By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
A sound criminal justice system in any nation is a precursor to economic growth, political stability and social equilibrium. The converse is a destabilized society always avoided by both foreign and domestic investors.
An inalienable fact is that every modern state, particularly one that prides itself as a jewel or pride of African or Black democracy, such as the Federal Republic of Nigeria, must not only live up to certain expectations, but should equally meet the internationally required minimum standard in every sphere of governance.
Criminal justice is one of the indices every government must work hard at for it to be accorded that self reliant status that developing nations desperately seek to achieve.
The gamut of criminal justice included ‘the collective institutions’ which an accused offender passes until the accusations have been disposed of or the assessed punishment is concluded.
The system envisages at least three components, namely, law enforcement, judicial process and reformatory institutions such as the prison.
Nonetheless, there are other extended components like the legislature which is expected to make the laws upon which the whole framework of the criminal justice system will rest and the Executive arm of government upon who the real will to deliver a modern criminal justice system rests.
It will amount to an academic injustice for one to delve into the crux of this issue without firstly distinguishing between substantive and procedural criminal legislations.
Whereas the former, refers to the body of crimes that are classified as criminal offences, the latter, deals with the way and manner persons accused of such offences are brought to book and the institutions that have a duty to do so ensure that they face justice.
In Nigeria today, the two basic legislations dealing with substantive crimes are the Criminal Code (applicable to the southern states in Nigeria) and the Penal Code (applicable in the 19 northern states).
According to the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, these two legislations which were promulgated in 1902 and 1960 respectively, have become very obsolete.
The legal body recently argued that the nations from which the legislations were received have since moved on to more pragmatic and socially responsible criminal legislations that adapts to the innovative mind of the computer age criminal.
In his introductory message at the just concluded criminal justice reform conference organized by the NBA in Abuja, its national president, Mr J.B Daudu, SAN, noted that “Nigeria is a federation made up of different ethnic and religious groups, this diversity accounts for the varying reactions and perceptions to the whole concept of the criminal justice system.
This is not a new problem. In 1959, the revered Premier of the Northern Region, the late Sir Ahmadu Bello in appreciation of the problems to criminal justice that the profound cultural and religious differences of the peoples of the northern region could foment, set up the Abu Ranat Panel, to harmonize existing legislations from climes that had similar diversity problems as did the Northern Region of the country
“What they came up with was the Penal Code which was a laudable effort to capture the sensibilities of a large Islamic population and those of an equally large Christian population”.
The Penal Code reigned supreme in the northern region till 1999 when some Northern states broke ranks and enacted into law their own Sharia Criminal Codes alongside with 1960 code.
“This had the unpalatable effect of making criminal trial subject to choice of venue, which is in turn determined by religious status of the suspect. That is hardly tolerable for criminal trials in any modern democracy”, the NBA boss argued.
Meanwhile, in the South, the Criminal Code has not only gone obsolete, but is equally extensively anachronistic.
A closer look at the code will reveal that it indeed contain crimes that were tailored for colonial rule.
More so, both the criminal and penal codes have been augmented by the promulgation of decrees by the Military governments that held sway between 1966-1979 and 1983-1999.
The current democratic dispensation which commenced in 1999, further introduced a new dimension to criminal justice in the form of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, among others.
Noting that these agencies primarily focus on corruption induced conduct, the NBA President contended that “at the moment, it is largely thought that too much lip service is being paid to crime fighting and prosecution in Nigeria. The United Kingdom is at the moment engaged in preparatory steps in the enforcement of their new Anti-Bribery Act which criminalizes individual and corporate misconduct in this regard”.
In his words, “we recently caused some foreign organizations to pay large fines arising from conduct that we perceived as institutional bribery. I am afraid that we are yet to fine tune our extant legislations to accommodate such bold initiatives. To achieve this feat, existing legislations had to be interpreted expansively”, he added.
