A sense of confidence in the courts is essential to maintain the fabric of ordered liberty for a free people and three things could destroy that confidence and do incalculable damage to society: that people come to believe that inefficiency and delay will drain even a just judgment of its value; that people who have long been exploited in the smaller transactions of daily life come to believe that courts cannot vindicate their legal rights from fraud and over-reaching; that people come to believe the law – in the larger sense – cannot fulfill its primary function to protect them and their families in their homes, at their work, and on the public streets
— Warren E. Burger, A former Chief Justice of the United States in an address to the American Bar Association in 1970.
By Mike Ebonugwo & Bartholomew Madukwe
THE legal maxim, justice delayed is justice denied is held as an article of faith in many countries of the world where speedy trial of cases is considered the rule rather than the exception. In other words, justice delayed implies that the judicial process is slow both for the plaintiff and the defendant and should therefore be discountenanced in the application of the law.
But in Nigeria questions have always been raised about whether this holds true in the administration of the law and if justice is being actually served given the long delay that attends most trials, especially those of political nature.
For instance, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, and the Independent Corrupt Practicesand Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, presently have several pending, if not stalled, cases in various courts in the country against some former and current political office holders, including governors, many years after the cases were first instituted.
At the last count, no fewer than 20 of such cases are pending in the courts. Some of the cases involving former governors include Jolly Nyame (Taraba) filed in 2007; Danjuma Goje (Gombe) filed in 2011; Timipreye Sylva (Bayelsa) 2015; Murtala Nyako (Adamawa) 2015; Sule Lamido (Jigawa) 2015; Adebayo Alao-Akala (Oyo) 2011; Gbenga Daniel (Ogun) 2011; Aliyu Akwe Doma (Nasarawa) 2011; Attahiru Bafawara (Sokoto) 2009; and Ikedi Ohakim (Imo) 2015.
Remarkably, the origin and history of these trials are as foggy as the uncertainty surrounding when and how they will end.
Nigerian judiciary and slow-pace trials
For several years, the Nigerian judiciary appeared hamstrung in dealing with the plethora of cases that had for so long been pending before the various courts. Sundry reasons have since been identified as responsible for the many stalled trial cases in the courts, especially those bordering on politics and governance.
These include the politicisation of the judicial process, the hierarchical structure-cum-complex nature of the judicial system, the strict procedural proforma in which the court has to function, transfer of judges and some lawyers exploiting their clients by using the instrument of frequent adjournments to make more money from them, etc.
As the drama pertaining to these cases continue to unfold, there have been questions as to the perceived motives behind what appears as deliberate attempts to cause a prolongation of these trials.
One of the questions borders on whether in each of these cases, the delay is at the instance of the plaintiff/prosecutor or the defendant? In other words, who is the beneficiary of the case being delayed and who is being denied justice on account of this?
CJN, NJC interventions
Obviously concerned by the situation, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, had taken steps to fast-track the trial of all pending alleged corruption cases. This he did by directing heads of courts to designate courts and judges to handle on-going trials on daily basis.
Acting in the same vein, the National Judicial Council, NJC, had in November last year set up an intervention panel known as Corruption Financial Crimes Cases Trials Monitoring Committee, COTRIMCO, to monitor and evaluate alleged corruption cases piling up in the courts in a bid to fast-track the trial of such cases. Remarkably, the Committee, working in concert with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, had within a short time received 2, 306 on-going corruption cases which it subsequently assigned to its four sub-committees for special attention.
The sub-committees, constituted at the meeting of the anti-graft panel, under the leadership of the chairman, retired justice Suleiman Galadima, are Practice Directions, Training, Feedback and Engagement and Awareness.
For ease of monitoring and evaluation of the said cases, the committee had divided the country into three zones, namely: Zone A, Abuja FCT; Zone B, Northern Zone; and Zone C, Southern Zone. At the last count, Zone A in Abuja has 554 pending cases, Zone B has 347 cases, with Zone C having 1, 405 cases.
The Committee also directed its secretary, Gambo Saleh, who is also the council’s secretary, to write chief judges of state divisions who were yet to submit the list of the alleged corruption cases to the committee to do so without delay.
The Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015
Curiously delay in political trials persists in spite of the passing of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015 by the National Assembly. The stated purpose of the Act is “to ensure that the system of administration of criminal justice in Nigeria promotes efficient management of criminal justice institutions, speedy dispensation of justice, protection of the society from crime and protection of the rights and interests of the suspect, the defendant, and the victim”.
Apart from that: “The courts, law enforcement agencies and other authorities or persons involved in criminal justice administration shall ensure compliance with the provisions of this Act for the realisation of its purposes”.
In fact, the ACJA has been described as a revolutionary legislation in the advancement of criminal procedure in Nigeria given that it repealed the erstwhile Criminal Procedure Act which applied in the South and the Criminal Procedure Code which held sway in the North. In other words, its uniqueness derives from the fact that it is applicable in all federal courts.
For more practical purposes, the Act establishes the Administration of Criminal Justice Monitoring Committee (the Committee) in section 469(1). The body is charged with the responsibility of ensuring effective application of the Act.
It comprises nine members with representatives drawn from the Judiciary, Federal Ministry of Justice, Police, Prisons, Legal Aid, Nigeria Bar Association, civil society organizations and National Human Rights Commission with the Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory as the Chairman and a Secretary appointed by the Attorney-General of Federation.
The Committee has the responsibility of ensuring effective and efficient application of the Act by the relevant agencies.
In doing this, the Committee shall among other things ensure that criminal matters are speedily dealt with; congestion of criminal cases in courts is drastically reduced; congestion in prisons is reduced to the barest minimum; and persons awaiting trial are, as far as possible, not detained in prison custody.
But it is with respect to ensuring speedy dispensation of justice that the introduction of the ACJA is considered particularly relevant in Nigeria’s criminal justice system. This is because it is expected to address the matter of delayed trials through the following provisions:
- Stay of Proceedings 
The new position of the law in this regard is that application for stay of proceedings shall no longer be heard in respect of a criminal matter before the court. This unprecedented provision puts a gag on the delays occasioned to the trial process by interlocutory applications to stay proceedings pending appeal on preliminary matters even when the substantive issues are yet to be tried on their merits.
- Day-to-day trial 
Upon arraignment, the trial of the defendant shall proceed from day-to-day until the conclusion of the trial. Where day-to-day trial is impracticable, the Act provides that parties shall be entitled to only five adjournments each.
The interval between each adjournment, according to the Act, shall not exceed two weeks each. Where the trial is still not concluded, the interval for adjournments will be reduced to seven days each.
- Assignment of information and issuance of notice of trial 
By virtue of this section, information filed are to be assigned to courts by the Chief Judge within 15 days and the Judge in turn, is to issue notice of trial within 10 working days of the assignment of the information to his court.
- Objection to the validity of charge 
Any objection to the validity of the charge or information raised by the defendant shall only be considered along with the substantive issues and a ruling thereon made at the time of delivery of judgement.
ACJ to modernise criminal justice system
In stating his position on the delay trials narrative, the Special Assistant to the President on Prosecution, Chief Okoi Obono-Obla, was quoted to have said that the ACJ Act was one of the measures put in place by the Federal Government of Nigeria to modernise and reform the criminal justice system. He also added that if the provisions of the Act were properly applied and implemented by stakeholders in the criminal justice sector, it would go a long way in ensuring criminal cases were speedily and expeditiously heard and determined by the courts.
But three years after the Act was passed, the issue of delayed or protracted trials continues to haunt the judicial system. This is why many observers cannot help but continue to wonder when the curious dramas surrounding many pending high profile political trials will end.
Also puzzling are the factors responsible and sustaining this peculiar situation. Hence, the question: who is to blame for the problem?
But surprisingly it was a case of mixed feelings when Vanguard INSIGHT spoke with some senior lawyers and legal experts on the matter and about who or what is to be blamed for the prevailing situation. A number of them pointedly refused to share the belief that things have not changed for the better since the Act was enacted.
For them, it is still in the early days to describe the ACJ Act as having failed to rein in the stubborn monster of prolonged political trials in the country as it has substantially paved the way for the prosecuting agencies to make progress in their many cases against those accused of one offence or the other.