By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA — CHIEF Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Dahiru Musdapher, yesterday, abolished the plea bargain procedure hitherto employed by the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, in settling high profile cases of corruption out of court.
The CJN who described the plea-bargain system as “a novel concept of dubious origin,” insisted that “it was invented to provide soft landing to high profile criminals who loot the treasury entrusted to them.”
Speaking at the opening ceremony of the fifth annual general conference of the section on legal practice of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, the CJN whose speech was read by Justice Nwali Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court, said the system “has no place in our law- substantive or procedural. It is an obstacle to our fight against corruption, it should never again be mentioned in our jurisprudence.”
While pinpointing other aspects of criminal justice system administration in the country that needed to be overhauled, the CJN bemoaned that the judiciary had in the past assisted corrupt former political office holders in tying the hands of anti-graft agencies by granting frivolous injunctions that immune them from prosecution.
Practice of filing holding charges
He equally condemned the practice of filing holding charges against accused persons and what he termed, “trial by public parade of suspects on pages of newspapers and on the television.”
Musdapher said: “The guilty are afraid and when a man who has abused the public trust reposed in him feels the heat of the approaching long arm of the law he rushes to a judge with flexible conscience who makes him untouchable to the law enforcement agents. It is another obstacle to the struggle to uproot corruption in this country.
“Every legal practitioner is familiar with this term (holding charge) by which citizens are dumped in prison by a court which lacks jurisdiction to try them.
It is largely responsible for the congestion in prisons across the country. The state cannot incarcerate its citizen while scrambling for evidence to build a case against him, and if it has a case it should take the accused to a court of competent jurisdiction.
“As often in the case when he is set free because he has no case he goes home in shame, a damaged man, without apology, without compensation. Trial by public of a suspect even when he is not an accused person on pages of newspapers and on television is equally bad. It is difficult to convince an average person that one who has been so paraded has not committed any offence.
“To whom much is given, much is expected in return, and I think your choice of theme for this conference-‘legal practice in Nigeria: Venturing beyond usual borders’, was chosen as a means of expanding the scope of your service to humanity through the practice of law.
“Gentlemen, regard it as part of your inestimable service to your fatherland to take a position on the above issues which constitute a blot on our criminal process. Your voice will be heard and change will be made for the better.
“May I also draw your attention to our prisons where fellow human beings are reduced to the barest level of humanity. I think time is ripe to include a provision for suspended sentence in the criminal procedure code and the criminal procedure law, after all, as Roscoe Pound said in his introduction to the philosophy of Law (1922): “the law must be stable but it must not stand still.”
Spirited efforts to justify rationale
Meanwhile, the AGF who was equally a special guest at the event, made spirited efforts to justify the rationale behind the plea bargain system, stressing that, “there is need for a robust approach to public interest litigation.”
The AGF who was represented by Chief Deji Adekunle, SAN, said: “The intricate patterns of high-level criminal conspiracy and Internet fraud seem to have confounded even our best investigators. Are we really prepared to combat delays and case trappings in the judicial system?”
While lauding the Freedom of Information Act, the minister said it has engendered growing policy of open access for all complainants. He noted: “It is our responsibility as custodians of the law to uphold such policies.”
Nevertheless, accentuating the points raised by the CJN, the NBA National President, Chief J.B Daudu, SAN, warned that “the world will pass us by if we do not stop embracing any kind of legal practice that comes our way. We cannot continue to criticise the judiciary that it is under performing when we have individually failed to do those things that are expected of us.”
It will be recalled that among those that had benefitted from the plea bargain procedure included the former Chief Executive Officer of Oceanic Bank International Nigeria PLC, Mrs. Cecilia Ibru, former Governor of Bayelsa State, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, former Governor of Edo State, Mr. Lucky Igbinedion and the former Inspector- General of Police, Tafa Balogun.
It was equally embraced by the present AGF in allowing multi-national companies like Halliburton and Siemens, which were indicted of abetting bribery and corruption among public officers in the country, off the hook of criminal prosecution.