In this report, OLUGBENGA SOYELE examines some of the issues and challenges that confronted the judiciary last year as some lawyers list the ills afflicting the justice sector and the way out in 2020.
Just like every segments of the Country, 2019 was a very difficult year for the Nigerian Judiciary. The controversies and negative perceptions that have plagued the nation’s third arm of government for sometimes, just refused to go away.
The year opens with the unprecedented and controversial exit of the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen and his replacement with the incumbent, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammad.
Apart from this incident that shook the judiciary to its foundations, issues of political interference, intimidation of judges, disobedience of court orders, underfunding and delay in justice delivery are some of the challenges faced by the judiciary in the out gone year.
In 2019, the World Justice Project named Denmark as the country with the best judicial system in the world, measured by rule of law for the fifth time in a row. No African country made the top 60.
The index is based on 48 parameters, measuring the level of corruption, human rights, state openness and criminal justice system, among others.
It ranked Nigeria’s criminal justice system as 12 out of 30 in Africa and 72 out of 126 in the world.
However, in the midst of all these, the judiciary has continued to live up to its constitutional and historical role as the bastion of constitutional democracy as provided for in Sections 6 & 17 (2)(e) of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution.
The mandate of the Nigerian judiciary, as encapsulated in section 6(6) of the Constitution states, “notwithstanding anything to the contrary in [the] Constitution, to all inherent powers and sanctions of a court of law” and “to all matters between persons, or between government or authority and to any person in Nigeria, and to all actions and proceedings relating thereto, for the determination of any question as to
the civil rights and obligations of that person.”
Furthermore, as a measure of the importance that the
Nigerian Constitution attaches to the role of the judiciary, section 4(8) thereof forbids the legislature from enacting any law “that ousts or purports to oust the jurisdiction of a court of law or of a judicial tribunal established by law”.
Also Section 17(2) of the 1999 Constitution provides that in furtherance of the social order, “Every citizen shall have equality of rights, obligations and opportunities before the law. The sanctity of the human person shall be recognized and human dignity shall be maintained and enhanced.
As the judiciary commences its functions in 2020, it is hoped that it would put most of the controversies that marred its performance in 2019 behind it and once again prove to Nigerians that its reputation as the last hope of the common man is still intact.
One of the issues that must be tackled conclusively in 2020 is the issue of funding. At the federal level the budgetary allocation is still very low when you considered the courts, institutions and other heads, whose proposed spending are captured in the judiciary budget.
They are: the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, the Federal High Court, the National Industrial Court and the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee.
Others captured under the budget include: the Federal Capital Territory High Court, FCT’s Sharia Court of Appeal and FCT’s Customary Court of Appeal and the National Judicial Council.
They also include: the Federal Judicial Service Commission, the Judicial Service Committee of the FCT, the National Judicial Institute, the Body of Benchers, retirement benefits of former Chief Justices of Nigeria, IT Project for Judiciary and state judicial offices.
Despite the outcry by stakeholders in the Judiciary over the declining budget there seem to be no solution in sight particularly at the states’ level.
However, one of the landmark events that the judiciary witnessed in 2019 took place on March 22, when President Buhari inaugurated a special Committee on Autonomy of State Legislature and the Judiciary.
Earlier on in June 2018, the President had assented to the Bill for the amendment of the 1999 Constitution known as Financial Autonomy of State Legislatures and State Judiciaries (Fourth Alteration, No.4) Act of 2018.
The mandate of the Committee was to ensure the full implementation of the 4th Alteration to the Constitution and thus free these important arms of government from the stranglehold of the executive arm.
It is very important that this law is implemented in 2020, so that the judiciary can access funding to develop both its physical and human infrastructures.
Though several reforms have been introduced to improve the system, there are still a lot to be done to tackle the issues of corruption among judicial officers.
On September 28, 2017 the then Chief Justice of Nigeria Justice Walter Onnoghen announced the setting up of a Corruption and Financial Crime Cases Trial Monitoring Committee (COTRIMCO) chaired by retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Suleiman Galadima.
The committee was set up in response to the concern expressed by Nigerians on the very slow speed at which corruption cases were being heard and disposed of by courts.
But two year down the line little or nothing has been heard from the committee.
This initiative must be revived and strengthen in 2020 to but judges on their toes.
Also some very important bills proposed by the current government had remained unattended to by the National Assembly. This bills must be pass in 2020 to enhance justice delivery
They are: the Money Laundering Prevention and Prohibition Bill 2017; Anti-Terrorism Prevention and Prohibition Bill 2017; National Financial Intelligence Centre Bill 2017; Proceeds of Crime Bill 2017; Public Interest Disclosure and Witness Protection Bill 2017 and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Bill 2017.
Also there is need for government to articulate a coherent policy framework that clearly defines the roles and relationships between and among the components of the Nigerian criminal justice system.
