Onyekachi Ubani is the second vice president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and the welfare committee chairman of the association. In this interview, he suggests that to overcome the many teething challenges with the adoption and implementation of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) by states of the federation, aspects of the law could be adopted one after another.
There is the suggestion that the high number of death row prison inmates is because governors are either not signing their execution or exercising the prerogative of mercy?
There is no law presently because they have not amended the law to read that if one is convicted to capital offence they should not be executed. If one is convicted for murder, armed robbery or treason, it is capital punishment. Our laws have not been amended. So, in the absence of any amendment, the governors are not in liberty not to execute those that the court has actually sentenced to death as a means of decongesting the prisons.
So, it is better to obey what the law says rather than disobeying the laws of the land. So, I am totally in support of doing what the laws says. If the law says execute, you execute. If the law says commute, you commute. For now, it is the execution. So, the governors must carry that out or they should seek for an amendment of the law in order to escape carrying out the responsibility with regards to death sentence.
As being contended, is Nigeria’s criminal justice system skewed against the poor?
The truth is that it is because the poor do not have the resources to hire the best lawyers. Even where they receive the pro bono services and others yet they don’t get the best in terms of defence. So, most times they have issues of being victims of the system. If it is issue of bail, they are given impossible conditions they cannot even fulfil.
Then you find that in the criminal justice system, when it is cases involving ‘lesser beings’ it becomes smooth and within a short possible time, judgment is given. But when it involves the very top shots in Nigeria, I think that we usually apply different systems of law and before you know it, the status of the case is lost on all of us. You don’t even know how it has gone or whether judgment has been delivered.
So, we need to reform the system and ensure that our laws apply both to the rich and the poor. The same alacrity and efficiency that the state employs in trying a top person should be the same employed to try the poor. And I am happy with the current reforms by the CJN giving marching others to the heads of the judiciary to ensure that adequate attention is given to corruption cases. The NJC has been trying to ensure that judges live up to expectations to deliver timely judgments. So, there must be concerted efforts by all stakeholders.
How do you think the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) will implement its plan to have 28 more states adopt the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA)?
The Administration of Criminal Justice Act was enacted in 2015 at the federal level. Before then, states like Lagos have already enacted theirs in 2011. Other states like Anambra, Enugu and few others have actually adopted theirs in various forms. We have 28 states that have not complied with that reform. This reform in the criminal justice system is very important for the development of this country with regards to our criminal justice sector.
We have had issues of unnecessary delays in criminal trials especially, involving politically exposed peoples for eight years on preliminary matters, not even the substantive issues. So, we must reform our criminal justice system and every state must key into this arrangement. That some states have not actually keyed in is one of the issues that is bothering the NBA. The NBA in conjunction with the MacArthur Foundation is trying to ensure that all the states of the federation must adopt the criminal justice system.
And I am very happy to report that most of the states that came said they are already working on that law and are being helped to put it in place. Now they are not saying they should copy everything the Federal Government has enacted. They need to actually make sure that their law has some peculiarities on whatsoever is prevalent in their own states. You adopt, include those peculiarities and correct the defects you have observed before the enactment of the law. That is actually the message that the NBA seminar had to drive home. Those states that were not yet complying were all there and they made promises of adopting the law.
The states are yet to grant financial autonomy to the judiciary, how do you see them running this capital-intensive system with electronic recordings, community service etc?
It is the political will to carry out these things. You may not actually address all the problems at the same time. Even the states that adopted the law came and gave account of some of the teething problems they are facing in the implementation of the law. You have the issue of finance, basic infrastructure; even the police not complying with the law itself.
So, the point is that those problems are still there and may not go away. Those problems should not in any way hinder the adoption in the first place. Let’s even adopt and then begin to address some of the teething problems one after the other; you may not solve those problems at the same time. But if we begin to use those teething problems as an excuse not to adopt the law then we have not made any progress at all.