The already thirteen year old trial of former governor Orji Uzor Kalu of Abia State is to recommence for another twenty years probably. EFCC by now is looking to regather its 19 witnesses for a fresh cruise. That case if it ever returns to court will burden afresh the already overburdened cause list all at the expense of tax payers the umpteenth time.
Ours is a “fast-becoming-useless” legal system that aids criminality, thrives on senseless technicalities and brandishes an uncaring mediocrity to obfuscate the real triumph of the rule of law that we are always quick to pay lip services to.
We currently do not have any provisions in our laws that are sensible enough to appreciate the need for a trial judge who has just been promoted to the appellate court to conclude his pending trials before taking a fresh oath of office since we are a nation of incessant abandoned projects.
He immediately leaves and all the trials he is presiding over no matter how advanced the stages they already are will have to commence de novo (afresh). How can this ever make sense to sensible people?
The Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015’s attempt to cure this malady (of trials starting afresh due to promotion of the trial judge to the Court of Appeal) through its S. 396(7) (permitting the Judge to continue to sit to conclude those partly heard trials in his former court despite his new appointment at the Court of Appeal) by virtue of this Kalu (Udeogu’s) case has effectively been sent to the grave. Admittedly, the provision offends the 1999 constitution (which is the highest law of the land) and may have been rightly thrown out.
But then, the problem remains, pointing to the weakness of the constitution itself. No matter how well conducted your trial is and no matter the number of years spent, if the presiding judge is promoted, he abandons the case immediately without any thought- no thought about the lingering pain of the victim of the offense or that of the litigants in civil causes who cannot wait for the torturous trial to be over so they can get justice; no thought about the economic implication of a long trial on their plans and aspirations and ultimately their life which may be totally put on hold while the trial lasts; no thought about the rigour of trial on counsel and litigants alike and the cost of it both financially and emotionally.
All of these mean nothing to our unjust and uncaring justice system. Your matter starts de novo. It’s as if that mouth with which someone flippantly says “de novo” should catch fire.
By then, you may have become totally fatigued, some of your key witnesses already dead and then you go home empty handed considering yourself more miserable for attempting to uphold your right in the first place. And that’s how a system established to advance justice in a rather ironic twist of fate is now a key player in the vanguard of injustice.
How should it be possible in a sane clime for there to be sufficient systemic loopholes for anyone who has some little cash to frustrate the course of justice through frivolous appeals on even the most unreasonable grounds up to the Supreme Court. Orji Uzor Kalu for instance had successfully delayed his original trial by nine years through a frivolous interlocutory appeal up to the Supreme Court regarding the charges filed against him. We are the ones who created such a retrogressive system.
As the legal system is currently constituted, it is just too easy for an opponent to frustrate the course of justice or the fruit of someone’s well deserved judgement out of malice to the highest levels. He only needs an ordinary sheet of paper titled “Notice of Appeal” no matter how incoherent his grounds or how bad his English and then he is sure to enjoy the fruit of his injustice for another eight years during which status quo must remain and that’s if the appeal gets listed for hearing in eight years.
The way we talk years in the Nigerian legal system, you’ll think they are equal to days. Sad! How can this be a system? How are the leaders able to sleep watching this kind of unjust system remain?
But it will interest you that it took just about five months for Mr. Udeogu (acting in effect for himself and his co-convict Kalu) to move from the Federal High Court up to the Supreme Court in his most recent appeal. It takes an average of 20 years for ordinary Nigerians to move up the same ladder. Ordinarily, what we were taught in law school was that a cardinal principle of the rule of law is equality before the law. That is a ruse here in Nigeria.
The rich and ruling class have created for themselves an express way to justice or to injustice depending on which of the two is needed at any material time. I know they’ll tell us that Kalu’s matter was of an urgent nature because it involved the liberty of a citizen but there are thousands of other citizens who are in the same prison as Kalu or Udeogu for far lesser offences who have not even been convicted but yet they remain in prison for many years. Why is Kalu’s or Udeogu’s different? Men who stole billions of their people’s money at the expense of roads, schools and hospitals? What is so urgent about helping them to escape the consequences of their offences?
The same ruling elites who have refused to reform the justice system know by their own experience that it is insane, for want of a more gory descriptive, for a litigant to wait for 20 years to get justice in just one case. Which human can confidently boast that he will even be alive in another 20 years from now?
Our position at the Civic Engagement and Justice Coalition (CJC) has always been that all cases are urgent. Enough of the rubbish of claiming some cases are urgent while some are not. A litigant whose livelihood depends on a land wrongfully taken from him by someone mightier than himself urgently needs justice in that case for the restoration of his livelihood but our legal system says land matters are not urgent for instance. What an upside way of thinking. It is the person who wears the shoe that knows where it hurts.
Our position is that we cannot continue to have this current legal system. It has suffered a reversal of fate. All people of conscience must rise in defense of true justice, the poor and the downtrodden. There is no justice if it is not gotten on time. It is worse if some in the same society can pay their way up while others because of their economic status have to wait long torturous years.
We need to proliferate our courts in direct proportion to population increase. We need far more divisions of the Court of Appeal than we currently have and let proliferation be based on a population quota system (It doesn’t make sense for instance that Ekiti State has one panel of Justices sitting in its Court of Appeal while Lagos which has ten times the population of Ekiti has two sitting panels). This is why some appeals can be concluded within a year or two in Ekiti whereas it takes an average of 6-8 years to conclude same in Lagos inside the same country.
There is need for the unbundling of the Supreme Court into Six Zones to start with and sufficient number of Justices must be appointed for dispatch handling of cases. In the future, and in the spirit of true federalism, let each state have its own appellate system like we have in a nation like the United States of America where we copied our Federalism. Nobody should tell us it’s not possible. Only mediocres make such statements. If we have the political will as a nation, we can easily get this done.
Somehow we have to fix this moribund system however we want to go about it. And it has to be now. It shouldn’t any longer be a misfortune to be a Nigerian. Worse still, to be a poor Nigerian.
“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour.” Leviticus 19:15. ESV.
Peniela Akintujoye is a Human Rights Lawyer, Public Affairs Analyst and Convener, Civic Engagement and Justice Coalition (CJC). He can be reached via [email protected]