Top on the dockets of most courts across the country are corruption cases. While some have lasted well over two decades, others have outlived the trial judges.
Past and present court administrators’ effort to tackle the challenge have yielded little results as suspected corrupt persons are now more embolden in their criminal enterprise, knowing that justice may never come.
In this edition of Law & Human Rights, two lawyers, Babatunde Awe and Elvis Asia examine the root causes of the delay, especially in corruption trial and suggest ways out of the problem.
Our courts require enormous system overhaul to cope— Awe
Corruption is indisputably a global malaise and no single nation on earth, including Nigeria can claim to be free of the vice.
Regrettably, Nigeria has for decades retained a rather ignoble spot on the lowest rungs of reputable world corruption perception indicators.
By the time Nigeria returned to democratic governance after 16 years of military rule, corruption had been firmly entrenched and had eaten deep into the fabric of the nation and the psyche of the Nigerian people. In fact, just a few weeks into the election of the first civilian government in nearly two decades of military rule, Nigeria was crowned the most corrupt country on earth by Transparency International.
Happily, soon after inauguration, the then President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, himself a former Military General and a founding member of Transparency International tried to change the trend during his inauguration by saying ‘there would be no sacred cows’.
The Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, ICPC, was founded by the Obasanjo Administration to tackle corruption among public officials and thereafter, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, was also established to go after economic and financial crimes amongst the populace and the enterprise community.
The results of these two agencies were exceptional and novel, in that several high profile arrests were made and financial malpractices discoveries of mind-boggling proportions were made public.
Soon though, accusations began to spread that the corruption war being fought by the Obasanjo administration was being copiously and conveniently used as a tool to silence and control the opposition. Lending credence to the allegations was the celebration of arrests and detention of a large number of political opponents and former allies without any commensurate number of convictions.
As at August 25, 2011, despite having arraigned roughly 30 high profile individuals between 2002 when it was established and 2011, only four convictions had been secured by the EFCC.
While the anti-graft agencies have undoubtedly brought to a close the era of absolute impunity with which the common wealth of Nigeria has been plundered, and while they have continued to do very commendably and remain critical tools in the war against corruption, both institutions have fallen far short of the expectation of Nigerians in many respects.
One of the most apparent shortcomings of these organs is that over the years, they have continued to be slow in prosecution and in many instances cases appear to take forever to conclude.
While there is no doubt a large number of factors that continue to pillage the ability of the anti-graft agencies to more speedily close corruption cases in court, not all the blame can be laid at the feet of these agencies. For instance, political interference – which has ensured not one single one of the EFCC Chairpersons has ever left office without some hugely embarrassing episode or the other orchestrated by the ‘powers that be’ ostensibly to frustrate the prosecution or arrest of one crony or another; poor and arbitrary leadership selection process – which has largely impugned the credibility of the anti-corruption war efforts and emphasized the disturbing lack of independence of any of these agencies, and the increasingly alarming lack of political will to prosecute persons who have indicated loyalty to the current government. To my mind, the most potent danger for any clear skies in the anti-graft prosecution efforts in the vehicle for prosecution of corruption is the courts.
Our judges continue to be overworked, underpaid (relative to the mountain of work they do) and poorly monitored. The bulk of the support staff are poorly (or absolutely) zero-trained, equipment and tools for justice delivery remain largely outdated. For instance, judges and magistrates continue to write in longhand and sit in dilapidated, uncomfortable and insecure courts.
Many of the efforts to modernize courts and speed up justice delivery are basically like pouring new wine in tired wine-bags. The bags will burst and the wine will waste.
Creation of the so-called Special Offences Courts to handle and fast-track corruption matters on the surface seems quite an innovation. However, this is very far from the reality. The judges in these courts largely sit in courts that are uncomfortable and deal with dockets that are inordinately long. Some judges have up to 40 cases on their dockets for each day and most of them write in long-hand to record these cases. While a number of the courts have functional verbatim recording machines, many of them are not operational. And even when they are functional, the judges must still take objections and applications and deliver rulings in long-hand as bench-rulings. There is just no circumventing the matter. The number of judges must be doubled. Recently, the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court lamented the ratio of workload to judges. It was a very scary revelation.
All of these judges handling anti-graft cases are also subject to the incidences of transfer (from state to state in the case of Federal Judges and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction among state judges and magistrates). Because the selection process for which judges sit in criminal divisions on corruption matters is not based on any verifiable scientific metrics, some of these judges are embarrassingly inept, others find themselves attaining retirement age or suddenly up for elevation to the Court of Appeal! This effectively lays to waste years of work, since cases affected by such instances must start afresh. Recently, a decision which took years to arrive at was reversed because the judge who delivered judgment had been promoted to the court of Appeal but in order to save the case from waste, he had quite innocuously come back to deliver his judgment. The judgement was thrown out.
Some judges handling corruption cases are also very ill or suffering from some serious health incapacity or the other which keeps them away from the cases they handle for years sometimes. There was a particular judge who retired a few years ago but was quite an exceptionally amiable judge. She was so ill that her cases were adjourned for months and motions sat in her court for years without being heard. In fact she was so ill she could not even climb one flight of stairs to her court, and had to be relocated to a court downstairs at some point. If the selection process for judges handling corruption cases were more rigorous, such a judge would never have been detailed to handle such cases.
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There is also the practically zero oversight on judges as per monitoring and quality control which has made some judges consider themselves czars of some sort. A particular former National Secretary of a political party who is one of the high profile accused persons being prosecuted by the EFCC had his case upturned on appeal on the ground (among other things) that the aggression of the judge towards the accused was so inordinate that the trial could not be said to have been fair!
As I write this piece, there is a particular Lagos State High Court judge who has bluntly refused to deliver a judgment in a murder case more than two years after the case was concluded. The accused person continues to languish in the maximum security prisons to date. This is, with respect to the learned judge, the highest form of cruelty. More so that the law provides that judgments must be delivered within 90 days of the close of the case.
Closer monitoring would improve the quality of justice and eradicate incidences of corruption and high-handedness on the part of judges.
Judiciary staffers are mostly hungry, poorly paid, lack self-confidence and poorly protected from the influence of court-users. Occurrences of missing files, judgments being leaked, filed documents getting substituted, evidence being tampered with and unholy collaboration between court registrars and defendants, especially during the process of bail in exchange for monetary or other compensation abound, too. These staffers must be seen for whom they are – a critical bridge in the access to criminal justice expressway and their conditions of living, training, self-confidence and capacity boosted so as to improve the quality of justice.
Finally and more critically, lawyers, especially the Senior Advocates who cut corners, bully judges, disrespect the process of justice delivery and conspire with their clients to pull all kinds of tricks that delay, ridicule and abuse the process of justice must desist from doing so. Stronger reporting mechanisms and disciplinary measures must be developed to identify lawyers who have made such practice their hallmark and show them the route out of law practice in order to sanitize the process.
In summary, the future for corruption cases prosecution in Nigeria is not less bleak than its immediate past, given the fact that the elements that have engendered the current prosecution traffic-jam continue unabated and the measures put in place to address them appear little more than cosmetic.
It is unlikely that God will help us in this case. We must rise and help ourselves.