THERE is something about the brand of justice ordinary Nigerians get that requires attention, if our society recognises equity as an essential ingredient of justice. While we preach equality of all before the law, we must admit that one of the challenges of treating all equally, is that our laws rate us differently.
Yet equality in this context, though a mirage, should at least be applied from the bases of fair hearing, fair treatment of suspects, and speedy access to justice. The poor, the weak, and the voiceless – all those who have no contribution in making the law – bear the brunt of the harshness of our laws. Justice seems to tilt unfairly towards ordinary Nigerians.
The latest case which many could have missed in the midst of the attention on the elections is that of Vincent Okwekwu, a 24-year-old sentenced to death by hanging for armed robbery, which the judge was magnanimous enough to reduce to “robbery”.
Okwekwu stole a mobile telephone and N10, ooo cash. His two accomplices escaped. On the public’s scale of justice, people would be wondering why such “minor” robbery would be punished with death. Our laws, made at the heat of the challenges armed robbery posed, prescribe death for armed robbery. If the suspect bore a gun, a cutlass, a kitchen knife or a toy gun, he is deemed armed and fit for the sentence on conviction.
The law is law. We expect our laws should, in the fullness of their fairness, review sentences for offences such that other “robberies” some with more devastations than the telephone and N10, 000 that Okwekwu stole, could get appropriate punishments. We are not making excuses for armed robbers; we are asking that harsher punishments be extended to crimes by the high and mighty.
At 24, Okwekwu spent a quarter of his life in detention, awaiting trial. He was arrested at 18. He was “lucky” to get “justice” so soon, armed robbery suspects could spend more than 10 years awaiting trial – bails are not available for their offence, while the mighty, whose theft of billions of Naira – which result in deaths through poor public facilities that the money would have redeemed – enjoy liberal bail terms.
There was no doubt that Okwekwu committed the crime. He voluntarily admitted his role in a statement he made in 2009. In court, he recanted, but the evidence against him nailed him. His likes are unlikely to have resources to pursue their appeals to the Supreme Court, a ploy the mighty use to stall their trial; they appeal every ruling. Our nation cannot be built on laws that afflict the weak and ignore the crimes of the mighty.