in due course, we may not have courageous judges to deliver justice anymore. We may be left with supine judges who will only give judgments. Inadequate staffing is already a phenomenon in our judicial sector. The Supreme Court ought to have a maximum of 21 justices but currently has 15, the CJN inclusive. The Court of Appeal should have 70 with amendments recently made to increase the number to 100; the appellate court does not at present have full complement of justices. Same goes for our high courts, magistrate and customary courts.
All the highlighted malaise needs to be urgently addressed in order to save Nigerian judiciary from an imminent collapse. I heard the Nigerian Law Reform Commission has reviewed some of our archaic laws but the process of reform has yet to be consummated by the National Assembly which needs to legislate on these proposals. As the constitution amendment progresses to its final stage, that’s if the process has not already been scuttled by the proposed national conference, it is important for our lawmaker to take another look at Section 285 of the 1999 Constitution in order to allow 60 days earmarked for appeals in election cases to start from the day appellants filed their appeals and not from the date of the judgment of the trial court as currently obtained.