This lack of proper guardians had resulted in a situation where agencies tackled each other rather than fighting crime.
In spite of effort made by the EFCC, ICPC and other agencies with power to prosecute criminal cases the problem of delay in the process of justice delivery remain largely unresolved. It is a fact that most of the corruption related cases commenced since President Buhari came into power are yet to be concluded.
Among high profile cases that are still pending in court are the now-infamous oil subsidy scam, the Central Bank of Nigeria currency scam and corruption cases against 10 former governors, some of which have been pending since 2007.
Others cases yet to be resolved one way or the other included those indicted over the funds for the purchase of arms to fight Boko Haram, former National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, Olisa Metuh, former Chairman, DAAR Communications Plc, Raymond Dokpesi, Sambo Dasuki.
Some of the criminal case filed in 2016, which are yet to be concluded included those filed against: Jide Omokore, Rickey Tarfa, ex-Chief of Air Staff, Mohammed Umar, Femi Fani-Kayode, Mrs. Nemadi Usuman.
Other are: former Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Adesola Amosu, Air Vice Marshal, Jacob Bola Adigun, Air Commodore, Gbadobo Olugbenga, Jide Omokore. A former Niger Delta militant leader, Government Ekpemupolo (aka Tompolo), Patrick Akpobolokemi, a former Defence Minister and Chairman, Board of Trustees, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Haliru Mohamed Bello was arraigned with his son, Abba, Former Minister of Interior, Abba Patrick Moro.
Other high-profile cases to watch out for in 2020 include the trial of of billionaire kidnapper, Chukwudumeme Onwuamadike (popularly known as Evans) and the alleged N1.2 billion fraud case against a former Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Prof. Maurice Iwu.
2020 brings renewed hope that these cases will be resolved speedily.
The Nigerian Bar Association will sometime 2020 elect a new set of national officers. The Presidency of the bar has been zoned to the South-West and so far those who have shown interest include Dr Babatunde Ajibade (SAN), Mr Dele Adesina (SAN), a former Chairman of the NBA Section on Business Law, Mr Olumide Akpata; and a former Chairman of the NBA Ikeja branch, Mr Adesina Ogunlana.
While setting agenda for the judiciary in 2020, human rights lawyer, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa (SAN) called on all Nigerians to unite to get the government to fund the judiciary.
According to him this must be done in order to place the judiciary in its vintage position to achieve the statutory roles defined for it by the Constitution, of being the final arbiter of all disputes between persons and persons, between persons and governments and between governments and governments.
The lawyer said, “even though the budgetary allocation to the judiciary is small and far between, there exists internal mechanisms of generating revenue for the judiciary by way of filing fees, the huge penalties paid for late filing of processes, the high costs now being imposed by the courts and the huge revenue coming in through the probate registry of the courts.
“There must be some transparent method for the courts to properly account for their funds in order to maximize what is available.
“So, in the new year, I expect that the judiciary will focus more on infrastructure in order to fast track the process of justice administration.
“There is presently a paucity of judicial officers in many of the States with very busy judicial schedules, such as Anambra, Lagos and Rivers States, the Federal High Court and the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory.
“There is no reason why a single judge should have over 700 cases in his docket, as he is human too. The cause list of the courts is too congested and what is needed in that regard is to build more courts and appoint more judges.
“In a State like Lagos for instance, with a population of about twenty million people, there should be at least 200 judges sitting and active.
“It is not just enough to appoint judges and leave them to struggle to make ends meet. The government must take a bold step to improve the welfare of judicial officers through proper remuneration.
“And this should follow an established pattern of say every two years or so. As it is presently, judges have no association through which they can press for better emolument except as it suits the powers that be.
“In this regard, the National Judicial Council should partner with the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission to work out a template that will constantly see to the improvement of the salary and allowances of judges and other judicial staff.
“Whether we admit it or not, the judges go to the same market as we all do, they send their children to the same schools and they contend with blackout to maintain their generators and their cars as the rest of society.
“The Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, is a bold attempt to improve criminal justice administration. To that extent, all States should take a cue from ACJA to update the relevant criminal procedure laws regulating criminal trials and procedures, in order to decongest the prisons and other detention centers and to fast track justice delivery.
“In many of the States, the old criminal procedure laws of the British colonialists still regulate the criminal law process. With appropriate modifications as may seem just, ACJA should be domesticated by the House of the Assembly of the States for better criminal justice administration.
“In the new year, I expect that the courts will harmonize the judicial system to avoid conflicting decisions.
“Law should be predictable, based on established patterns, in order to properly regulate human behaviour.
“Lawyers should be able to advise their clients based on existing common principles of law. The courts should not be changing legal principles at the occurrence of every new case, otherwise there will be confusion.
“As we all well know it within the legal profession, if there is any reason to depart from the previous decision of the court, then let us follow the procedure prescribed for doing that and not this present practice of having to cope with conflicting decisions of the courts on the same subject matter,” Adegboruwa maintained.
