By Festus Ogun
FOR close to two months now, courts all over the country have been under lock and key. On April 6, 2021 judicial workers under the aegis of Judicial Staff Union of Nigeria, JUSUN, embarked on an indefinite nationwide strike to push for the implementation of financial autonomy for the judiciary. It is the union’s position that the failure of the authorities to implement financial autonomy for the judiciary places the executive as the piper’s bearer that dictates the tune for the judiciary. While the larger populace are in support of granting financial autonomy for our courts, it appears that the governors are not yet prepared for same despite series of court judgements declaring their continuous control of judicial resources as unconstitutional.
Nigeria’s horrific dossier on human rights violations has yet again been worsened by the lingering courts closure caused primarily by failure of our leadership to respect the rule of law. All over the country, the police and other security agencies are effecting arrests of suspects – justifiably so. Many, however, are languishing behind bars as a result of the closure of courts; their bail applications are made impossible. Even those that were arrested, but were yet to be arraigned, before the strike action are still in perpetual detention left to their fate. Our police stations and other detention facilities, put simply, are currently filled with those arrested over a long time but are kept in dungeon cells as a result of courts closure.
The prison is not left out. The congested state of our correctional centres has been worsened by courts closure. Pre-trial detainees, remanded ‘inmates’ and other prisoners are left with little or no hope about their liberties despite the unbearable condition of the system. Many unjustly imprisoned are made to unnecessarily spend longer days in denial of their sacred liberties. Ordinarily, their fates are to be determined by court but the ‘last hope of the common man’ is itself begging for survival.
Bail is a human right in Nigeria. Bail denials for many and the prolong incarceration of prisoners – caused by courts closure – are a gross violation of human rights. Access to justice is the foundation upon which the safeguard, protection and enjoyment of fundamental rights is built. The courts closure has hindered access to justice, thereby destroying the very foundation upon which human rights and civil liberties stand.
Those trapped in unfortunate confinement as a result of the avoidable strike have been denied their rights to dignity of human person, personal liberty, fair hearing and other suspects and prisoners rights enshrined under Sections 34, 35 and 36 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Articles 5, 6 and 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and Articles 3, 9 and 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
Indeed, the lock on courts has greatly affected the administration of criminal justice. For example, the time frame for detaining a suspect is 24 or 48 hours. Anything longer than the time prescribed by law amounts to unlawful detention. It therefore follows that anyone arrested and detained beyond 48 hours, for any reason whatsoever, is being held unlawfully. Human dignity is non-negotiable under any circumstances. This narrative of arbitrary detention has skyrocketed due to courts closure; police cells are filled up with detained suspects. And innocent Nigerians are the real victims.
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The attitude of government towards this sad situation is disturbing. It appears the authorities are hiding under the pretext of courts closure to violate human rights. This position is premised on the belief that a government committed to the safeguard and protection of human rights will not allow courts closure to linger for this long. The authorities have been largely complacent and it is the more reason why the police waste no time in citing courts closure as reasons why they keep suspects for as long as they wish. The liberties of the citizens are now left at the mercies of callous officers of the law. This is unacceptable.
The weaponisation of police bail is also a challenge. Generally, police are empowered to grant administrative bails to those whose offences are not too serious. While the police easily grant bail, with little or no condition attached, to the rich and powerful, they make securing bail for the poor and weak as complex and difficult like a camel passing through the eye of a needle. This kind of discrimination is not only unlawful but unprofessional. Yes, bail is supposed to be free but it is now a lucrative business. Extortion and corruption are on a spree at our police stations – aided by courts closure.
In conclusion, I advocate for the immediate resolution of the crisis. Governors must be ready to listen to the voice of reason and implement financial autonomy for the judiciary as a matter of national urgency. Access to justice is the lifeblood of any democratic society. This continuous violation must not be allowed to continue. In the meantime, the authorities must put in measures to stop the flagrant violations and massive corruption currently ongoing. The judicious use of police bail should also be enforced and erring officers should be brought to book. Most importantly, Magistrates should continually inspect police stations and other detention facilities to grant bail to suspects where appropriate as envisaged under Section 34 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act and various Administration of Criminal Justice Laws of various states.
*Ogun, a legal affairs analyst and human rights activist, wrote via: [email protected]
Vanguard News Nigeria