Published On: Wed, May 10th, 2017

On justice sector reforms

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By Sesugh Akume

The Nigerian justice system requires a thorough reform and in fact reconstruction from scratch, but it’s not more the laws, rules, statutes, procedures that first need to be fixed, it’s first the people operating the system. That’s where the real rot lies. I shall illustrate with one example to underscore this point.
In the first place, the principle of the rule of law means that every individual and institution is equal before the law, but in Nigeria it’s clear that the law is skewed in favour of the high and mighty, and it has always been so. As far back as 1967, Oba Cladius Dosa Akran then finance minister for the Regional Government of Western Nigeria, and Prince Adeleke Ademiluyi, chairman of Western Nigeria Development Corporation were sentenced to prison for just 7 years each for outright stealing £504,750. The judge Justice Kayode Eso ensured that the oba’s term was without hard labour. The context must be made clear, £504,750 was 2.4% of the £21 million budget for the enter Western region for 1966 which is what 2 men stole, tell me about when Nigeria was great again. Yet, I know of someone who got 45 years for stealing a phone! John Yakubu Yusuf the police pension thief who stole 33 billion naira, was given 2 years or a fine of 750,000 naira which he paid and went home.
James Ibori facing criminal trial for defrauding Delta state when he served for 8 years as governor was declared guiltless in all the Nigerian courts he was arraigned. In fact, Justice Marcel Awokulehin of the Federal High Court Asaba said Ibori had no case to answer in the 170-count charge brought before him, and so was acquitted. It’s this very same James Onanefe Ibori who himself pleaded guilty to a 10-count charge of defrauding Delta state before a British court, was sentenced and served a prison term. What is the difference between the Nigerian and British system that produced vastly different results in the same matter involving the same individual? It’s the people operating the system, their personal values, and the philosophy that drives the way the reason and operate.
Ibori’s lawyer (and accomplice) Bhadresh Gohil had earlier been sentenced to prison by the same court. Judge Anthony Pitts of the Southwark Crown Court in his judgement said to him, ‘You were a solicitor of the Supreme Court and holding out as a man of integrity… You have brought shame on your family, your profession and your country.’ How many Nigerian judges do you know see things this way? How many will look a fellow Big Man in the eye and say this? After Gohil was sentenced, it was clear to Ibori that the prosecution had done such a thorough job that he needed not waste the court’s precious time, he pleaded guilty.
The Metropolitan Police, the prosecuting counsel, and everyone involved went all out diligently. No hype, no media trials, no stone unturned. The other argument of the prosecution was that James Ibori was a petty thief who had earlier had run-ins with the law being jailed in London in 1991 should for no reason have been allowed to run for governorship, much less become a governor which allowed him to steal more mightily. His Nigerian lawyer, Alex Izinyon, SAN began a silly argument in defence, the sort of chicanery they get away with in Nigeria, and in fact judges rely on to give judgements in their favour, to which Judge Pitt told him clearly that what he was saying made no sense. In Nigeria, the judge, the one facing trial, his high-priced lawyer usually a senior advocate, are all friends, belong to one class, possibly belong to some social or leisure club, and therefore owe each other unalloyed allegiance. They collectively ‘own’ the system they operate for their exclusive benefit. The Big Man defence always goes scot-free or gets a ‘soft landing’. This philosophy and operating mindset has to be pulled down and destroyed with a proper one methodically reconstructed.
Typically in Nigerian courts criminal cases are first mentioned before civil cases. The accused persons in jail are usually brought in by prisons officials most times late for various excuses, maybe because it rained or something, after their matter must have been already called in their absence and adjourned till whenever. They’re then taken back only for the same thing to repeat the next time. And nobody faces any consequences for this.
We need Renewal. We absolutely need it. At ANRP (Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party) we envision and are working towards an entire justice system (both substantive and social justice system) and value chain that treats everyone equally, justly, fairly, humanely, with dignity, and professionally; lawyers know their limits and the consequences of crossing them with technicalities and shenanigans, judges fear no one, and owe no one any favours or loyalty, the system is modern and dynamic. We foresee and are working towards a time when judgments are balanced, deep, cerebral, and evoke confidence such that including British courts seek the judgements to study and apply. We’re working towards when the entire justice architecture will not be hinged only on what is legal according to the book, but more importantly what is morally right, just, proper, fair, equitable, and builds for us a great society giving life and meaning to the spirit of the eternal words of Nigeria’s first indigenous lawyer Christopher Alexander Sapara Williams (born in 1855, enrolled in 1888, died in 1915) that, ‘A lawyer lives in the direction of his people and the advancement of the cause of his country.’

Sesugh Akume is a Public Policy Analyst.

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