By Okechukwu Ebirim
There is no gainsaying the fact that the principles of human rights as declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as well as other Continental documents like the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights have been at the core of defining civilized existence since the twentieth century. Various constitutional documents around the world including the various Constitutions of Nigeria and presently the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) have enshrined some of these rights and enabled the enactment of procedures for the enforcement of these rights.
Indeed, these rights have been said to be guaranteed by the state for all of its citizens with a view to protecting the said citizens from the overarching powers of the state and the uneven capacity of the populace to protect themselves in their interactions inter se. Hence the gamut of these rights operate both vertically in the protection of the citizens from being overawed by the State and her institutions as well as horizontally in the protection of citizens from the oppression of their fellow citizens that have greater access to certain privileges and advantages.
Hence these rights were designed to put in check, the Hobbesian state of nature where life was short, nasty and brutish and wherein survival was for the fittest. Each individual is then subjected to respect the rights of others and not to take unfair advantage of the less privileged members of the society. Thus the rights to life, liberty, personal dignity, fair hearing, free speech, free assembly, freedom of religion, free press, private property, access to court among others are preserved to inure to all persons and safeguarded from their unfair abridgement by any persons or authority
The Courts have always been the arbiter, enforcer and safeguard of these rights. Hence it will not be preposterous to posit that the existence of these human rights are only as meaningful as the procedures for their enforcement. These procedures are only as effective as the Courts make them. Consequently, the rights enumerated in Chapter 4 of the 1999 Constitution only exist in the Courts without more. It is also the postulation of this piece that access to court is at the fulcrum of the existence of fundamental rights in any constitutional state. While the enforcement of fundamental rights have only been seen from the narrow prism of the rules made under the hand of the Chief Justice of Nigeria under the Fundamental Rights Enforcement Procedure Rules, this piece calls for the enlargement of the scope of the enforcement sphere. We posit that the effectiveness of court procedures for the grant of bail are also at the heart of rights protection and enforcement.
A situation where citizens prefer to be subjected to all manner of abuses at the hands of law enforcement agents just to avoid being charged to court due to the rigour associated with securing court bail makes nonsense of the fundamental rights of citizens. While the courts have an onerous duty to ensure that the grounds for grant of bail are properly met as enunciated in a plethora of case law such as Bamaiyi v. The State (2001) 8 NWLR (pt. 715) p. 270 and Eyu v. State (1988) 2 NWLR (pt. 78) 602, the speed and terms associated with bail are very critical for protection of fundamental rights of citizens. At stake during the assessment of a citizen’s application for bail are some of the most critical of the entire fundamental rights namely: the rights to liberty, personal dignity, fair hearing and access to court and sometimes in the Nigerian context, the right to life itself.
It is highly imperative that a not only thorough but speedy mechanism should be put in place to assess the conditions of bail for persons charged to court. Not a few persons are charged to court on some very frivolous facts while others end up in the dock to answer to some anachronistic colonial era charge through which a certain interested person has chosen to show clout and influence or ‘deal with someone’ in the Nigerian parlance. Other persons are charged for purely non-violent matters, some of which are purely civil in nature but twisted into criminal conduct. There are still several classes of persons that are arraigned on zero evidence of some high sounding crimes and are committed to prison on holding charges out of deference to the prosecuting authority or simply held for undue length of time in their struggle to perfect bail conditions.
It is the concern of this piece that our legal system must evolve to see through a lot of the foregoing scenarios and ensure that citizens are never afraid of being charged to court particularly where such charges have been brought frivolously or due to some subversion of the law enforcement mechanism. Making rules and issuing practice directions to ensure that bail is not only accessible but that the terms of bail are speedily attainable for the citizenry ought to be made a critical part of the fundamental rights enforcement mechanism in this country. Sadly, not a few lawyers themselves have also become victims of the present system where they practically have to grovel and get humiliated at the hands of law enforcement agents just to extricate their clients from unwarranted arrests and the high handedness of some personnel of these agencies. There must therefore be a remarkably significant and dignified difference in the administration of Court bail being a critical fulcrum for the protection of human rights in Nigeria. Time must therefore be considered to be of the essence not only in the grant of bail but the opportunity to perfect same.
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