The National Judicial Council (NJC), under the leadership of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, has been praised by stakeholders for creating the Corruption and Financial Crimes Cases Trial Monitoring Committee (COTRIMCO). This came after the CJN ordered the creation of special courts for corruption cases. How best can the committee, headed by the former Court of Appeal President, Justice Isa Ayo Salami, achieve its tasks? Lawyers offer suggestions.
The National Judicial Council (NJC) on September 27, set up the Corruption and Financial Crimes Cases Trial Monitoring Committee (COTRIMCO) to monitor the handling of corruption and financial crimes-related cases in the courts.
NJC Director of Information, Soji Oye, said in a statement that the decision to establish the committee, its composition and functions were agreed during the council’s 82nd meeting on September 27.
Members of COTRIMCO
The COTRIMCO, according to Oye, has 15 members, with retired President of the Court of Appeal Justice Isa Ayo Salami heading it.
Other members are four serving state Chief Judges; the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) President, Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN); four ex-NBA presidents; three members of the NJC, including its secretary; a representative each from the Federal Ministry of Justice, civil society and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN).
The Chief Judges are: Justice Kashim Zannah (Borno State); Justice P. O. Nnadi (Imo); Justice Marshal Umukoro (Delta) and Justice M. L. Abimbola (Oyo State).
The four ex-NBA presidents are: Chief Wole Olanipekun, Olisa Agbakoba, Joseph Daudu and Augustine Alegeh (all Senior Advocates), while the three members of the NJC are its Secretary, Gambo Saleh, Dr. Garba Tetengi (SAN), and Mrs. R. I. Inga.
According to Oye, the COTRIMCO, which will drive the NJC’s new policy on the anti-corruption war, has as core functions:
- Regular monitoring and evaluation of proceedings at designated courts for financial and economic crimes nationwide;
- Advising the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) on how to eliminate delay in the trial of alleged corruption cases;
- Giving feedback to the Council on progress of cases in the designated courts, conduct background checks on judges selected for the designated courts; and
- Evaluating the performance of the designated courts.
Oye said the committee’s creation is informed by the renewed zeal of the judiciary’s leadership to eliminate delay in the handling of corruption and financial crime cases and ensure an effective criminal justice administration.
The CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, reflected this new zeal when he acknowledged public concern about the slow pace with which the court was handling corruption and financial crimes-related cases in an address at the event marking the commencement of the 2017/2018 legal year on September 18.
Onnghen assured the gathering that it was no longer going to be business as usual, announcing measures to be adopted in the new legal year to address delay.
Among such measures is his directive to heads of courts to ensure the designation of some courts as special courts, solely for the trial of corruption and financial crime-related cases. For Supreme and Appeal courts, the CJN directed them to set aside a day every week for the hearing and determination of appeals from such cases.
He also directed court heads to compile and forward to the NJC comprehensive lists of corruption and financial crime cases being handled by their various courts.
Who is Justice Salami?
Justice Salami, no doubt, elicits different personalities, depending on what side he is being viewed from. While many see him as a courageous, pious and incorruptible judge, some think otherwise, citing the confusing circumstance under which he exited the Bench.
Justice Salami was born on October 15, 1943 in Ganma, in Kwara State. He obtained the West African School Certificate (WASC) at the Provincial Secondary School, Kano in 1963. He bagged a Bachelor’s degree in Law from the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) in 1967 and was called to Bar on June 28, 1968, after the mandatory Law School training.
He began his career as a Collector of Customs and Excise Grade II, and in 1971 was transferred to North Central State Public Service Commission, where he served as State Counsel Grade II.
Justice Salami later became the Acting Solicitor-General and Permanent Secretary of the Kaduna State Ministry of Justice, Kaduna before he was deployed to Kwara State in 1976 as a Senior State Counsel, where he later served as Acting Solicitor-General and Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Ilorin till 1978.
He later became a judge and was, in 2009, appointed president of the Court of Appeal, to succeed Justice Umaru Abdullahi. He later had a disagreement with the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu, over the handling of Sokoto State governorship election dispute.
