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RIGHTSView, By EMMANUEL ONWUBIKO: Has the Justice sector done well under Malami and Buhari?

By News Express on 25/05/2016

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On May 29th 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari will symbolically mark one calendar year of a democratically elected and inaugurated government. The one-year anniversary is understandably a time of deep introspection and intense reflection on the many areas of achievements, failures, challenges and prospects of the administration, with a specific focus to point out areas of high expectations for the remaining years of his tenure.

This one-year anniversary of this particular President maybe remarkably different, because of the promise of the unveiling of Nigeria’s first-ever black national register of infamy containing names of politically-exposed citizens who allegedly stole Nigeria blind. If President Buhari makes good his threat to publish these names, then, it will still dovetail into the terrain of the justice sector, because questions would be asked by Nigerians regarding strategies for recovering the alleged stolen wealth. In analysing the first one year of how justice sector has fared under the current dispensation, we might logically commence by looking into great works of famous philosophers to find a befitting way of commencing our intellectual enterprise today.

Socrates is one of the greatest fathers of ancient philosophy known for his many wise sayings, which included this: “The first impression is the most important.” Following that philosophical line of thought, it can be submitted that if good speeches are to be regarded as sine qua non for determining the quality of good leadership, then the public commitment made by President Buhari to focus primarily on justice sector reforms can be rated as phenomenally impressive. President Buhari made enormous verbal commitments to wage unrelenting war against corruption. Knowing how corruption has become a hydra-headed monster and a multi-billion dollar industry in Nigeria, citizens at the inception of the current government waited with berthed breath for the choice that would be made by President Buhari of who becomes his minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation. This is because the cabinet-level Office of the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice is the only one, among  many, that was mentioned in the country’s grund norm, which is the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended). Section 150 (1) provides as follows: “There shall be an Attorney-General of the Federation who shall be the Chief Law Officer of the Federation and a minister of the government of the Federation.”

Significantly, Section 174 (1) (2) and (3) provide thus: “(1) The Attorney-General of the Federation shall have power (a) to institute and undertake  criminal proceedings against any person before any court of law in Nigeria, other than a court-martial, in respect of any offence created by or under any Act of the National Assembly; (b) to take over and continue any such criminal proceedings that may have been instituted by any other authority or person; and (c) to discontinue at any stage before judgment is delivered any such criminal proceedings instituted or undertaken by him or any other authority or person. (2) The powers conferred upon the Attorney-General of the Federation under subsection (1) of this section maybe exercised by him in person or through officers of his department. (3) In exercising his power under this section, the Attorney-General of the Federation shall have regard to the public interest, the interest of justice and the need to prevent abuse of legal process. The Constitution imposes the burden of public good and public interest upon the nation’s chief law officer; meaning that more than anyone else – the holder of that office is similar to a priest in the temple of Justice who must at all times, like Caeser’s wife – must go to equity with clean hands.

It therefore follows that Nigerians were right, at the inception of this administration, to have expected the President to go for a tested and trusted patriot to assume the mantle of leadership of the official bar, and to assume full functions as the Chief Law Officer of Nigeria. President Buhari settled for the Kebbi State-born Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Alhaji Abubakar Malami, as his minister of justice. As soon as he assumed office on November 11, 2015, this gentleman who appears media-shy wasted no time in reeling out his blueprint for the justice ministry, in compliance with the change mantra of the current administration, just as he also gave a direct signal that he would competently and professionally champion the prosecution of alleged thieves of public wealth, and to restore the stolen loots back to the public till. Interestingly, the minister, in his maiden address to the staff and management of the justice ministry, recognised that the oath of office that he has sworn to remains sacred and inviolable.

He emphatically stated: “It is high time for Nigeria to move from a nation with great potentials to one that is maximally optimising its potentials to the admiration and astonishment of the whole world.” It is my considered opinion that his underlying objective in making this commitment to discharge his duties in compliance with constitutional process was the overwhelming clamour by most Nigerians for good governance, which has eluded us for many years. Alhaji Malami alluded to that fact when he told his staff during his maiden address: “Today, Nigeria, a country that produces about two million barrels of oil a day, has the seventh-largest natural gas reserves of any country in the world, but the poverty rate in Nigeria has gone up over the last 16 years.” Reading the mood of the nation, the Attorney-General of the Federation argued that there are many reasons why Nigeria has been struggling, just as he concluded by affirming that sadly, the most immediate source of disconnect between Nigeria’s wealth and its poverty rate is corruption. 

Going down historical lane, the Justice Minister quoted the World Bank as recently affirming that Nigeria has lost well over $300 billion during the last three decades, as a result of corruption. And, therefore, in his thinking, it is imperative that we look at where Nigeria is today and look for ways to help her, and particularly the good people of this country. Malami averred: “As we may be aware, this administration promised Nigerians that it will promptly address the challenges facing our nation in the three areas of: Corruption, economy and security. After all, law, they say, is the secret that binds societies together. No doubt, our task is extremely enormous as the ministry’s performance will to a large extent be a yardstick with which the success or failure of this present administration would be measured, given the major expectation of Nigerians that this current government shall fight the evils of corruption, poverty and insecurity, like never before.”

From extensive research and random interrogation of those who are versatile in the justice sector, yours faithfully has found out that in the last 100 days in office, in addition to each department in the ministry carrying out their core responsibilities, the Ministry of Justice has achieved significant milestones in five major areas and, fundamentally, in the area of bilateral mutual assistance. 