This indeed informed the decision of the NBA to convene a national conference on the reform of the criminal justice system, aimed at generating positive discourse on the need for a Criminal Code, uniform to the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory that make up the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Chairman of the conference planning committee, Chief A. B Mahmoud, SAN, stressed that the major objective of the forum was to bring together criminal justice practitioners, experts and academics from within and outside Nigeria, as well as operators of the various institutions of criminal justice both at state and federal levels including policy makers and legislators.
The key note address was delivered by notable American activist and professor of law at the New York University, Mr Bryan Stevenson, while Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, a Professor of Law and the current Ethics Adviser to the Advisory Board of the African Development Bank and Prof. Tunde Ogowewo also a Professor of Law at the Kings College London, took turns, to dissect criminal justice administration system in Nigeria vi-a-vis what obtains in other contemporary societies. The Conference noted that the Nigerian Criminal Justice Delivery System is fraught with multi-faceted problems including but not limited to, inadequate policing, Unlawful arrests, snail speed of the wheels of justice hampered by powerful accused persons, legal practitioners and other stakeholders who frustrate the speedy administration of criminal justice through various dilatory tactics, weak police prosecution characterized by illiteracy and lack of capacity generally, lack of proper training of prison officials, absence of law reform and review in line with international best practices, continued absence of complainants and witnesses, congestion of cases in the courts, inadequate manpower in the criminal justice system, operational challenges, Inadequate funding and non-release of budgetary allocations, obsolete and archaic legislations, the current system of policing is at loggerheads with the contemporary philosophy of investigation which involves a more forensic approach towards crime solving. Other observations were the absence of basic investigative facilities including finger printing laboratories and digital forensics as these are the norm in any civilized society (it is appalling that in a country of over 140 million people there are only five ballistic experts, four fingerprint experts and two forensic laboratories), lack of certainty of detection of crimes which promotes criminality, over-centralized quasi-federalism as opposed to real federalism, Insecurity among citizens, regardless of location or status, rising incidences of corruption at all levels of the polity, emergence of new forms of criminal activities such as kidnapping and terrorism, as well as, corrupt and inefficient Prison Decongestion programme predicated upon patronage.
Consequently, the legal body in a communiqué it issued at the end of the occasion, recommended that, “the leadership of Nigeria (Federal and States) should accord Criminal Justice reforms urgent and sincere attention in revitalizing or transforming all the criminal Justice Institutions such as the Nigerian Police Force, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Independent Corrupt practices and other Related Offences Commission, etc within their control and in particular encourage uniformity, certainty, consistency, international best practices as the minimum operating standards of this organizations.
“That corruption is the debilitating cankerworm hindering the operational performance of these criminal justice organizations. Corruption has therefore annihilated the capacity of various federal agencies to meet the law and order cum security aspirations of Nigerians. The battle against corruptions ought to be commenced afresh in the justice sector so as to give Nigerians confidence and hope.
“That in the spirit of true and proper federalism, having regard to the undisputed diversity and dense population of this great country, it is no longer feasible or pragmatic to continue to insist on a mono-police force for the entire country. Time has come for immediate decentralization of key criminal justice institutions such as the Nigerian Police Force, Road Safety Commission, Nigerian Prisons Service etc in order to facilitate grass root and indeed comprehensive approach to the enforcement and administration of criminal justice.
“That the legislature i.e. National Assembly should as a matter of urgency provide the enabling environment for urgent criminal justice reform based constitutional amendments to reflect the foregoing suggestions, particularly as it relates to the creation of States and Community Police and other related federal institutions described above on carefully thought out modalities that will allay the fears of critics that such state organs may be hijacked by State authorities to fan embers of disunity or used to actualize personal political agenda of political actors.
“The NBA notes that there are over 10 justice sector related bills pending before the Senate and House of Representatives of the National Assembly at different stages of legislative process.
The non passage into law of these Bills is adversely affecting the machinery of justice in Nigeria; to that end we call on the National Assembly to pass as a matter of extreme urgency the following key justice sector bills should be passed by the National Assembly without further delay, namely; Administration of Justice Commission Bill, Police Act Amendment Bill, Community Service Bill, Victims of Crime Remedies Bill, Prisons Act Amendment Bill and The Elimination of Violence in Society Bill.