Barristers & Solicitors
‘Nigerian Criminal Justice System Collapsing’

Stakeholders at one-day legal roundtable/symposium by a social advocacy organisation, held in Port Harcourt,  Rivers state, have observed that the criminal justice system of Nigeria is at the verge of collapsing.

The stakeholders decried the deteriorating state of the institutions in Nigeria, stressing the urgent need to salvage the country of anything that could lead to the collapse of legal system, which according to them is the last hope of the common man.

 The programme which was organised by the Olympus Marino Deck of the National Association of Seadogs (NAS), Pyrates Confraternity, was an annual event in commemoration of the illegal arrest, and detention for over two months, of some of their members in February 18th, 1997 by the then military government.

In his keynote address at the event, a Lagos state based private legal practitioner, Inibehe Effiong,  urged the government to invest in the institutions of the country for proper and effective service delivery.

Effiong, who narrated his ordeal in detention following an unjust order, stressed that the criminal justice system of the country is in the shadow of itself.

He explained that in a situation where the president of the country could not respect the order of the apex court in the country, it poses the fear that if no serious attention and rehabilitation is given to the legal system, the ordinary man might begin to resort to self help in defense of their right.

Effiong said: “The Nigerian Criminal Justice System has collapsed because we have a system that is supposed to be criminal justice system but has very largely become criminal itself, justice is no longer there.

“From my own encounter with the law, many Nigerians who have been arrested for one reason or the other by the police, arraign in court or police station, in most cases justice is not really done, their rights are not respected and this violation is not only at the police station, as I explained even within the judiciary there litany of deficiencies that have impeded the justice system.

“The right of people to have proper legal representation, right to fair hearing is not really protected in our court the way it ought to be protected. For example, the right to speedy trial, to have one’s case determined within a reasonable time. That is a constitutional right, that Section 36 of our constitution recommended”.

He narrated: “When I was in the custodial centre, formerly called prison, I saw countless Nigerians who have been in custody, been detained in prison for years awaiting trial. I saw people that no longer has court files that their case cannot even be traced. People that have been forgotten, people that have died possibly unaccounted for. I saw these things with my eyes and then the way inmates are treated from accommodation to feeding, to medical care. It is horrible.

“For me, I cannot just say the system is bad, it has collapsed and except we approach it with that seriousness and we acknowledge the rot, how terrible the condition is, we are just deceiving ourselves. Because for the inmates who are there, most of them do not believe there is anything called justice, most of them have lost hope in the court system.

“This is what I saw with my eyes and that is why I am advocating for institutional reforms, adequate funding from the police, to the court and to the correctional service, they need to invest heavily to substantially in our criminal justice.”

Speaking on President Muhammadu Buhari’s refusal to adhere to the order of the apex court on the new notes policy, Effiong stressed: “What the president did undermining the Supreme Court Order on the new notes policy was impunity.

“If you look at Section 287 (1) of our constitution, it states that the decision of the supreme court shall have binding force, shall be binding on all authorities and persona throughout the federation, including the president. So, whether he agrees with the Supreme Court or not, he ought to have respected the order of the Supreme Court.

“As a matter of fact, we are saying that the president has disobeyed the order of the Supreme Court which is a federal court, the governors have hijacked the state court, the governors have suffocated the state courts, the governors have taken independent out of our state courts. Most of our state courts today, cannot function except at the instance of the governors.

“The danger is that when you disobey the highest court of the country, you are sending a wrong massage that the judiciary is ineffective. So people can then resort to self help. They may not have to go to court when their rights are infringed, they may want to take the law into their hands because they know the court can make an order and to be violated. It pains me to see our highest court order be ridiculed.”

Effiong however, re-emphasised on the need for government “to invest in the criminal justice system from the police, law enforcement generally, to the court, the judiciary, the structures, the mechanism, the funding, the welfare of our judicial officers and the correctional service. Our present facilities are collapsing, we need to build, equip them with basic infrastructure, give inmates food that supposed to be fed to human beings not what they are feed currently that even animals are not even supposed to consume.”

In his remarks, Abiola Owoaje, NAS Capoon, said the theme for this year’s symposium “Democracy and the Criminal Justice system in Nigeria”, was properly selected following the state of the criminal justice system in the country.

Owoaje stated that despite the experience of the NAS members who were imprisoned unjustly by the military government, it continued to happen in the democratic era where it is expected to have a free and fair justice system.

According to the NAS Capoon “What we found is that this impunity just as it explained today, starts from the security agencies ride up to top government officials, where court judgement was given and federal government refused to comply and we have people who are still languishing in court today despite the fact that court has already asked them to be released either on bail or otherwise.

“So, these are some of the things that have manifested in government. Supreme Court has made a statement, the federal government has countered the order of the Supreme Court.

“Unfortunately, our institutions are very weak whereby, you will not find any police officer or security agencies officials working in court that will go and arrest such government officials who has committed such impunity.

“We have very weak institutions that are supposed to get upholding the law but they are not. They are filled with people who are not ready to uphold the justice system in the country.”

He noted that the  only way to grow the country properly is to ensure that justice reign supreme above all other things and also to ensure that things are also stabilise the country. “The element of impunity that is prevalent in our institutions should be doused and removed completely. The common man does not see a recourse to justice because of the impunity that reigns.”

THISDAY