On August 27, Chad sentenced 10 Boko Haram members to death on terror charges after a three-day trial. The convicts were executed by firing squad two days after. Will such swift trial be possible in Nigeria? But, there is hope that things may improve with the new Administration of Criminal Justice Act of 2015, writes JOSEPH JIBUEZE.
In June, twin bomb attacks rocked N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, Nigeria’s ally in the battle against terror. Dead were at least 38 people.
The attacks were the first by Boko Haram militants in Chad, which hosts the headquarters of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a regional force set up to fight the insurgents.
The trial of those arrested in connection with the June attacks was to last for eight days, but due to security reasons, it was accelerated. The country, it was learnt, did not want to be hobbled by any delay.
On August 27, about two months after the attack, 10 Boko Haram members were convicted over their roles in the act. They were found guilty of criminal conspiracy, killings, wilful destruction with explosives, fraud, illegal possessions of arms and ammunition, and using psychotropic substances.
Two days after their conviction, they were executed.
The executions were the first application of death penalty in Chad since the country declared a moratorium in 2003. Expectedly, the coalition of opposition forces and civil liberties groups criticised the new anti-terror legislation, saying it could be used to suppress civil rights.
The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Office raised concern about the speed with which the executions were carried out. Its spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly wondered whether those executed “had access to lawyers and were able to appeal against their death sentence.”
The UN agency also called on Chad to review its anti-terrorism law which it says contains a very vague definition of terrorism, which may not be legal internationally, and potentially could put many people at risk of execution.
The Nigerian experience
There have also been some relatively convictions of insurgents in Nigeria. For instance, in December 2013, Boko Haram kingpin Kabiru Umar (a.ka. Sokoto) was sentenced to life imprisonment over the December 25, 2011 bombing of St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Madalla, Niger State.
His trial lasted eight months, having been arraigned on April 19, 2013. He was, however, kept in detention for about a year following his re-arrest in February 2012.another Boko Haram member – Mustapha Umar – who bombed a plaza, housing the offices of some newspapers in Kaduna. He was jailed for life on November 15, 2013, having been arraigned on February 5, 2013. His conviction came almost a year after his arrest in April 2012.
On October 1, last year, the Federal High Court in Lagos sentenced three Boko Haram members – Ali Mohammed, Adamu Karumi, Ibrahim Usman – to 25 years imprisonment each. Their trial lasted for 11 months as they were arraigned on November 27, 2013.
The suspects, arrested at Lekki Phase I and at Ijora Oloye, Apapa-Iganmu, Lagos, were charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism, illegal possession of firearms, including three packets of explosive construction pipes, 15 detonators and 11 AK-47 rifles with 30 rounds of live ammunition, and for being members of a proscribed organisation.
However, thousands of Boko Haram suspects have been in detention for years. For instance, on September 7, 2010, there was a jail break at the Bauchi prison following an attack by 50 gunmen, suspected to be insurgents. No fewer than 721 prisoners escaped and majority of the inmates were allegedly involved in a sectarian violence in 2009. Some of them were later re-arrested.
There was also controversy over where to keep the rising number of arrested insurgents. A plan to relocate 47 of them to prison facilities in Ekwulobia in Anambra State and Calabar in Cross River State, sparked a huge outrage.
Endless corruption trials
Several high-profile corruption cases have been stalled due to frequent adjournments, interlocutory appeals, weak prosecution, judges’ transfer and other deliberate ploys to delay justice.
Courts halt trials while interlocutory appeals are decided by higher courts. ‘Skilled’ defence lawyers exploit this to secure months, or even years of delays in any given case.
The cases of some former governors fall within this category. Other cases are frustrated due to transfer of judges, or their elevation to higher courts, in which case trials have to start afresh.
For instance, during the trial of former Intercontinental Bank Managing Director Erastus Akingbola, Justice Habib Abiru had adjourned till November 15, 2012, for the adoption of final written addresses. A date for judgment would have been fixed that day.
However, it was announced on November 2, 2012 that Justice Abiru had been elevated to the Court of Appeal. Akingbola was re-arraigned before Justice Adeniyi Onigbanjo on February 26, 2013. Again, the prosecution went through the process of recalling its witnesses, some of whom were no longer available.
It can take years for the Supreme Court to rule on interlocutory appeals. For instance, the Federal Government charged Mohammed, son of the late Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha, at the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court for receiving money stolen from the government’s coffers by his late father between 1995 and 1998.
The defendant sought to quash the charge on the ground that the immunity that his father enjoyed in office covered the acts which constituted the offence for which he (the son) was charged.
It took over 10 years for the Supreme Court to rule on the interlocutory appeal, numbered SC.40/2006.
Not long after the ruling, the Federal Government withdrew the N446.3 billion theft charge instituted against Abacha.
Interminable delays reduce the chances of ever concluding cases in a satisfactory manner. Witnesses lose interest. The public lose faith in the judiciary. Investors keep off.
