As Lateef Fagbemi, the new Attorney General and Minister of Justice (AGF) resumed office last week, there are clearly difficult challenges he must tackle to set the Nigerian criminal justice system on a sound footing given its wobbly, shaky foundation.
Many Nigerians and legal minds have long condemned the rot in the justice system, citing criminal justice system as one area massively affected by corruption and other vices.
Of course, the justice sector in Nigeria continues to be an inalienable part of one of the arms of government. Just like every other sectors in Nigeria, the justice sector is not without its challenges; the judiciary, which is the main arm of government that administers this sector continues, each day, to grapple with these issues and challenges.
These challenges include but are not limited to executive suppression and intimidation of the judiciary, perversive corruption, insecurity, and poor standard of legal education in Nigeria.
Benjamin Anyi, a legal scholar, said “Perversive corruption is one of the many challenges to the administration of Justice in Nigeria.
“Generally speaking, it is believed that one, who lives in Nigeria has a propensity towards becoming corrupt, because corruption is almost unavoidable. The unavoidability of corruption is based largely on the fact that morality is relaxed in the Nigerian society and many people struggle for survival without assistance from the government.
“Sad to say that this same government is supposed to be responsible for providing the foundation for survival for its populace. Looking at the judiciary in microcosm, judicial officers are not immune to this perversive corruption.
“This type of corruption found in the judiciary and, which acts as a challenge to the due administration of Justice, can be categorised into two. The first include administrative corruption, which arises when court administrative employees violate formal administrative procedures for their private benefit.”
According to him, “This kind of corruption displays itself when, for example, an administrative staff of the judiciary takes bribe to steal or remove a document from the file, which document is extremely essential to the success of a party’s case.
“The second aspect is operational corruption, which takes place in grand corruption schemes, where political and considerable economic interests are at stake. When that becomes the case, cherished legal norms are swept under the carpet just for economic gains.
“This type of corruption ripples the administration of justice, leading to unnecessary delays and adjournment; it also has far-reaching effects on the larger society. It’s in the context of broad reform of the criminal justice system that we expect the new Attorney General of the Federation to look into.”
Barrister Adewumi Akanbi of Hope Chambers told Business Hallmark that much was expected from the new man at the Justice ministry.
“I think Fagbemi is competent, highly qualified for the position. I believe he will do the right thing to reform the justice system.”
“Justice Muhammad Uwais once said that: ‘A corrupt judge is more harmful to the society than a man, who runs amok with a dagger in a crowded street. The latter can be restrained physically, but a corrupt judge deliberately destroys the moral foundation of society and causes incalculable distress to individuals through abusing his office while still being referred to as honourable.’.
Fagbemi is one of the respected minds in the legal profession today, let us give him time, he will make a difference and move us away from the Malami disastrous years.
Experts also mentioned executive suppression and intimidation of the judiciary as one of the factors impeding the administration of Justice In Nigeria. When the executive suppresses and intimidates the Judiciary, it affects the way and manner of dispensation of justice by the Judiciary. Justice would hardly be administered without fear or favour.
This suppression and intimidation could be direct or subtle, according to Akanbi.
“It is direct when the executive brazenly attacks the Judiciary and it is clear to all and sundry that this is a frontal attack by the executive, just like we have seen in the recent goings-on in the judiciary, where the homes of Judges are invaded by the law enforcement agents.”
Former Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, President, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, two weeks ago called on the new Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Lateef Fagbemi, SAN, to urgently undertake reforming Nigeria’s criminal justice system.
He also called for the creation of a National Prosecution Agency, with the unbundling of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.
Agbakoba said: “There are pressing tasks to be carried out urgently by the new Attorney General of the Federation.
“Major reforms of the criminal justice system with particular reference to the utter confusion in the duplicated work of our law enforcement agencies in particular EFCC, and Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, ICPC, is urgently needed.
“Also there is need to unbundle EFCC and restrict them to investigation only while a new National Prosecution Agency ought to be established.
“Another key reform would be a complete decentralized Police Force at local state and federal levels.
‘Major revamp of our outdated laws is urgently needed to follow the Rwanda example that modified 1000 laws.
“Last but not least the AGF must work on Speed of Justice.
“It’s a crying shame it takes upwards of 15 years to conclude cases from the High court to the Supreme Court.
“Finally but not exhausted is to create sector specific dispute resolution Agencies to free up the utterly cluttered dockets of the regular courts.
“The other very important task before the Attorney General will be the unnecessary and wholly inefficient matter of over centralization of our superior courts. There is no better time than now to hack down the highly centralized Court systems in Nigeria.
“The AGF is invited to consider major constitutional amendments to create a system of federal and state courts. “State courts ought to have exclusive jurisdiction over matters related to them. This is also the case for federal courts whose jurisdiction must be limited to federal causes.
“This will free up the clutter at the Supreme Court and make it the policy court it ought to be in the first place.
We have a brilliant AGF in Lateef Fagbemi SAN. I am convinced this will be a simple task for him.
“He is a very good colleague and I have the highest confidence in his abilities. I watched the AGF’s appearance before the Senate. I feel he will make fundamental reforms to the criminal justice system and general administration of Justice.”
Speaking last week to a national daily, eminent scholar Prof. Akinseye George (SAN), said Fagbemi is a round peg in a round hole.
“But the new AGF must remember that a term of four years is very short,” he said. He charged the new Attorney General to be focused and prioritise the welfare of judges.
“Too much funds stolen in the last eight years are frustrating the economic recovery programmes of the present administration. Without a clear policy on anti-corruption (prevention and asset recovery), the economy will continue to haemorrhage.
“Strengthen law enforcement by rescuing the Nigeria Police Trust Fund from the massive plunder and abuses going on there. This would release more resources for the implementation of community policing under the Police Act to make the presence of the police felt in all locations throughout the country,” he said
George advised the new AGF to synergy with the judiciary to clear the backlog of appeals, especially in the Supreme Court. He said the AGF should, “Work with the NBA to revamp professional ethics and strengthen the integrity and accountability system within the Bar.
“Work with the National Assembly and Civil Society to improve the administration of justice- minimise delays and corruption in the system. Enact a Civil Justice Reform Act similar to the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, of 2015. Support ongoing efforts to improve the ACJA 2015.”
He implored Fagbemi to “set up a National Victims Compensation Fund to be used to attend to the needs of victims of violence all over the country. This can be done in conjunction with the humanitarian affairs ministry and international humanitarian organisations.”
Barrister Dare Onietan told Business Hallmark that ” Fagbemi is a brilliant lawyer. He’s going to make a difference. We were classmates at the Nigerian Law School in Lagos in 1985. He’s capable, calm but brutally efficient.”
It would be recalled that Fagbemi , during his ministerial screening pointedly made it clear that he would seek the merger of the country’s anti-corruption agencies like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission and other Related Offences.
He had said, “The DSS cannot be an island unto itself. No. It is better to have bad laws in place administered by good men than to have good laws in place to be administered by bad men.”
Fagbemi, has had a flourishing legal practice in Ilorin, Kwara State, and is one of the most influential lawyers in Nigeria today. He has enjoyed a legal career running into four decades.
He became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria within 10 years at the Bar; the minimum statutory period of active legal practice a lawyer must reach to qualify for the rank.
The 64-year-old hails from Ijagbo, Oyun Local Government Area of Kwara State. He graduated from the University of Jos, Plateau State, with a Second Class Upper degree in Law in 1984, called to the Bar in 1985. He bagged a master’s degree in Law from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, in 1987.