THE Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, has issued a directive to all the heads of various courts in the land to designate one or two courts in their jurisdictions as special courts to hear and speedily determine corruption and financial crime cases. This directive was obviously meant to obviate the painfully slow pace at which graft cases have been heard and determined thus far. Hopefully, the CJN’s directive will now persuade President Muhammadu Buhari to accept that he and the head of the judiciary are truly on the same page in his administration’s anti-graft campaign.
It will be recalled that Buhari had, in January 2016 in faraway Ethiopia, declared that his major ‘headache’in the anti-graft war was the nation’s judiciary. While Buhari might be accused of not moderating his expectations from the judiciary given his military background, the developments since his outburst up till now would appear to have lent credence to his worry. High-profile persons, many of them well-heeled politicians; serving judicial officers, senior lawyers and retired top military officers have been apprehended, investigated and cases initiated against them in various courts but none of them has been convicted to date. And in the very few corruption cases, especially those of important personalities that have been determined, the trial courts have let the accused off the hook on technical grounds.
The CJN’s directive is, therefore, a much needed elixir in the fouled environment of anti-graft trials where the bar and the bench can hardly be said to have acquitted themselves creditably. The details of the directive show clearly that the CJN knows what the issues are and that he is ready to confront them head on. His admission that well thought out strategies are needed to complement the provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (2015) aimed at eliminating delay in the trial of criminal cases is also laudable. This policy, if diligently implemented, promises to bring about a revolution in the trial of anti-corruption cases. We therefore urge the CJN to quickly constitute the proposed National Judicial Council (NJC) committee to be saddled with the responsibility of monitoring the progress of corruption cases in various courts. This is a critical aspect of the policy initiative.
The policy will have a better chance of achieving the desired results if its implementation is monitored properly because it is one thing to give a directive and it is quite another for the directive to be complied with. It is also gratifying that the special treatment to be given to corruption cases by courts does not exclude the apex court. The reported identification of the number of corruption cases before the Supreme Court and the assurance by the CJN that the cases will be given priority are soothing. It is hoped that judicial officers and law practitioners will begin to sincerely see corruption as one of the major socioeconomic challenges besetting the country and as such change their seemingly lackadaisical attitude to the handling of anti-graft cases.
While we are not suggesting that those who are being tried for corrupt practices should be persecuted or unfairly treated, it is unconscionable and unpatriotic for anyone to give respite to or prevent corrupt persons from facing the wrath of the law under any guise, even if seemingly lawful. Judicial officers in particular, as advised by the CJN, should be decisive in frustrating the efforts of prosecution or defence counsels who have a penchant for deploying dilatory tactics to stall corruption cases. And in this regard, the proposed involvement of the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee and Legal Practitioners’ Disciplinary Committee in sanctioning erring members of the Inner Bar and other lawyers is a welcome development. While we urge that speedy trial of corruption cases should by no means result in denial of fair hearing or miscarriage of justice, it is imperative for all stakeholders to recognise the need to hasten the pace of the slow-winding wheel of justice, especially in corruption cases. If this is not done, the country risks giving criminals a false sense of impunity which will in turn exacerbate the intolerable level of sleaze and plundering of public funds.
We commend the CJN for this policy initiative which will effectively answer the clarion call from many quarters for the establishment of anti-graft courts. Gladly in this instance, this is being done without foisting on the fragile economy, additional cost in terms of fresh and burdensome bureaucracy, infrastructure, overhead and so on. We encourage the state chief judges to key into this initiative and contribute their quota to the efforts to rein in the appalling level of economic crimes and financial heists in the land.