Chief Felix Fagbohungbe (SAN) on his part said “Let us hope for the best in the new year because I can just say that everybody has learnt his lesson. The government, they have seen where they have made mistakes.
“The executive has learnt its lesson and that is why they released Sowore and Dasuki. They know where they made mistakes and that is why they are doing something proper. The judiciary, too, has learnt its lessons and that is why the new year will be better.
“Everybody knows where it is not performing well. That is why they have to make amends in the New Year,” he stated.
For Chief Fassy Yusuf, the judiciary being the last hope of the common man should be treated as a sacred institution. Again, as the third estate of the realm or arm of government, it should be accorded no less a dignity accorded the executive and the legislature.
He said: “It should not be made subservient to the other arms. The doctrine of the separation of power must be accorded its deserved place in 2020.
“The judiciary must see itself as the custodian of rule of law and must be ready to defend, guide and guard the temple of justice with all its myth.
“I want to see judicial activism making an in road, once again into our judicature. The judiciary must be prepared to damn every demagogue and dispense justice without fear, affection or ill will.
“Rule of law must be held sacrosanct. Never again must the judiciary be made the whipping boy of any institution.”
He emphasised the age-long maxim that “Justice delayed is justice denied. In 2020, justice delay must be eschewed like the plague. The judiciary must re-strategise to remove all impediments to speedy dispensation of justice. The allocations to the judiciary must not be at the whims and caprices of the executive.
“Case management, timeliness, target setting, commitment, thoroughness and incorruptibility must hold sway in 2020 and beyond.”
Yusuf also urged that the judicature must take advantage of the vogue of sentencing to communal service.
“Conviction is conviction and sentencing every convicted person to a jail term compounds prison congestion.
“Like Caesar’s wife, the judiciary must live above board. It must be wholly transparent. The integrity of the judiciary must never be impeached.
“Lastly, in 2020 and henceforth, justice must not only be done, it must be transparently seen to be done in every material particular. Our society must accord the judiciary the dignity befitting it in 2020,” he added.
A former member of the Ogun State Judicial Service Commission, Abayomi Omoyinmi urged the Judiciary to further improve on speedy dispensation of cases, especially criminal matters.
Omoyinmi said, “It must also avoid situations where conflicts in decisions, pronouncements and judgments are beginning to be noticeable in our justice system in recent times. The autonomy of judiciary is key and must take effect immediately in the new year. The Judiciary’s financial independence is essential, the judiciary should manage its finances and not wait for salary from the executive.
“The recent approval/appointment of more judges by the NJC will complement the number already in place, confidence will be reposed in litigants in the hope that justice is not delayed with more hands to deal with already congested cases in court.
“More technology should be introduced in our various courts. In this age, you still find our judges engaged in long hand recording of proceedings. I will expect that more courts be computerised in the coming year. Welfare of other judicial workers should be taken into account with the view to commanding their respect and loyalty.”
Former president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Dr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) said the biggest challenge facing the Judiciary is the slow pace of justice delivery occasioned by judiciary’s reliance on the executive for funding.
Condemning the continuous reliance of the judiciary on the executive arm of government to get funds to run it’s affairs Agbakoba who was speaking in Lagos while briefing journalists noted that the challenges facing the judiciary are multi-faceted but such need not to be complicated by the judiciary by making itself reliant on another arm of government.
“The Judiciary as a separate arm of government should have its independence like it is in Kenya. The Judiciary no doubt needs reform in Nigeria. That way, it would be more assertive. The biggest challenge facing this arm of government is the slow pace of justice. And the underlying challenge to that is in the area of funding.
“It still beats my imagination that after approaching the court and obtaining a judgment that by constitutional provision, the judiciary should no longer approach the executive for funding, the practice still continues.
“I remember that I met the Chief Justice of Nigeria with a copy of the judgment delivered and I said all you need to do is to take this and make it known to the National Assembly and from there you can always go to submit the budget to the assembly. But I’m surprised when I still see judges with their hands in the back, submitting their budgets to the executive,” Agbakoba said.
In her reaction, Executive Director, Crime Victims Foundation of Nigeria (CRIVIFON), Mrs Gloria Egbuji Egbuji noted that the ugly events in the judiciary in 2019 have surprisingly shown to be very useful for more robust governance.
Egbuji further noted that all the arms of government, the executive, legislation and the judiciary were heavily bruised during the year in the perceived performance of their roles, adding, “they all learnt very hard lessons on their powers and independence.”
Against the back drop of events in 2019, she believed all other arms are justifiably wary of their roles and contributions now.
Egbuji advised the various heads of the different arms of government to take advantage of the very rare opportunities the events offered to reshape and find d right direction for good governance and economic growth.
The former NBA president also asked the judges to avoid being laid back in cases brought before them in courts, saying case determination in developed world has moved from “administrative judgment” to “case management.”