By Udemezu Sylvester
The view has of late been canvassed that the Nigerian judicial system, by its very nature, constitutes a major hindrance to the war against corruption and other financial crimes in the country. It is said that when the corruption cases are taken to court, they experience all forms of applications that bring about delays and trying to tear up the cases.
The national identity card fraud case, whose trial has lasted more than four years now without the accused persons even admitting to enter into any defence, among others, is easily cited as an example. Some have even heaped the blame on the trial judges and the courts whom they allege collect huge sums of money as bribes in order to shield the suspects or kill or prolong the cases.
In view of these accusations, an examination, even if in a cursory manner, of the entire scenario has become necessary in order to verify to what degree the system of administration of justice in Nigeria has hindered the fight against graft in the country.
, I respectfully do not agree with the view that courts or judicial officers are to blame for the delay in concluding court cases in Nigeria. Anyone with a sound understanding of the working of the law and the Nigerian legal system would easily agree that in most instances of prolonged trials, the judgesâ€™ hands seem somehow tied.
In the first place, the Nigerian legal system is accusatorial and adversarial, and not inquisitorial â€“ it is a system in which the state must necessarily establish the guilt of the accused person by evidence independently and freely secured and may not by coercion prove its charge against an accused out of his own mouth. An accused person is thus presumed innocent unless and until his guilt is established beyond reasonable doubt before a court of law in line with the requirements of section 36 (5) of the Constitution.
Further, in Nigeria if a judge collects bribe in order to favour a party in a case, it will be sheer waste of time for the favoured party, as the case will soon move to the appeal courts – the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court – where the justice of the case is sure to be unravelled. At the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court where between three and seven justices sit at the same time over a case, it is difficult to pervert justice, at least in most cases.
There are palpable loopholes in the system of administration of justice in the country, which are more often than not explored by accused persons and their Counsel to their advantage, thus leading to protracted trials.
But one may raise the question, as George Washington once did, Will it not amount to an unjust and unwise jealousy to deprive a man of his natural liberty upon the supposition that he may abuse it? Again, some people have cited the age-long maxim, justice delayed is justice denied, to explain perceived difficulties in protracted trials, without adverting their minds to the fact that justice rushed is justice crushed.
Though prolonged trials may lead to death of key witnesses or disappearance of material evidence, which may ultimately defeat the justice of the case, it is nevertheless pertinent to call to mind the positive sides of such otherwise unfortunate delays.
First, by the time suspects and their lawyers are done with the so called â€œall manners of applicationsâ€ and judgment is finally delivered and sentence handed down, the suspect would have little or no cause to whinge over the proceedings and the result, having himself been afforded ample opportunity to put up his defence, in line with section 36 (6) of the Constitution.
Besides, it could well then be said that not only has Justice been done; it has also been seen to have been done (see R v Sussex Justices, Ex parte McCarthy ( 1 KB 256,  All ER 233). Second, the accused person who is engaging himself in tactics to delay trial is merely postponing the evil day; what will happen, they say, will definitely happen. And, what is more, as long as the charge is still hanging on the accused personâ€™s neck, society, more so the Nigerian society, will continue to keep him at an armâ€™s length as one whose hands are soiled.
It is therefore seen that the suspects themselves who apparently delay the trials are not having the best of times, especially in their social lives; they keep suffering one form of deprivation or another until the cases end, in their favour. Take for an instance, in Nigeria, an accused person, especially in corruption cases, will scarcely be considered for appointment into any public office unless and until he is discharged or acquitted.
Also, in his village group meetings, club, and other gatherings, he is easily shouted down as a stained person. Let us imagine what emotional torment and social stigma the recently deposed and arraigned bank Chief Executives are already passing through, even though they are not convicted yet. I think the fact they have been arraigned on charges of serious wrongdoing is sufficient deterrent to others in similar positions.
Instead of the one-sided proposition that the characteristic delay in the Nigerian judicial system is considerably hindering the fight against corruption, one should also consider whether such delays have in no way helped the system, especially considering the rights of the accused persons themselves and the essential demands of a fair trial.
Sir William Blackstoneâ€™s dictum that it is better for ten wrongdoers to go scot-free than for one innocent man to suffer unjustly is appropriate in this circumstance; a situation where, once accused of corruption or other wrongdoing, the suspect is arrested and immediately thrown into prison would be very dangerous for a society such as ours, for then no one, including the really innocent, would be safe.
Oftentimes, we hear much of peopleâ€™s calling out to punish the guilty; but very few are concerned to clear the innocent. It is therefore humbly suggested that, just as fire sharpens iron, let the charges framed by the enforcement agencies go through the rigors of court trials, even if prolonged; only after such trials can the charges be publicly substantiated, and their veracity and objectivity thoroughly determined.
In the final analysis, therefore, what some see as drawbacks and hurdles are in effect a deliberate aspect of the accusatorial/adversarial criminal justice system, designed to ensure fairness and protection of the accused, lest people be wrongly convicted; freedom is paramount and any reasons for taking it away must be compelling and apparent even in the face of unmitigated advocacy for the accused.
The adversarial processes are intentionally built into many of the worldâ€™s justice systems, precisely to give every bit of benefit of the doubt to any person or persons accused but not yet convicted; should the state fail to sustain its charge in the face of an adversarius vigorously defending the accused, then the accused should be set free.
Where the state has a good charge and in each case vigorously deploys its prosecution machinery to overcome these procedural stumbling blocks and successfully prove the guilt of the accused person, it would be seen that neither prolonged trials nor the tactical devices usually employed by the accused and his lawyers to delay trials can alter the necessary upshots.
In this way, we can be sure that only the guilty is punished. Justice, though due to the accuser and the society, is due the accused also. The concept of fairness cannot be strained till it is narrowed down to a filament; we are to keep our balance true (per Justice Benjamin Cardoso in Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 122 (1934)). Also, as Justice William Orville Douglas rightly stated, the function of the prosecutor under the Constitution is not to tack as many skins of victims as possible against the wall; his function is to vindicate the rights of the people as expressed in the laws and to give those accused of crime a fair trial.