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Comment & analysis

Nigeria's judiciary: A messy state

Sabella Ogbobode Abidde

2010-04-22, Issue 478

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Once a respected and professional example of high legal standards around the world, the Nigerian judiciary has now entirely lost its way, writes Sabella Ogbobode Abidde. The judiciary is plagued by lost case files, tampered evidence and inmates seemingly locked up indefinitely, Abidde stresses, a picture of decline that mirrors that of Nigerian society as a whole.

As flawed as successive Nigerian constitutions have been, they have always, in theory at least, provided for an independent judiciary. In practice, however, this has not always been the case, especially in the last two decades. In the 1950s, through the early part of the 1980s, the Nigerian judiciary was, for the most part, a world-class institution. Lawyers were well-trained, well-behaved and well-versed in the art and science of the law. When you saw a lawyer, especially on the streets of Lagos, Ibadan and Port Harcourt, you knew you were before a man or woman of high standing.

And when you heard a lawyer speak, you would think he or she invented both the English and the legal languages. And so it was that in the Nigeria of my youth, many friends wanted to be lawyers, and ultimately judges, especially of the Supreme Court. And why not? Consider this list: Adetokunbo Adegboyega Ademola (1958–72); Taslim Olawale Elias (1972–75); Darnley Arthur Alexander (1975–79); Atanda Fatai Williams (1979–83); and George Sodeinde Sowemimo (1983–85). Chief Justice Ayo Irikefe (1985–87) and Salihu Moddibo Alfa Belgore (1995–2006) are later additions.

Some Nigerian lawyers and judges went on to serve with distinction across sub-Saharan Africa. And more than a few went on to serve at various United Nations posts. Justice Taslim Elias, for instance, went on to become the president of the International Court of Justice (commonly referred to as the World Court). A few years later, he also became a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. Whether as lawyers, judges, educators or as administrators, Nigerians went on to become some of the greatest legal minds at home and abroad. In addition, legal communities in and outside of the African continent came to study the Nigerian legal system.

In the last two and a half decades however, the Nigerian judiciary has been plagued by problems and intractable challenges: troubles and challenges brought on by post-1975 military regimes and by the legislative and executive branches of government. Other contributing, insidious factors include: (a) the declining standard of legal education; (b) the entrenched social ills that continue to eat away at the nation’s moral fibres; (c) the changing nature of Nigerian society which, in some cases, no longer values the rule of law, ethics and morality; (d) the belief that anyone and anything can be bought, sold or compromised, including the law and those who interpret the law; and (e) the single-minded pursuit of money and material gain to the exclusion of noble ideas and ideals.

In any modern society, the judiciary and the fourth estate are the last bastion of what is good and decent and godly about humanity. One may argue that the executive branch matters, but not as much as the judiciary, and that the legislature matters, but not as much as the fourth estate. This is so because both branches of government may be occupied by half-baked men and women, but if the judiciary and the fourth estate are rotten, then the society has no hope for accountability and probity. The Nigerian fourth estate has been moribund for about two decades, and the judiciary is now comfortably rested alongside. What hope is there for Nigeria?

What this means is that one can hardly tell the judiciary apart from the other two braches of government or from the fourth estate. Today, as most can attest to, the Nigerian judiciary has become a chamber of corruption, inefficiency and depravities. The entire court system – from the customary and sharia courts through the state and federal court system and up to the apex court – the system has become, for the most part, buyable and sellable. It is a mess. The Nigerian judiciary is in a messy state!

Some have argued that the level of injustice within the Nigerian judiciary, in some cases, is way more than the level of injustice on the Nigerian streets. Case files are often stolen or lost or sold. Cases get postponed again and again and again and again. Investigating officers, court clerks and even judges may tamper with glaring evidence or the deserved justice. And indeed, the accused may get locked up for years that far exceed the number of years they would have spent if convicted.

One could spend hours cataloguing what is wrong with the Nigerian judiciary. Even so, it needs pointing out that most of what is wrong with the Nigerian justice system, in addition of earlier indictments, came about mostly because of the deficiencies within the Nigerian legal system, low pay for lawyers and judges, poor infrastructures and the residual effects of several decades of pounding and unholy inducement from the executive and the political class. In all of these, one cannot separate the judiciary from other sections of the Nigerian state and society, a state and society plagued by all manners of excesses, inefficiencies and deficiencies.

It is estimated that Nigeria has 227 prisons with a projected 60,000 registered inmates. The fact is that there are also illegal prisons in Nigeria, dungeons and gallows where political prisoners and 'enemies of government' are routinely held without the knowledge of family members. Frankly, no one really knows the number of people who are locked up in Nigeria. In February 2008, Amnesty International asserted that prisons in Nigeria are a 'national scandal', holding thousands of inmates who have not been legally convicted or inmates who have spent years, and even decades, awaiting trials – trials that may never come.

The government, at both the state and national level, along with the judiciary, are to be blamed for this messy state. How do you hold suspects for decades and decades without trial? Why postpone cases again and again and again to the point where there is no justice for the accused, or a sense of closure for the aggrieved? In addition, there are the issues of unsanitary condition and the inhumane treatments around and within the Nigerian prison system. Convicts deserve to be locked up if and when the courts say so, but whatever constitutional rights they are entitled to must still be respected.

The 2008 Amnesty International report went on to say that 'The judiciary fails to ensure that all inmates are tried within reasonable time; indeed, most inmates wait years for a trial. When inmates are convicted, most courts do not inform them of their right to appeal. Nor does the judiciary guarantee that all suspects are offered legal representation. Few of the courts take the necessary steps to end the use of evidence elicited as a result of torture. In breach of national and international law, the judiciary does not guarantee fair trial standards even in the case of minors.' What system of justice is this, if there is an iota of justice at all?

There is something else: For the most part, the Nigerian judiciary has not been very helpful in resolving most of the electoral disputes in Nigeria. It is common knowledge that some disputed cases take two to three years to resolve. For instance, 'It took 3 years to decide the Ngige/Obi gubernatorial tussle and Emordi senatorial tussle. Yet both governorship and senatorial tenures are 4 years!' In the same vein, it took more than two years to resolve the Buhari–Obasanjo electoral disputes. Considering this and many other vexing issues, one can only conclude that the Nigerian judiciary has lost its way.


* Dr Sabella Ogbobode Abidde is with the Department of Humanities at Alabama State University. Outside of the academy, he is a noted public intellectual who has written extensively on African and global affairs. He can be reached at [email protected].
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

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