It is on record that on 18th January, 2016, the Justice Minister, while on the presidential team to the United Arab Emirate (UAE), signed four bi-lateral agreements with the Government of UAE. These are:  Agreement on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters; Agreement on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons; Extradition Treaty, and Agreement on Mutual Legal Assistance in Civil and Commercial Matters. The objective of these agreements is to create a broad legal platform for co-operation between Nigeria and UAE in investigation and prosecution of crimes, including seizure of exhibits, exchange of documents and sharing of information and expertise between both countries. Although some Nigerians had questioned the constitutional import of this move, given that section 12 of the Constitution recognises that the National Assembly plays primary legislative role to bring about the legal functionality of any foreign treaty. But, among the circles of the allegedly-corrupt Nigerians, this move in United Arab Emirates sent jitters in their spines, because it is a notorious fact that most corruptly enriched Nigerian public officials have hitherto reinvested their loots into the thriving real estate business of Dubai.

The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice has never been discouraged by the arguments that UAE stands to benefit more than Nigeria in the implementation of those key anti-graft agreements, he has  reportedly made tremendous strides to recover Nigeria’s stolen funds in Switzerland, Luxemburg, Island of Jersey, and United States of America. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Swiss authorities to facilitate recovery of the nation’s stolen funds has been signed. He has also made similar efforts with the government of the United States. These monies (if recovered) are required to fund government economic programmes to alleviate poverty in Nigeria. It is also interesting to note that the Minister of Justice is spearheading the establishment of the Asset Recovery Forum in Africa, of which Nigeria will serve as headquarters. If actualised, this will fundamentally change the global view of Nigeria from that which tolerates corruption and impunity to a zero corruption zone. Other reforms initiated by him include a particular administration of criminal justice committee, which he set up and inaugurated with high calibre persons in its membership.

Section 469 of Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) established the “Administration of Criminal Justice Monitoring Committee”. The Chief Judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory is the chairman of the committee and its secretariat is located in the office of the Attorney- General of the Federation and Minister of Justice. The minister, according to findings, has since set up the secretariat of the committee which was inaugurated on Monday, 29th February, 2016. The primary function of the committee is to monitor and ensure strict compliance with ACJA. The committee will ensure strict observance of the rule of law in the criminal justice system in each court that applies ACJA. I personally know the FCT Chief Judge as a no-nonsense officer of the law; and so much is expected from his committee for the sake of achieving better results in the justice delivery system. I'm sure the civil society community, for example,  Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria, will keep their eyes open to monitor the activities of this and many other revolutionary committees already inaugurated in the justice sector.

Of all the achievements credited to the Justice Minister, setting up of the National Prosecution Co-ordination Committee is the icing on the cake. This epochal body of law scholars and leaders of the civil society is expected to work out strategies to ensure proper investigation and trial of high-profile cases. But, again, a major area of concern is the observation made by critical stakeholders that the current government has not started well in the area of strict and substantial compliance with binding orders of competent courts of law. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Department of State Services are two agencies of government that have abused court orders with reckless abandon.

Section 6 of the Constitution gives the judicial powers of the federation to courts of competent jurisdiction. The executive arm of government should, therefore, not pick and choose which court orders to respect. The reported disobedience of bail orders granted by the courts in favour of Mr Nnamdi Kanu of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPoB), and Colonel Sambo Dasuki, the erstwhile National Security Adviser, is discouraging and despicable. The Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation should also look at how not-so-professionally-well the EFCC has carried out its job in the last one year. The EFCC has elevated media trial above compliance with due process of the law.  He should also make the environment friendly for credible civil society groups to monitor compliance levels with human rights standards of all the armed security forces that run detention centres, so as to safeguard respect for human rights and eradicate the high rate of extra-legal killings of suspects in custody. The minister should equally ensure that Boko Haram terrorists arrested are competently prosecuted for their atrocious crimes against humanity; just as he has to provide sound advice to the Nigerian President on the constitutional imperative of respecting the constitutional freedoms of dissenting voices. Democracy can’t thrive without freedom of speech and the press. Section 22 and chapter four of the Nigerian Constitution are important in this instance.

To end on a good note, the Justice Minister should be commended for his proposal to set up a committee to review some of the outdated electoral laws in Nigeria and to revisit the Justice Muhammad Uwais’ panel report and to propose for the amendment of the Electoral Act. This is salutary because elections in Nigeria must be credible, free, fair and peaceful, to ensure national harmony and save Nigeria from implosion. The 2019 elections would make or mar Nigeria, so getting the legal frameworks for staging quality electoral process is key to saving Nigeria from disintegration. And as is said that charity begins at home, the decision of the minister to prioritise staff welfare is worthy of commendation. The agitation for harmonisation of entitlements of legal officers and judicial officers dates back to 1994: that is over 21 years ago. The body of Attorneys-General of the Federation had unanimously agreed on the peculiarities of the job of legal officers, and the need to harmonise their entitlements with those of the judiciary and the magistrate. The non-implementation of the agreement by the Federal Ministry of Justice caused tension between Law Officers Association of Nigeria in the ministry and government, leading to warning strike action by members of the association in February 2015. 

To boost the morale of the law officers, the minister reportedly ensured that the fund to implement the harmonisation of entitlements of law officers is provided for in the 2016 budget of the ministry. Therefore, payment of the harmonised entitlements was planned to take effect from January 2016. This would inevitably put an end to the over 21 years’ agitation by the Law Officers Association of Nigeria of the ministry. The justice sector can be said to have started on a good note. And, it is hoped that some, if not all, of the shortcomings would be corrected to deliver sound justice system to the long-suffering people of Nigeria.

RIGHTSVIEW appears on Wednesdays, in addition to special appearances. The Columnist, popular activist Emmanuel Onwubiko, is a former Federal Commissioner of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and presently National Coordinator of Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria (HURIWA). He can be reached via 08033327672 (sms only) or via doziebiko@yahoo.com

Source News Express

Posted 25/05/2016 1:06:42 PM

 

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