How have we come to this? Why has a country with a long history of excellence in the legal profession suddenly become a haven for criminals where white-collar crooks saunter around brazenly, blatantly assaulting our collective sight with the proceeds of their crimes?
Within the last 10 months, two of Nigeria’s most infamous crooks were finally brought to justice and convicted of their various criminal acts against the people of Nigeria. James Ibori is currently a long-term tenant in one of Her Majesty’s prisons after being sentenced to 13 years imprisonment for various money laundering offences by a London Court in April 2012, whilst Henry Okah has now been convicted of masterminding the October 1, 2010 bombing that took place in Abuja in which many people were killed.
The tragedy for our country’s criminal justice system (CJS), however, is that rather than beating its chest in celebratory achievement for performing its routine statutory mandate, it has to look askance as foreign prosecuting agencies in foreign countries took centre stage in meticulously bringing to justice Nigerian crooks who committed grave crimes on Nigerian soil.
How have we come to this? Why has a country with a long history of excellence in the legal profession suddenly become a haven for criminals where white-collar crooks saunter around brazenly, blatantly assaulting our collective sight with the proceeds of their crimes? Why is Nigeria, a country which had in the past exported prosecutors, judges and chief justices to many other countries and produced president of the World Court; and a country which still has so many excellent lawyers with sharp, forensic legal minds advancing the course of criminal justice in the UK, US, and all the various international criminal tribunals, now finds itself in a situation where criminals now realise that as long as they remain within the shores of Nigeria, they can rely on the prosecuting agencies and our courts to help them in proving their innocence beyond reasonable doubt?
The answer, of course, lies squarely on the shoulders of those saddled with the responsibility of formulating our criminal justice policy. We continue to use 19th century legal frameworks to prosecute 21st century crimes and criminals. Save for Lagos state, our criminal procedural regimes (at federal and state levels) are archaic and patently unfit for purpose. The federal attorney-general and his various state counterparts should make reforming our CJS, particularly our procedural regimes – both criminal and civil – their top priority. For the constraint of space, this writer will focus on two areas in need of very urgent reform.
(1) Lack of strict case management regimes
Countries which are serious about fighting crimes have always found a formula which blends fairness with speed in the dispensation of criminal justice. This they do by establishing robust and necessarily rigid case management system (CMS) which brooks no undue delay on the part of either the prosecution or the defence. Parties must disclose their cases, evidence and witness list to the court and other parties within designated timeframe.
There are usually grave consequences for non- compliance. Subsequently, with the help of the disclosures by the parties which would have revealed the amount of witnesses required and documents to be considered as exhibits during the trial, the courts will then fix the trial timetable and nothing short of serious injury or death or other such serious unanticipated occurrence that might adversely impact on the fairness of the trial will make the court extend the trial beyond the fixed trial timetable. However, in Nigeria, if there is any semblance of ad-hoc CMS at all, parties feel free to treat it with contempt. Recent comment attributed to Festus Keyamo, a well-known advocate, underlines the lackadaisical attitude of Nigeria’s lawyers to the imperative of a robust and time-bound CMS.
Keyamo has issued a press statement condemning the conviction of Henry Okah by the South African court, saying the conviction was politically motivated. Keyamo, who is defending Henry Okah’s brother, Charles, who is charged with identical offences and is being tried by an Abuja court, states that he recently wrote to the South African court that some of Charles’ witnesses in Nigeria wanted to testify for Henry in the Johannesburg trial. Keyamo is angry that the South African court disregarded his application and proceeded to deliver judgment on the case. On this basis, Keyamo condemned the trial even though it is unclear what would have been his locus in the South African trial and whether Henry’s counsel actually shared Keyamo’s decision to proffer additional witnesses in South Africa. Henry Okah has been in detention since October 2010. Case management hearings would have been conducted in which Henry would have provided the court with a list of his witnesses. Why did Keyamo wait until two weeks ago to notify the South African Court of these witnesses? Curiously, Keyamo stated that some of these witnesses are Nigeria’s own government officials, and the question immediately arises: why would government officials be willing to give (presumably) positive evidence in support of Okah in a trial being effectively prosecuted by South African government on behalf of Nigerian government? If Nigerian government officials are Charles Okah’s witnesses, why are we going through the charade of prosecuting Charles in Abuja then?
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.