It’s Rule of Law, Not Special Courts

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Special courts are not all that’s needed to effectively enforce the war against corruption, Davidson Iriekpen writes

For the umpteenth time last week, President Muhammadu Buhari appealed to the judiciary to dedicate courts to try graft cases and other special crimes. 

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the 2019 biennial All Nigeria Judges’ Conference of Superior Courts in Abuja, Buhari urged judicial officers to work towards the creation of special courts to assist in the speedy administration and dispensation of justice.

“I will advise that the conference should, in its deliberations, consider how to create an efficient structure for the proposed Special Crimes Courts or the urgent designation of existing courts as Special Courts with competent and credible judicial officers in order to remove administrative bottlenecks in the judicial process,” he said.  

The president said he was not unaware of the challenges facing the judiciary, over which he had held discussions with the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Muhammad. He solicited the support of the judiciary in his administration’s commitment to the economic revival of the country, especially by attracting foreign investments and fighting corruption and insecurity. 

“The government has been committed to a number of justice sector reforms such as review of extant laws and enactment of new laws that will improve the lives of Nigerians. Additionally, we have worked closely with the Chief Justice of Nigeria to ensure that judicial budgetary allocations are enhanced in view of the needs of the judiciary. 

“I have strongly supported the increase in number of judges at High Courts, Appeal Courts and the Supreme Court in order to reduce the burden of the work placed on judicial officers. I will continue to do so,” he posited.

Buhari’s admonition is not new. Since 2008, virtually all the anti-corruption agencies have been mounting pressures on either the Chief Justices of Nigeria or Chief Judges of the Federal High Court to create special courts to handle corruption cases.

Specifically, successive chairmen of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Commission (ICPC) had hinged their inability to secure convictions for high profile public officials on the uncooperative attitudes of the courts. 

While the first chairman of the commission, Nuhu Ribadu, attributed his greatest challenge to the lack of enabling laws to drive the anti-graft war, his successor, Farida Waziri, held the judiciary responsible for her non-performance.

On his part, Ibrahim Lamorde held both the executive arm of government and judiciary responsible for his own failure to successfully prosecute the war against corruption. He added that suspects used officials in high places and the judiciary to influence and jeopardise their investigation and prosecution. 

“The challenge my colleagues and I are facing…is the issue of prosecution of corruption, economic and financial crimes in regular courts.

“Understandably, the drive to create them met a brick wall. Many lawyers, especially SANs, driven by selfish motives, kicked against it, preferring instead the environment that muddled up and dragged on cases,” he once said.

Unknown to many, this impression has often time been debunked by those in charge of criminal administration in the country.

For instance, in 2013, following the heat the judges of his court received for allegedly frustrating the anti-graft agency in its fight against corruption, the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta, was forced to pay a courtesy visit on the chairman of the commission, where he explained that rather than always blame the courts for not doing enough on the corruption cases before them, the judges were often helpless as the commission in their cases made quick dispensation of the cases uneasy. 

Auta, who described the visit as a way “of showing the world that we are ready to work with the EFCC with respect to the law and to see that due process is followed always,” advised the commission to be thorough in their investigations before charging any suspect to court. 

Justice Auta reprimanded the commission for lacking investigative and prosecution prowess to prosecute corruption cases. He stated that bogus count charges, frequent amendment of charges and the rush to arrest a suspect without investigation were the problems facing the commission. 

According to him, a situation where the charges against a suspect were up to 20 and more, and judges were bound to hear them all, was unnecessary and cumbersome. He noted that if a one-count charge could sentence a suspect to about 10 years imprisonment or more, why file 10 counts charges or more?  

As a way out, the then CJ suggested that in cases where the charges against a suspect were numerous, the key ones should be used while the less important ones should be dropped in order to save time on hearing the cases. 

He also suggested that the EFCC should endeavour to conclude investigations before arraigning suspects in courts so as to avoid a situation, where charges would have to be amended. This way, he said corruption cases could be concluded in good time.

“Another challenge that the judiciary faces with EFCC is the amendment of charges. When charges are too many and in the process of hearing, EFCC comes up with amendments, the process would have to begin all over again. He said these factors contributed to dragging corruption cases in courts.”

Also, while delivering judgment in the judgment in the fundamental rights enforcement suit instituted by a former Director General of the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE), Prof. Ndi Okereke-Onyuike, against the EFCC, the former Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Ayotunde Phillips, lambasted the agency for always rushing to arrest suspects without evidence.

The judge held that it was imperative that security agencies such as the EFCC, first established reasonable suspicion against a suspect before effecting his or her arrest. The judge, who urged operatives of law enforcement agencies to learn from their counterparts abroad, cautioned them against being in a hurry to arrest suspects, when they are yet to complete investigation and arm themselves with enough facts and evidence to secure conviction.

Even a former Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice has had cause to criticise the EFCC for poor investigation. He called on the agency to desist from media-slanted crime fighting method, where suspects were paraded on television and on the pages of newspapers but focus on diligent investigation and prosecution. 

It is against this backdrop that observers feel that the first step President Buhari should take is to take the challenge to the anti-corruption agencies by advising them to be serious with their investigation and prosecution. 

They also believe that special courts alone are not enough to effectively tackle the war against graft in Nigeria, but that more judges should be employed to reduce the workload of the current judges to achieve result. 

Those who spoke with THISDAY feel that shoddy investigations and prosecution have remained two of the biggest factors frustrating the fight against corruption. They cautioned the anti-graft agencies to stop enjoying media bliss and spend more time putting together a crack team to investigate and prosecute cases

A prominent Lagos-based lawyer, who had prosecuted some high profile cases for the EFCC, testified that shoddy investigations remained one of the biggest factors frustrating such cases. The lawyer, who spoke on account of anonymity, said, “In financial crimes, you need painstaking investigations, because people go to any length to cover up their tracks. So, you also need to be painstaking and resourceful to be able to go to the length that these people have gone to cover their tracks.

“There are cases where by the time the file finally lands on the laps of the prosecutor with lack of evidence, it’s already dead on arrival. For political reason alone, the prosecutor is under pressure to do something for the eye of the world. 

“Everybody says, ‘Charge him to court! Charge him to court! Charge him to court!’ And at times when you advise that ‘Oh, this thing cannot fly’, for other reasons best known to certain persons, the case still has to go to court. And if the case finally goes to court in a fractured state, you already know the fate and the destiny of such a case.”

Another senior lawyer, who spoke to THISDAY, also on the condition of anonymity, said until anti-corruption agencies put their houses in order, they should not expect anything meaningful to come out of the war against corruption. He warned the government to resist malice, vendetta and political consideration in charging any suspect to court. He also advised them to always ensure that detailed and proper investigation is carried out before charging suspects to court.

“What the EFCC and other agencies do not know is that you cannot charge a case to court without watertight investigation, evidence, solid witnesses and strong prosecutors. Ask yourself, can anything good come out of any corruption war with malice, vendetta and poor investigation?” he asked.