When activism of Senate Committee on Judiciary elicited attention

WHEN the President of the ninth Senate, Ahmad Lawan, announced the composition of the 69 Standing Committees last September, it elicited mixed reactions in the polity, across the parties divide.

While some praised him for walking his talk on bipartisanship by giving leadership of sensitive committees to members of the main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP),   he was equally lauded for putting a round peg in round hole.  In allotting leadership of the committees, Findings revealed that he showed more than passing interest in the background of each lawmaker before they were assigned Committees.

A case in point is the leadership of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters given to Senator representing Ekiti Central, Michael Opeyemi Bamidele. A seasoned legal practitioner with an enviable record of activism in the uncertain days of the struggle for restoration of democracy in Nigeria, his Committee has since hit the ground running in the last nine months.  Less than a year of its inauguration, the committee is one of such that have courted the attention of Nigerians.

Investigation revealed that the Presidency was taken by surprise by the comments of the Committee chairman on the floor of the Senate following the invasion of the Court room in Abuja by operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) during the forceful arrest of  Omoyele Sowore , (convener of #RevolutionNow) , standing trial on alleged treasonable offences took the Presidency by surprise.

The manner of the arrest of Sowore sparked national outrage. Many Nigerians and organisations condemned the act and called for the sack of the Director-General of the State Security Service (SSS), Yusuf Bichi, over the illegal detention of Omoyele Sowore, and the invasion of a federal court. The Nigerian Bar Association also called for the suspension of Mr Bichi.

For a Senate that has been derisively labelled as rubber stamp by Nigerians, the submission of Senator Bamidele and subsequent reactions of lawmakers on the floor of the Red Chamber jolted the  Presidency but disabused the minds of many Nigerians with jaundiced perception that what we have is a meekry Parliament, a factotum of the Executive arm of government.

On December 12, 2019, Senator Bamidele moved a motion for the investigation of the Court room by the DSS.  Coming under Order 43 of the Senate rules, he said the alleged invasion was an affront on the judiciary and should not escape the prying eyes of the parliament.  He said: “The Judiciary must find our voices at this time and more so, since the courtroom is believed to be a sanctuary that should not be desecrated with such an alleged invasion, thorough investigation needs to be carried out to get the facts of the matter.”

The Senate subsequently mandated his Committee to investigate the sordid action of the DSS. The government however released Sowore on bail as ordered by the Court while he still stands trial for the alleged treason.

Following the public opprobrium that trailed the controversial Bill, Internet Falsehood, Manipulations, and other Related Matters Bill, 2019 sponsored by Senator representing Niger East,   Sani Musa, the Senate, in its wisdom, subjected it to a public hearing for agitated Nigerians to ventilate their views.

At the hearing held on March 10, 2020, Senator Bamidele declared in clear terms that his Committee position would be guided by the majority of Nigerians who put up appearance at the forum.  “Our duty here today as a committee at this gathering on further legislative action on Internet Falsehood, Manipulations, and other Related Matters Bill, 2019, is to aggregate views of Nigerians on it and be guided by prepondonrance of opinions for or against.”

Findings revealed that the Committee open declaration of its neutrality must have emboldened individual speakers who defiantly squealed against the bill and ultimately nailed its coffin.

Those, who spoke at the forum, included the Executive Vice-Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission, Professor Umar Danbatta, representatives of bodies like the Amnesty International, the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), among others. It is instructive to note that only the Nigerian Army and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA), made presentation in support of the controversial bill. The chairman of the committee has also in the face of coronavirus initiated a bill, to give legal backing to virtual proceedings at the courts.

Presenting the bill, 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Alteration) Bill, 2020 (SB. 418), for first reading, Senator Bamidele said it would push for the much-needed corresponding amendment of relevant provisions of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), in giving legal teeth to virtual court proceedings. The provisions of the bill include the amendment of Section 36 sub-section (3) of the 1999 Constitution. Senator Bamidele said the amendment became necessary in view of Section 36(3) which made public hearing a sufficient condition in the determination of disputes. He said: “The National Judicial Council in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic and the inability of courts to hold courtroom proceedings, had taken steps to ensure continued administration of justice through virtual proceedings in accordance with global best practices, with some State Chief Judges coming out to openly adopt and implement the NJC guidelines.

“However, Nigerian lawyers have been divided over this issue as there has been an ongoing debate among legal practitioners as to whether or not virtual hearing is real hearing as provided for in the Constitution while some are insisting that the word ‘public’ in the Constitution shall continue to mean physical courtroom or other designated place unless and until the relevant provisions in section 36 of the Constitution are amended.”

He further justified the initiative: “Technology has been adopted as an instrument for speedy delivery of judgments on cases in advanced nations. Many cases are being heard through teleconference and judgments passed through same route. Apart from decongesting our courts, it helps during emergency situations as we are experiencing under coronavirus pandemic. Virtual proceeding is expedient to save our nation from anarchy in times of emergency like this. The Judiciary as an arm of government must move with the tide. As a way of complying with the social distancing policy of government under COVID-19, the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Executive Council (FEC) now holds weekly meetings through virtual means so that the nation will not suffer good governance.

“The same method has been adopted by governors in many states and I see no reason the judiciary can’t adopt same to entrench the rule of law in the system, because one can’t get justice when activities of courts are suspended indefinitely, because justice delayed is justice denied.”

The committee in May during the screening of the newly appointed members of the Nigeria Law Reform Commission decried the existence of obsolete laws in the country’s statue books. Individual members of the committee charged the chairman of the Committee, Professor Jummai Audi and three other board members, whose names were forwarded to the Senate for approval by President Muhamnadu Buhari, to look at the obsolete statutes, begging for review.  Senator representing Delta North,   Peter Nwaoboshi said the Commission since inception has been idle and advised the new board of the commission to make themselves visible. He said: “This Commission as the body constitutionally saddled with the responsibility of law reforms, ordinarily supposed to be visible but not visible at all.”

Senator representing Osun central,  Ajibola Basiru  noted that between 2017 and 2020,  the NLRC made only seven attempts at law reform. According to him, “The worrisome aspect of the Dormancy,  are the existence of obsolete penalty clauses in our law books begging for review. Obsolence of penalties like N200 fine or six months jail term for offenders of serious crime is ridiculous and not deterrent as it supposed to be. “

Aside the Board of the NLRC, the Senate Committee equally tasked the new President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica Dongban Mensem to “demonstrate the required courageous leadership the Judiciary deserves by standing up in fair and fearless manner by the Nigerian people when it comes to justice.”

Senator Bamidele recalled that in deference to the judiciary, the Senate suspended its rule for expeditious screening of the new President of the Court of Appeal.  He pleaded that the lawmakers’ gesture should not be in vain.  “Your Lordship must ensure that Justice is not only delivered but in timely manner because justice delayed, is justice denied. It should not be business as usual , the very reason the Senate and by extension, the National Assembly , is revisiting the budget of the Judiciary which is less than 1 per cent of the N10.509 trillion 2020  budget size for the country.”

The senator representing Ekiti Central further revealed that his committee was determined to look into the budgetary votes of the judiciary as regards welfare packages for Judges and Justices.  He stated: “The welfare situation of the judicial officers is nothing to write home about. The last time salaries and emoluments of judicial officers were reviewed, was in 2008, the benefits of which have been completely eroded by inflationary trends. This sector might go into extinction if the needful is not urgently done, because in years to come, Nigerians may no longer be interested in going into the sector.”

As the Senate resumes for plenary this week, Nigerians expect meaningful interface between the Committee and other bodies critical to the timely dispensation of impartial justice in the country.

 

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