When the 3rd Arm is Broken / IT IS ALLEGED
By: Salisu Suleiman
Perhaps the best friend of any journalist, writer or even media organization is the word ‘alleged'. It protects the writer from making libelous and defamatory statements. Some people use it even if they have evidence that can stand before the courts of law, but simply want to avoid legal complications. It is one of the most enduring lessons from journalism school. It is alleged.
And so it is alleged that Nigerian civil servants can smell money from a very long distance in the same manner a shark can smell a drop of blood in a vast ocean. Civil servants have sniffed out the judiciary as the most lucrative place to be right now from among the plethora of public sector agencies and organizations in Nigeria. It is alleged that from the Federal Ministry of Justice, to the Legal Aid Council, to the National Judicial Institute, to the Law Reform Commission, the National Judicial Council, among others, the workers in these places are ‘enjoying'.
Apart from these agencies, officers of various cadres in the different courts of law, from the Magistrate to the Supreme Court are alleged to be ‘enjoying'. Judges serving on Election Tribunals are not left out of this ‘allegement', because many public officers (in high and low places) owe their offices not to victory at the polls, but rulings by these tribunals. Because life in Nigeria is very difficult, when you find people actually enjoying themselves, you envy them. Except that the connotations of ‘enjoying' from the perspective of civil servants is different from that of the layman. Very different.
But I digress. Now that the Judiciary and workers in third arm of government are ‘enjoying' themselves so much, has there being a positive impact on the country? Majority of Nigerians believe that the executive and the legislative arms of government have failed the country, but has the judiciary joined the bandwagon, too? If, because, they have found ‘enjoyment' and left the rest of us to our own devices, then we must accept that all hope is lost. But it need not be so. There are so many challenges facing the judiciary today, and therefore, a lot of work to be done to enhance the administration of justice in Nigeria.
For a start, criminal law in the country is mostly antiquated. The penal code was drafted in 1903, and bears little or no bearing to the social realities in Nigeria today. Our Arbitration laws are so outdated that legal practitioners prefer to take arbitration cases to other countries. Despite the advancements witnessed in the medical sciences in the last half century, the country's Pharmacy Act has not changed in the nearly 50 years. Forensic evidence is practically non existent. Despite the fact that DNA evidence is regarded as nearly 100 percent accurate, the term does not appear anywhere in our statues.
That is not all. Law enforcement in Nigeria is still a nightmare. Going by international convention of 1 policeman to every 140 people, the country has a huge deficit of police officers. Nigeria needs at least 1 million policemen, but we have only about 300,000. Most of them are ill-trained, ill-equipped, naturally ill-tempered, and very prone to ‘accidental discharges'. The Public prosecution mechanism is almost infantile. Police corporals and sergeants with little or no legal knowledge prosecute cases in our courts. I have wondered severally why Nigeria cannot employ half a million graduates (including all the ‘Court and Bail' lawyers hustling around courts) deploy them to various sections of law enforcement.
Similarly, our prisons are jammed beyond the brim. Prisons built to hold two or three hundred now hold thousands. First time (and sometimes innocent offenders) are locked with in the same prison cells with convicted murderers and armed robbers. There are hardly any modern, functional juvenile facilities in the country. There are few, if any prisoner reform programs to ensure that incarcerated persons not only get education and vocational skills, but come out as better citizens upon their release. At the moment, even the shortest stint in jail is equivalent to a degree in crime and the operations of the criminal underworld. Rather than reform, our prisons actually train criminals.
Private legal practitioners also have a role to play in improving the judiciary and the administration of the criminal justice system. It has been alleged (again!) that lawyers representing rich and powerful clients often bribe judges to obtain favourable rulings. It was reported recently that a Senior Advocate is being paid N35 million to defend a suspect in a murder case. By any standards, that is plenty of money. And plenty of money can buy plenty of black coats. And black robes. It is alleged.
It is not an allegation, however, that the worse crime one can commit in life is the crime of poverty. The Legal Aid Council is supposed to work as the Office of the Public Defender. But with thousands of indigent defendants in jail for crimes for which they plead innocence, one is forced to question the effectiveness of that body. People have been known to spend years awaiting trial for crimes that if convicted, the penalty may be a couple of months in prison, or even a fine. Save for a few religious bodies, pro bono is not a concept that many Nigerian lawyers agree with. And so for not being able to afford legal representation, our jails are chocked with persons accused of stealing fowls, goats, tubers of yam and other mundane items.
I do not condone crime, but it seems that in Nigeria, if you want to commit a crime like theft, do not steal a useless fowl, hungry goat, or tattered pair of shoes. Do not steal a bottle of palm oil or a loaf of bread. That would land you in jail for 10 years or more without trial. Grab a couple of billions. With that, and with the ‘enjoying' judiciary workers and existing legal system, you would be guaranteed a quick release (if charged at all) and an apology from the state for violating your human rights.
It is alleged.