For democracy to thrive in Nigeria, many analysts are of the view that a reform of the criminal justice system is imperative. Davidson Iriekpen writes
For the Nigerian judiciary, last week was not particularly a good one when news filtered in that Head of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Mr. Henry Okah, had been convicted in South Africa over acts relating to terrorism. Okah was found guilty on a 13-count charge by a Johannesburg High Court judge, Neels Claassen, for masterminding the 2010 Independent Day twin car bombings that killed 12 people in Abuja.
Across the country, the conviction in South Africa ignited a passion of hate for Nigeria's judiciary. From both the young and old; the analytical and armchair, the feeling was that entire judicial system in the country should be sacked and replaced with foreigners.
To them, if Okah had been charged for the same offence in Nigeria, the matter would not have neared conviction stage as at now. For instance, Okah's brother, Charles and some other persons were arrested and arraigned for the same offence in Nigeria but the matter is still proceeding at very slow pace until last week when one of the suspects was convicted. But this was because he opted for a separate trial.
Many analysts drew attention to the recent conviction and sentencing of former Governor of Delta State, Chief James Ibori, by a London court for money laundering and the recent ruling by the same London that the former Managing Director of the defunct Intercontinental Bank, Erastus Akingbola should refund over $600 million he fraudulently laundered through Access Bank Plc. They concluded that the foreign convictions raise a plethora of questions: that the Nigerian criminal justice system is so handicapped that such persons cannot be prosecuted in the country. These two personalities and many others standing trial in the country have not been convicted.
Observers have, therefore, accused the Nigerian justice system of being sentimental and political in its disposition, particularly in cases involving influential persons. As a result, analysts have concluded that the time had come for a thorough upgrading of Nigeria's criminal justice system, to save it the shame of washing its dirty linens in the public.
No doubt, one of the areas that require urgent transformation in the country is the justice sector, especially the criminal justice system. The system is of prime importance in the life of Nigeria. The concepts of democracy, rule of law, protection of human rights, security, economic development and foreign investment cannot be sustained without a reliable and dependable criminal justice delivery system. The reality is that there is a general consensus that the criminal justice system is weak and therefore not well equipped to play this role.
In whatever context one chooses to look at the criminal justice system and at any level, the problems are legion: over populated prisons, lengthy trials, abuse and violation of fundamental human rights, among others. States have queried the propriety of having prisons and the police under federal control when majority of the crimes committed are state offences. The issue of amnesty/state pardon has of recent, sparked some controversy between the state and federal governments.
Since the country returned to civil rule in May 1999, legislative proposals to reform criminal procedure, evidence and prisons have continued to languish in the National Assembly.
It is believed that one of the greatest inhibitions to an effective criminal justice system in the country is the police. With pervasive crime, the people are believed to have lost confidence in the country's security. Ill-equipped in materials, manpower and logistics, the police are seen as ineffective in successfully discharging their cardinal functions of detecting and preventing crimes as well as arresting offenders.
Sometimes, even when it is not hamstrung in this way, the police have often failed to perform their constitutional functions due to lack of devotion to duty.
Often, when members of the public raise distress calls or report crimes at the police stations, the police allude to such as excuses for failing to respond. Besides, corrupt and mean tendencies of the police do not inspire confidence in the public. The police are known, in some cases, to have collected bribes and released suspects who returned to the society to take revenge on those who reported them to the police.
This is why a cross section of Nigerians sees the conviction of Okah as an embarrassment to the country. Chairman, Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Ikeja Branch, Mr. Onyekachi Ubani, called for the overhauling of the nation's justice system in order to speed up the dispensation of criminal cases in the country.
Ubani said a major lesson Nigeria ought to learn from Okah's conviction was how to fast track the dispensation of justice in its legal system. He said the Nigeria justice system was slow, ineffective and inefficient to meet the wishes and aspirations of the Nigerian people.
"Former Delta State governor, James Ibori, was jailed by a United Kingdom Court, whereas the crime was committed in Nigeria. Now, Okah has been convicted by a South African Court for an offence also committed in Nigeria. This shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with our criminal justice system and it needs to be overhauled," Ubani said.
Also, a Lagos-based lawyer, Mr. Oladipo Sofola (SAN), attributed the situation to the well grounded criminal justice system in those countries.
"The criminal justice system in those countries is so well grounded that you cannot find the courts being manipulated by anybody of whatever nomenclature," he said, adding that Nigeria justice system is sometimes faced with sentiments and political manipulations, particularly in cases involving the politically influential.
"Most prosecutors do not possess the nerve to investigate some of these offences to logical ends," Sofola noted. He said if Nigeria was to be seen as a diligent nation, there must be no class distinction in the prosecution of cases. He pointed out that the provisions of the law must be implemented to the fullest without having recourse to class sentiments.
On his part, Mr. Adefemi Balogun (SAN) said Nigeria has come of age not to continuously allow itself to be spoon-fed. "Nigeria must now brace to pull the bull by the horns. If the country cannot diligently prosecute offenders, it means that our status as an independent nation is not befitting."
Balogun said the conviction of Okah sends a wrong signal to other nations that culprits could go scot-free in Nigeria with their misdeeds. He, therefore, espoused that the country needed a rebirth of its criminal justice system, especially as regards diligent prosecution of crimes.
Another lawyer, also based in Lagos, Mr. Ogedi Ogu, said the convictions of Okah and Ibori point to the fact that the Nigerian criminal justice system is handicapped. He said the time has come for a thorough upgrading of Nigeria's criminal justice system, to save it the shame of washing its dirty linens in the public.
In the same vein, a non-governmental organization, Human Rights Writers' Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), described Okah's conviction as the greatest indictment for non-performance and corruption of Nigeria's judicial system.
It called on the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Maryam Alooma Mukhtar, to extensively and comprehensively roll out pragmatic reform agenda for the near-moribund court system to save Nigeria's constitutional democracy from imminent collapse.
In a statement by its National Coordinator, Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko and the National Director of Media Affairs, Miss. Zainab Yusuf, the group said Nigeria's twin evil of high crime rate and corruption in public offices have become problematic because the institution of the judiciary has become increasingly weighed down by corruption, incompetence and compromise by officials paid with tax payers money to run the justice sector.
"The conviction of Okah in South Africa calls for deeper retrospection and introspection and definitely represents the clearest indictment so far of the corrupt and near-moribund Nigeria's judicial court system that has consistently failed to execute the constitutionally guaranteed role enshrined in section 6 of the 1999 Constitution ( as amended).
"The other day, former Governor of Delta State, Mr. James Ibori was convicted in the United Kingdom for fraudulently amassing wealth from the public till whilst he presided over for eight years as the governor even when a specially created Federal High Court, Asaba found him not guilty of these huge and monumental crimes against the state and now the South African court has returned a verdict against Henry Okah in record time.
"Even when several high profile terrorism related cases are still pending in different Federal High Courts in parts of Nigeria and so many of these cases have suffered unmitigated delay due to lack of diligent prosecution, the rest of Nigerians are still being bombarded by targeted bomb attacks of terrorists. This is a sad commentary that must be redressed immediately."