In a web of corruption, investigating police officers are sometimes deliberately transferred outside of the states where the offences were committed. It is not unusual to hear prosecutors make excuses that witnesses could not attend court sessions, or could not be reached. Judges are also sometimes transferred to other divisions and cases must start de novo (afresh).
A frontline lawyer, Chief Afe Babalola (SAN) once said that corruption in the judiciary and the incompetence of some lawyers and judges work against quick justice delivery.
An ill-prepared lawyer will seek an adjournment at the first opportunity, and a judge who lacks the intellectual capacity to adjudicate a case will indulge such lawyers and adjourn even the simplest of rulings.
Intelligent lawyers and judges are not difficult to know but ill-prepared lawyers find excuses to seek an adjournment. Hardworking judges rule instantly on bail applications following a familiar template. The lazy ones will adjourn for two weeks or more. Some judges also sit very late, further causing delays. The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has vowed to report such judges to the National Judicial Council (NJC).
According to Babalola, before a judge can dispense justice, he must possess the necessary judicial qualities of integrity, deep knowledge of the law, honesty and a sense of justice itself. Unfortunately, many of them, he said, lack such qualities.
Most courts are burdened with antiquated physical and legal infrastructure that renders them extremely slow and inefficient. Lack of courtroom technology is also a challenge. Most judges still write in long hand.
In some states, lack of adequate number of courtrooms force judges to share spaces, alternating sitting times. This leads to unsecured storage of court documents, leading to “loss” of case files, and provides room for corruption.
Lack of adequate institutional reforms and modernisation; low investment in information and communication technology; lack of political will and commitment to a better society; use of archaic and outdated laws, procedures and processes that are riddled with loopholes are some of the problems the judiciary is faced with.
For instance, the 42-year-old Lagos Division of the Federal High Court on Oyinkan Abayomi Drive, Ikoyi can no longer cope with mordern realities. It is a tale of daily agony for lawyers, litigants and other court users.
To get a seat at the Federal High Court in Lagos, an interested party must arrive, at least an hour before the 9am resumption time.
To get a seat in court is a privilege that one must guard jealously, because all it takes to lose the seat is just to stand up for a moment.
For those who are able to get into the courtroom at all, it is best to remain till court rises for the day. It is not unusual to see lawyers standing outside for hours.
Some of the courtrooms are so small that the docks and the witness boxes, meant for accused persons and witnesses have been converted into file shelves. Accused persons now stand outside the dock.
Lawyers have to fight their ways through crowded corridors into the courtroom. And due to extremely fully dockets, most times the court is unable take all the cases listed for the day. The situation is worse anytime Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) have cases to argue. By the time they are done with, the day is far gone.
As a way out, an ultra-modern nine-storeycourthouse is being developed under at Bourdillon, Ikoyi, Lagos. The project, which began in 2012, is billed to be delivered next year and the judges are expected to relocate there. But, due to what is believed to be poor funding, the project is moving at snail’s speed.
Funding of the judiciary from the Federal Government has reportedly witnessed a steady decline since 2010, from N95 billion in that year to N85 billion in 2011, then N75 bilion in 2012 and dropped again in the 2013 budget to N67 billion. With the tumbling crude oil prices at the international market, the subventions may further shrink.
Commencement of criminal proceedings is usually complicated by issues of jurisdiction. Preliminary objections can be filed on the basis that the case ought to be tried at the state High Court rather than the Federal High Court, or at a special tribunal.
A charge can also be challenged because it was filed outside where an alleged crime occurred. Jurisdiction is very paramount in a case and often times, a lot of time is wasted on it before the proper commencement of the case.
To exhaust the complete remedy in a case from trial court to Supreme Court could take up to 20 years with the original litigants dead and substituted and in some cases, the substitutes also dead and substituted.
The process of interlocutory appeals aggravates the situation to the extent that by the time the Supreme Court decides that the case be continued in trial court, most of the witnesses might have died or are alive but senile, with documents no longer traceable.
Decrying this situation, Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Corruption Prof Itsay Sagay (SAN) said: “Another thing is that we now have a new genre of senior advocates, whose sole means of existence is to stall cases, especially corruption cases.
“And the way they stall cases is very simple: once the charges are filed, they look at the charge. Instead of tackling the charge and providing answers for the issues raised, they simply file a preliminary objection challenging the jurisdiction of the court to hear the case.
“And many judges, in my view, foolishly in the past, play along with these senior advocates. They abandon the main case and concentrate on the preliminary objection, which may take perhaps a year or two. Meanwhile, the substantive issue of corruption is suspended.
“When the judge finally arrives at the conclusion or judgment or ruling that he has the jurisdiction, the chap (defendant) appeals straightaway – still abandoning the substantive issue for the issue of jurisdiction – to the Court of Appeal. At the Court of Appeal, if he fails, he takes it to the Supreme Court.
“By the time the Supreme Court finally decides that the court has jurisdiction, 12 years or so might have elapsed. By then, the investigating police officer (prosecutor) is retired; the officials of the Ministry of Justice, who handled it (the case) at the early stages in the High Court, would have been promoted and the judges themselves could have retired.