Our modest judges
September 15, 2010
Stop: no human rights here
December 15, 2010

‘Open eyed’ justice: the Nigerian way

The Nigerian police and the judiciary have played their separate but almost equal roles in ensuring Nigerians believe that ‘justice’ does not exist. What else can explain the results of a poll carried out by CLEEN Foundation where 44 per cent of those who reported their experiences of crime to the police said they were dissatisfied with the handling of the cases? Judging from the last few editions of The Lawyer and the tone of articles in our newspapers, it is quite possible that if the same poll was carried out on the experiences of citizens with the judiciary, we would get similar results.

When the story of Mrs. Cecilia Ibru’s sentence broke a few weeks ago, it was unanimous, at least on radio that justice had not been served. Callers were completely indignant about the six months she would have to spend in jail after negotiating the return of assets worth N191 billion naira. The general consensus was that it was likely that she had taken more than she was returning and that it was a bad signal to the fight against corruption that a person who was bold enough to misappropriate so much could get a mere rap on the knuckles. After all, six months imprisonment to be spent in a hospital is hardly fair punishment for what she has done.

A few days later I heard another sad but familiar story about a gardener who was arrested by the police for being a suspect in the robbery of a neighbour’s house. According to the gardener, the robbers had come to his compound first to gag and tie him up and take his ladder for their operation. Now he was a suspect for theft worth at most N250,000 and was in jail trying to find someone to intercede on his behalf. Bail was not an option because the police had to hold someone until they could figure out who exactly was guilty of the crime.

Two kinds of justice – one for the rich and one for the poor.

It is clear that there is a gap the size of a crater between the law on paper which says you are entitled to a right and the actual enforcement or even enjoyment of that right. Fundamental human rights are constantly being denied citizens of Nigeria and it is not an exaggeration to say courts are almost the last place you want to go for a speedy or efficient reinstatement of your rights. With the enthusiastic support of the police, the enforcement of court orders or legal rights is rare especially for personal and family law judgments. For instance, after a divorce, the courts routinely order men to pay alimony – a fixed allowance for maintenance, especially where the children are in the custody of the mother. However, in most cases, the men pay for a month or two if ever at all, and stop. And nothing happens, even when there are options to be exercised. The police just can’t bring themselves to arrest a man for something as mundane as refusing to pay for the upkeep of his children. And the courts rarely exercise the power to garnish the wages of the errant husband by asking his employer (where there is one) to pay the sum in dispute directly to the court or to the ex-wife. And even when the court makes the order, all the parties are at liberty to just ignore it.

However, a variation of this arrangement apparently works in the armed forces without the intervention of the legal process. There, desperate wives report their husbands to their superior officers and the wages of the defaulting husbands are paid directly to the wives.

Two kinds of justice: one for divorced women and one for long suffering wives.

So why is it so hard to enforce laws or court orders in Nigeria? The simple answer is there is no will to enforce on the part of the law enforcers and no zeal to demand for enforcement on the part of the citizens: no one cares enough. The long answer is that there are a myriad of 1001 little things which drain the blood of justice from cases brought to court. One is that every interlocutory application can be fought all the way to the Supreme Court so that before the substantive case even starts, babies have become voters. Then everything from cases being adjourned for long periods to court transcripts being taken in long hand leave their mark on the efficacy of a judgement. Not long ago I read about a commercial dispute which took over twenty years to be resolved. The defendant was a foreign company and during the course of the trial it lost one of its counsels to death, packed up its business in Nigeria and moved abroad and then declared bankruptcy. By the time judgement was finally delivered for the Nigerian plaintiff in the Nigerian court and he rushed abroad to seek enforcement of the judgement, there was nothing to be gained from it. The social cost of such a judgement is the same as our most recently celebrated judicial success – judgement in favour of Dr. Fayemi who has finally gotten back his stolen mandate to be Governor of Ekiti State. But as people celebrate no one is thinking of the injustice of having the person who did not win serve as a governor for three and a half years.

Two kinds of justice: one for politicians and one for ordinary citizens.

As we anticipate the elections we need to think seriously about how to improve justice delivery in Nigeria because there is anticipation that politicians are going to fiercely protect their votes in the 2011 elections. Inability to access justice is extremely frustrating and this is why people prefer to take matters into their own hands – business partners who are cheated send hired assassins and communities, ravaged by armed robbers keep tires, petrol and a match close by.

We all have our responsibilities. The police have to enforce the law justly without fear or favour and our leaders need to be unforgiving, and intolerant of the police force not living up to its responsibilities. The courts need to totally overhaul its judicial process and judges need to use their discretion to discern from the facts of cases those instances where justice must be delivered with the speed and precision of an eagle snapping up its prey. And as citizens we must remain undeterred by the slow, unyielding pace of the judicial process. If we keep demanding our rights to justice, the courts are going to have to change to meet the demand and expectations. It is quite possible like the laws of demand and supply that the more we demand of our police, the courts and the judicial process, the better, we and they will all become.

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