On August 2011, the National Judicial Council suspended him on the grounds of his alleged refusal to apologise to the then CJN, who headed the NJC’s panel, which found him to have lied against the NJC.
Aside the indefinite suspension handed him, the NJC also recommended his retirement to President Goodluck Jonathan. Jonathan agreed to suspend him, but did not retire him.
On May 2012, the NJC reversed itself and recommended his immediate reinstatement by the President, a recommendation Jonathan disregarded. Justice Salami did not return to the Bench until he retired on October 15, 2013 at the mandatory age of 70 years.
COTRIMCO ‘s creation, since it was announced, has attracted varied views. While a number of people welcomed its creation, others have queried its necessity in the face of the NJC. They also faulted its composition.
Those, who believed that the committee was necessary for the realisation of a speedy and an effective criminal justice system, were of the view that a committee to monitor the trial of high-profile corruption and financial crime cases was desirable.
They argued that, with such a committee peopled by highly-qualified and accomplished legal minds, most judges, who hitherto were not keen on giving such cases the diligence they required, now have no option than to sit up.
It has equally been argued that the calibre of individuals on the committee will discourage bad practices among lawyers because of the fear of being identified and sanctioned.
There is also the view that the committee, aside acting as an agent of the NJC, is in a better position to advise the CJN and the NJC on inadequacies in the process of criminal justice administration.
Supporters of the initiative also argued that COTRIMCO is in a position to identify other measures to be adopted for the achievement of the goal of prompt disposal of corruption and financial crime cases, particularly those involving high-profile defendants.
A Professor of International Law and Jurisprudence, at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), Akin Oyebode, hailed the COTRIMCO initiative, which he observed will reassure people of the state’s commitment to the anti-graft war.
At a roundtable organised in Lagos by a group, Social-Economic Rights and Accountability project (SERAP), Oyebode said the designation of special courts to handle cases of corruption, in addition to other existing anti-corruption measures, were pointers to the government’s resolve to aggressively confront corruption.
He stressed the importance of speedy determination of corruption cases, and noted that “by effecting prompt and adequate sanction against acts of malfeasance, the anti-corruption crusade would win new and more committed converts among the population”.
Also, Prof Yemi Akinseye-George (SAN) commended the CJN for COTRIMCO. He said the committee was highly welcome, adding that the CJN had done the right thing.
Akinseye-George said the creation of the committee reflected the determination of the leadership of the judiciary to ensure that trial of corruption cases was not business as usual.
He added: “There is a determination on the part of the CJN to make a mark on the sands of time He wants criminal cases, especially the high profile ones, to be fast-tracked. “If we had this kind of committee in place before now, I know that by now, many of the cases that have been hanging since 2003 would have been resolved.”
He continued: “He has chosen very eminent people, who understand the workings of justice system; people like Justice Salami, who was known as a progressive judge; Chief Wole Olanipekun and J.B. Duadu,” Prof Akinseye-Goerge, who heads the justice sector reform advocacy group, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies (CSLS).
Akinseye-George faulted the argument that the committee was a replication of the duties of the NJC, which is mandated to monitor, supervise and discipline judges.
To him, COTRIMCO is like a stop committee of the NJC, which is acting on its behalf. He added that the involvement of senior and highly-responsible lawyers as members of the committee showed that the CJN intends to respect its voice. “It shows that the CJN believes that the Judiciary needs support from the private bar,” Akinseye-George said.
On the flip side, however, are those who queried the committee’s importance and its composition.
The first point raised by critics of this initiative is that its existence raises to two the number of agencies saddled with the responsibility of monitoring judges in the country.
They argued that the creation of a separate body to monitor judges was an indication that there are judges, who need to be monitored for them to do their job, and an admission that the Bench is populated by incompetent or uncommitted judicial officers.
Critics further contended that without necessarily saying it, the headship of the judiciary has, by the creation of a body to monitor judges, admitted that it has lost hope in the ability of the judges to act independently and exercise their discretion.
This, they noted, is a fatal admission on the part of the managers of the judiciary that, over the years, they have recruited incompetent and uncommitted individuals to fill the Bench.
They argued that rather than creating multiple bodies and committees to do nothing, but monitor judges, efforts should be directed at addressing the problems associated with judges’ recruitment process.
