JUSTICE ACCORDING TO STATUS

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There is need to reform the administration of justice

The recent decision of Justice Nathan Musa of the Adamawa State High Court to send former Adamawa State Governor, Mr James Ngilari to “any jail in this country of his choice” was most reprehensible. It was also illegal in the sense that it is the duty of a judge who has convicted and sentenced a criminal suspect to commit him/her to a prison. But in asking the ex-governor to choose his own prison, the judge was only following a pattern that has long been established that in the administration of justice in Nigeria, there are two standards: one for the rich, another for the poor.

Ngilari was found guilty on all the five counts of conspiracy to award contract amounting to the tune of N167.8 million for the purchase of operational official vehicles without compliance with due process. In his ruling, the judge based his conviction of the former governor on section 58 (5) of the Public Procurement Act. But in handing down the sentence, the judge must have considered the status of the convict by asking that he should also pick the prison where he would serve his term.

Unfortunately, there is nothing new in what the judge did. When a former bank chief was convicted and ordered to forfeit almost N200 billion to the federal government after a slap-on-the-wrist sentence of six-month jail term, the trial judge then went on to order that she be allowed to spend the term at a high brow hospital in Lagos. Ordinarily, it is the exclusive duty of the prison management to ensure that prison inmates are given medical treatment or referred to appropriate medical centres. But the judge took it upon himself to usurp the powers to direct where the convict would serve.

As bizarre as that was, it is the new normal in Nigeria. Apart from sending rich and powerful criminal suspects to prison for a few days upon arraignment to await the ruling of trial judges on bail applications, most of the people in prison cells are poor inmates. Indeed, if rich persons are briefly held in prison custody, they are not kept in the general cell but in the ‘White House’, a special cell equipped with beds and beddings, toilet facilities, etc. Alternatively, arrangements are usually made to allow the rich to serve their terms in hospitals outside the precincts of prisons.

A report once conducted by the federal government into the activities of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) revealed that 197 convicts who were jailed for drug trafficking by the federal high court from 2005-2006 were released within the premises of the Lagos judicial division of the federal high court by a syndicate of corrupt prosecutors, defence counsel, court and warders. There is also the practice called “prison exchange” whereby young people are paid to serve prison terms in lieu of convicts with the connivance of prison management. All that is required to stop the illegal practice is to capture the finger prints of every convict but the authorities do not seem to be interested.

From court clerks who make case files to appear and disappear, to court bailiffs who most often refuse to effect judicial process simply because they were unable to extort money from a litigant or his counsel to lawyers who facilitate some of these unwholesome practices to prison officials who treat prisoners according to the size of their bank balances, the administration of justice system in Nigeria is in need of a serious reform.

Given the foregoing, the judge who convicted Ngilari must be well aware that we have a dysfunctional criminal justice system. But no society can develop with such a system where there are different standards for the poor and the rich in the application of the rule of law