Monday 7 July 2008

Nigeria: Reforming the Justice System

All for the dime

Almost twenty years ago, I had just returned from England on a business trip where I had acquired computer systems for our fledgling desktop publishing business in which I was part-owner and technical director.

One of the things that gave that business promise was that another sister company of the many in the stable of my business partner, a lawyer, was a printing press, it meant project timelines were cut and we had considerable flexibility in the design process.

But like most Nigerians at home, there is this scattershot approach to business, they have to be involved in everything that makes a dime (kobo, Nigerian lowest coinage currency) rather than concentrate on the core abilities and direction that makes a well-earned dollar (Naira, Nigerian notaphily).

My business partner, say for simplicity sake, Alhaji, who was also a director in one of the largest old economy banks of the time and a Muslim decided to ride the wave of yuletide and entered into the Christmas card wholesale business.

Arrested on the whim

It was interesting to see how many hustlers came to him with all sorts of crazy ideas, he fancied himself some sort of venture capitalist, but this one was real crazy because it looked so lucrative that staff in the new company found to retail these cards pilfered some and sold off to other firms.

Alhaji, on finding out that he was being short-changed called in the police and cleared out all staff to the police cells regardless of which company they were working for – without the courtesy of even informing me that my staff have been incarcerated.

When I eventually found out the next morning, I visited the police station where I was told no charges had been filed and the release of my staff was quite possible and a silent pause that lasted a good few hours – I only communicated in English and despite my years in Nigeria, I had an accent that was neither West-Midlands nor purely Nigerian, it set me apart.

Big-man menace

One of my staff was able to negotiate the terms of release which included the payment of almost N500 (Naira) which was not recorded anywhere, I signed their release document that clearly stated in words, I had paid nothing to secure their release.

This was one of my experiences with the justice system in Nigeria, the ability for “big-men” to menace anyone they can with arrest, forgo the person to a system where the police rarely interview or investigate, but it starts the money ladder of negotiations that have seriously corrupted the system almost beyond repair.

The need for reform

Last week, I read in the Economist [Source – Nigeria | Do reform the justice system |] an article that acknowledged the interesting developments in the justice system in Nigeria but justice for the little man was still far off, in fact, from the Economist article, it appears things have worsened compared to 20 years ago.

The story starts with in a similar vein as the one I recount from experience, this time the accused spent time in police custody, got moved to jail and only got a hearing for bail after 4 months; it took 2 days to complete the paperwork and another N100,000 (Naira) to the police to help reduce the charges.

The Economist recognises that the once untouchable politicians are now more frequent guests in the court, electoral tribunals are delivering judgements once thought unattainable and there corporate responsibility suits being filed.

Starting with the police

The problem we all know starts with the police, who in the picture shown attacking a civilian, even about a year ago, officials from the EFCC [Source - Economic and Financial Crimes Commission - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia] swooped on an Internet cafe in Lagos, rather than carry out their legitimate function of charge and arrest, people were getting both physically and verbally abused unnecessarily.

People do not get read their rights or charged within a reasonable time frame as the system sinks into a corrupt mechanism that tugs at the desperation of the accused and their relations who out their scarce resources have to fork out amazing sums of money to oil the system.

The prisons are said to be over twice filled to capacity and the criminal justice system still grinds so slow that many may never see trial for years, if ever.

Lagos State to the fore

So, imagine my surprise when I read in one of the online newspapers that the Chief Judge of Lagos State has made it an offence to arrest the relations of a suspect [Source - Nigeria: 'Police Can Only Arrest Suspect, Not Relations'] in lieu of the suspect where the relations are not principals in the supposed allegation, accusation or crime.

One can understand that arresting relations can persuade the suspect to yield to the law but it is a classic case of mass punishment affecting the innocent in the quest for the suspect, it is a good step.

The announced reforms also include recording statements by video in absence of which statements should only be recorded in the presence of the suspect’s lawyer.

Suspects should be read their rights which include the right to remain silent, something we have lost in the United Kingdom and the suspect can exercise not to be questioned till legal services have been obtained.

A lot more in the bag – women can stand as surety

Other interesting developments are

  • All arrests and detentions without a warrant should be reported to a magistrate
  • Plea bargaining and sentence bargaining are available to both the prosecutor and defendant
  • Community service can be served instead of custodial sentences where appropriate
  • Citizen’s arrests can be made for people caught damaging public property – well, and what if arrest is resisted?
  • An application for the stay of proceedings would no longer be allowed to delay justice until a final judgement is given
  • Women can now stand as surety in their own recognisance – this is a laudable development
  • All magistrates shall no more be addressed Your Worship but now Your Honour

Must go to more Nigerians

Some readers might wonder how on earth we have never had these properly enshrined in law and funded accordingly, especially the video evidence part – these are a given in more advanced democracies. It is gratifying to see that an amalgam of British and American criminal justice initiatives appear in this reform process.

However, I do wonder if some of these measures would not complicate an already overworked bureaucracy introducing new toll gates for corrupt influence – the announcements have to have overseers that have the power to inspect, review and sanction those who flout the new laws.

The ability for women to stand as surety is a long overdue right which stands right with equality before the law, the recognition of women in Nigerian society still has long to go, but this must be applauded.

Finally, the federal system in Nigeria allows for laws to be enacted at state level, but why are these commonsense rules now introduced to the whole of Nigeria as federal laws and how would this sit with the unequal rights of women in states where they have the parallel Sharia legal system?

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