Now That the NJC Panel is Set

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With the National Judicial Council Committee on the Monitoring of Corruption Cases set to commence sitting, the judiciary now has a rare opportunity to not only play a major part in the fight against graft but also leverage a rare opportunity to remake itself before the observing public, writes Olawale Olaleye

The National Judicial Council (NJC) Committee on the Monitoring of Corruption Cases announced last week that it was set to commence sitting and as a result, has resolved to produce new practice directions that would fast-track the trial of cases involving corruption and financial crimes.

NJC’s Director of Information, Mr. Soji Oye, in a statement last Sunday said the committee took the decision after its meeting in Abuja the previous week. He said the committee had concluded plans to meet with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) in furtherance of its mandate.

The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, some weeks ago, at a special session of the Supreme Court, where he administered oath on 29 new Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN), had directed all heads of court to designate courts and judges that would solely handle the on-going trials on a daily basis in order to fast-track all the pending corruption cases.

The practice directions sub-committee of the committee has therefore commenced a review of various practice directions of the courts by leveraging on both local and foreign comparative jurisdictions to meet global best practice.
The committee said it was imperative that other critical stakeholders buy into the mission of the body, saying regular updates and advocacy postings on activities of its sub-committees must be a permanent feature of the project.

To that extent, the NJC said about 2,306 on-going corruption cases nationwide had been submitted to the committee, but that some chief judges of state high courts were yet to transfer such cases to the CJN for onward transfer to the committee.

To facilitate its work, the committee was divided into four sub-committees. They are Practice Directions, Training, Feedback and Engagement, and Awareness. The committee also divided the country into three zones for ease of monitoring and evaluation of the said cases.

The zones are: Zone A – Abuja FCT, Zone B – Northern Zone and Zone C – Southern Zone.
From the record, Zone A has 554 pending cases; Zone B has 347 cases while Zone C has 1,405 cases. Also, Justice Suleiman Galadima, who recently retired from the Supreme Court, was appointed as chairman of the committee, after Justice Ayo Salami had rejected the position.

Onnoghen had announced that to properly monitor and effectively enforce the new policy, the NJC would constitute an Anti-Corruption Cases Trial Monitoring Committee (ACTMC) at its 88th meeting to be saddled with the responsibility of ensuring that both trial and appellate courts handling corruption and financial crime cases key into and abide by the renewed efforts at ridding the country of the cankerworm of corruption. He said with pre-election appeals cases now out of the way, the Supreme Court would henceforth channel its energy towards clearing as many of the corruption and financial crime cases as possible.

It is nearly a consensus that corruption is Nigeria’s greatest problem. It is for this reason that those, who seek a better country have consistently called on the judiciary to come to the country’s rescue. Apart from the fact that the government is believed to lack the political will to fight corruption, judiciary’s lack of capacity to deal with the complex and time-consuming proceedings are believed to account for why corruption has been on the rise in the country.

But of course, the assumption that the inability to deal with corruption within the judiciary as well as strengthen its integrity have formed critical part of its corruption problem. Whilst Section 40 of the EFCC Establishment Act, 2004 is averse to unnecessary delay of cases filed by the anti-graft agency and stay of proceeding should the defendant(s) appeal any application, judges handling corruption cases are said to often ignore this section of the Act.

This is because not only do they allow defendants to get away with long adjournments, they also grant stay of proceedings at the slightest appeal and also frequently grant bail and permissions to defendants to travel abroad for medical check-ups each time they file application to that effect. But scenarios such as this have often made past chairmen of the commission to blame the judiciary for not cooperating with anti-graft agencies in tackling corruption.

Immediate past Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta, once blamed one of the agencies for these slacks. During a courtesy visit to the commission, he explained that rather than continue to blame the courts for not doing enough on the corruption cases before them, the judges were often helpless as the commission in their cases make quick dispensation of the cases not easy.

Auta not only berated the commission for poor investigation of corruption cases, but faulted a situation, where the commission would file about 150 to 200 count charges in court against a suspect when just three or four count charges could send the suspect to prison. He also faulted the frequent amendment of charge sheets, which according to him makes the case to start afresh each time this is done. He added that incessant amendments to charges filed by the commission and too many charges in one case for the accused to take a plea, among other such actions, amount to “dancing in one spot.”
Clearly, there is no stressing corruption as the bane of development in the country. What is however important is the disposition of the leadership to stemming the tide of corruption – the will power and commitment. And with the current contraption going on with the anti-corruption agencies in the country, the judiciary as a critical stakeholder must stand up stoutly to this scourge.

The initiative is no doubt commendable. It is however not an end in itself. The NJC committee must make sure it does not end up in scandal of any sorts and patriotically see through all cases with a view to setting abiding lessons in the collective resolve to change the national narrative. That corruption is endemic is not news, what is news is the resolve to see the fight against it as doable and genuinely so.