Critics asserted that if the point of entry for judges was sanitised and judges’ appointment process made public for enhanced scrutiny, they would be able to ensure that known bad members of the private Bar did not find their way to the Bench.
They noted that the current recruitment procedure, which is shrouded in secrecy, devoid of merit and driven mainly by nepotism, partly accounts for why the judiciary was recently labelled (in a survey by the National Bureaus of Statistics) as next to the police in the rank of corrupt public institutions in the country.
Another issue raised by the critics of COTRIMCO is its composition. They argued that the choice of Justice Salami as its head is a veiled admission by the NJC that it was wrong in penalising the then President of the Court of Appeal on allegation of indiscipline.
Critics particularly queried the choice of former NBA presidents, some of who are currently defending the majority of corruption and financial crime cases pending in most courts nationwide.
For instance, Daudu is said to be involved in the defence of the former National Security Adviser (NSA), Sambo Dasuki, who is named in three major cases relating to money laundering and corruption. The cases are before the Federal High Court, Abuja and the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
Also, Olanipekun has featured in the defence team of a chieftain of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), Raymond Dokpesi, in his money laundering trial before Justice John Tsoho of the Federal High Court, Abuja.
To the critics, the inclusion of private lawyers, whose clients are currently involved in the cases their committee are to monitor, is tantamount to handing a life goat to a famished lion.
They urged the CJN to first address the issue of possible conflict of interest that may involve some members before the committee commences operation.
Akinseye-George agreed with this point when he said the lawyers on the committee, who may be involved in the defence of high defendants, should now know that they have a new role to play.
He said: “In other words, they cannot be monitoring what they are involved in. They can no longer defend clients in anti-corruption cases. They can do other cases, but not representing clients in the anti-corruption cases, otherwise, they will be disqualified for being on that committee. “
To enable the public measure the committee’s performance, Akinseye-George argued that there was a need for a set of rules to guide its function, so that the people could judge its members based on the rules
He also canvassed the inclusion of more representatives of the civil society in the committee. He said one or two individuals, who have been working on justice reform should be included.
Akinseye-George said: “The only person that we can see in that category is probably, Olisa Agabkoba. We need people, who understand what we call development lawyering. Such a person should be a known voice, a leader in development work; somebody who has been involved in promoting reforms in the justice system.”
Another lawyer, Dr. Abdulaziz Mohammed, agreed with Akinseye-George that it was wrong to include lawyers, who are defence lawyers in corruption and financial crime cases, which COTRIMCO is to monitor.
Mohammed said: “I support the CJN for trying to reform the Judiciary. But the fault is in the composition of the committee. There are some people, who are not supposed to be there.
“Some former NBA Presidents on the list are currently defending the people accused of corruption. For them to be required to monitor the judges handling these cases is confusing. How do you explain that? The past NBA Presidents should not be there
“The CJN and others in NJC should have looked for people who are not actively involved in these corruption cases, like law professors in schools or retired judges/justices,” Mohammed said.
Director of a group Access to Justice (AJ) Joseph Otteh suggested the declaration of a state of emergency in the judiciary. It argued that, while the creation of special courts for corruption cases was good, no case was more important than others.
He noted, in a statement, that several suspects had spent years in detention due to delays. It added that according high-profile cases priority, while other cases that border on human rights were left to suffer, should not be allowed.
Otteh said: “Monitoring of courts should not be limited to high-profile cases involving the rich alone. Let reforms be across board. Let it be for all cases pending in court, not just for corruption cases.
“The Chief Justice of Nigeria said Chief Judges of states had been directed to create special anti-corruption courts. But if judges of these courts have to be away for about three months each year, not counting other ‘no-show’ days, we may not see the expected changes in the time taken to conclude corruption cases.
“Let us bear in mind that there are already designated courts in various states handling corruption cases, but it does not appear that these courts have achieved their designed purpose.
“The judiciary can begin by saying that judges handling anti-corruption cases should not go on extended holidays like other judges, but arrange their own individual vacation schedules. There are countries that already do this. This will give a ring of urgency to the anti-corruption role of courts,” Otteh said.
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