The Nigerian judiciary is ill-prepared to adapt to change and challenges of an electronic age
| By Ishaya Ibrahim | May 27, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT
IN August 2011, a Lagos High Court sitting in Igbosere, admitted in evidence some video clips Major Hamza Al-Mustapha presented to it as his defence in the late Kudirat Abiola’s murder trial he was facing. Once Mojisola Dada, the presiding judge in the case, ruled that the clips be admitted in evidence, the Al-Mustapha legal team, already sensing that the court might not be prepared with the logistics needed to show the video clips, brought into the courtroom its own video player and television set. But despite all these proactive preparations from the Al-Mustapha camp, there was still a hitch they didn’t anticipate – the wiring in the courtroom was faulty. This marred the proceeding that day and the court had to adjourn for another day.
This problem highlights the ill-preparedness of the Nigerian judiciary to adapt to changes in this modern-age where electronic materials are tendered as evidence. For instance, in 2009, Ahmed Ramat Mohammed, a justice of the Federal High Court, Lagos, rejected a computer print-out of a bank statement of an account tendered before the court in the trial of Femi Fani-Kayode, former minister of aviation, who was being tried over an allegation of money laundering by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. The reason the judge gave was that such a print-out was a secondary evidence which had not been authenticated and was, therefore, inadmissible in court.
Although it must be conceded that the judge had valid reason for rejecting the evidence because of the fear that it could have been manipulated, yet, the question still remains whether the Nigerian judicial system has the expertise required to authenticate electronic record.
But the problem with the Nigerian judiciary does not only end with the method of evidence tendering, 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). These two legislations were promulgated in 1902 and 1960. Of course, at the time the laws were written, their authors could not have imagined that some few individuals could steal a whopping N27 billion from the country’s pension purse.
In the penal code, the maximum punishment prescribed for the crime of stealing is a prison term of two years or a fine or a combination of the two. So, when the EFCC arraigned John Yusuf, the convicted pension thief, before Abubakar Talba, a justice of the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Abuja, based on the penal code instead of the EFCC act which prescribes a punishment of 15 years for the same crime, they knew Yusuf would end up with a light sentence. On January 28, Talba, in exercising his discretion based on the instruments of law before him, decided that Yusuf would spend two years in jail or pay a fine of N750,000 for his role in the looting of N27.2 billion from which he got N2 billion as his share.
These developments in the Nigerian judiciary have been a source of concern for lawyers. Abdulaziz Ibrahim, a Kaduna-based lawyer, said the Nigerian judiciary would need a holistic review. “Nigeria has a criminal reform commission and for several years, it has made recommendations on how to go about the prosecution that would aid in the adjudication of cases. But just like the title of Okonjo Iweala’s book ‘reforming the unreformable’, it seems a Herculean task to bring about change in the judiciary. Our laws are obsolete and cannot stand in today’s world. However, due to legislative impasse and executive recklessness, the hands of the judiciary are tied in the sense that the judges cannot use their whims in sentencing an accused person but will have to apply the law as it is. No judge, however, radical can deviate/depart from the law,” Ibrahim said.
Joseph Daudu, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, and former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, also argued that for Nigeria to pride itself as a modern state, it must raise the standard of its criminal justice system to international standards. “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,” Dauda said.
The former NBA boss also noted that there were bills before the National Assembly whose non-passage, had adversely affected the machinery of justice delivery 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 without further delay, namely; Administration of Justice Commission Bill, Police Act, National Amendment Bill, Community Service Bill, Victims of Crime Remedies Bill, Prisons Act Amendment Bill and The Elimination of Violence in Society Bill,” he said.