The Judiciary in 2021: COVID-19, JUSUN Strike Added to Nigeria’s Justice Sector’s Woes

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The Nigerian judiciary in 2021 witnessed some of its worst crises in recent history with the shutting down of courts across the country.

The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Tanko Muhammad, vividly captured the issues during the special court session of the Supreme Court to mark the commencement of the 2021/2022 new legal year on December 8.

“The coronavirus pandemic that fiercely ravaged the entire world in the whole of 2020 had a devastating carryover to 2021,” Mr Muhammad began with his review of the outgone year.

“I wish to state that the protracted strike embarked upon by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN), came with its excruciating impact on smooth dispensation of justice as all courts’ activities across the country were paralysed for over two months,” the CJN lamented.

Perhaps, there is no other graphic presentation of the crippling impact of the JUSUN industrial action which began in April 2021, than the stalling of over 100,000 lawsuits before the Federal High Court of Nigeria.

Other Nigerian courts across all levels also shared in the woes added to the endless list of predicaments of the already tired justice sector bedevilled by delays, among its perennial setbacks.

With 75 judges currently on its bench, the Federal High Court currently has over 128,000 cases in its dockets across its divisions nationwide, the Chief Judge of the court, John Tsoho, said on December 17 while reviewing the court’s activities in 2021.

Mr Tsoho acknowledged how loaded judge’s dockets had become since the COVID-19 pandemic was brought under control last year.

While giving a breakdown of cases on the court’s docket, the Chief Judge said, “Within that year, (i.e September 2020 – June 2021), a total of 8, 309 cases were filed.

“There were 40,822 civil cases; 30,197 criminal cases; 35563 motions and 20,258 fundamental rights enforcement applications pending at the end of the Legal Year.”

“The total number of cases disposed of during that year was 6,915 cases; with a total of 128,234 pending at the end of the Legal Year,” he added.

With this scenario, each judge, on the average, has over 1,700 cases to adjudicate upon.

The twin problems of COVID-19 and the prolonged industrial dispute forced the courts to hold virtual proceedings, but this failed to help recover the lost time.

The need for electronic court business — filing of suits and virtual court sessions – became necessary.

But with grossly insufficient infrastructure and the generally low acceptance rate of of these relatively novel procedures, many time-bound political matters lapsed before the courts could reach a determination on them.

Criminal proceedings were stalled with attendant consequence of keeping the prisons housing mostly awaiting trial inmates still heavily congested.

JUSUN, governors lock horns over judiciary’s financial autonomy

JUSUN members embarked on a nationwide strike on April 6 in agitation for the judiciary’s financial freedom from the executive, particularly at the state level, where the state governors only fund the judiciary and legislative arms of government as they please.

The striking court workers in May 2021, rejected the 36 state governors’ proposed template for the implementation of judiciary’s financial autonomy being demanded by the workers.

As a condition to end the strike, the union insisted that all the state judiciaries’ funds for October 2020 till May 2021 must be deducted directly from source, the federation account, and paid to the heads of courts through the NJC as prescribed by the constitution.

On June 9, 2021, JUSUN suspended the strike which paralysed the Nigerian courts for over two months.

The 64-day-old strike is the longest industrial action the Nigerian judiciary, as a whole, has ever seen. The closest to it which members of the union embarked on in January 2015 for the same reason only lasted for two weeks.

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The union announced the suspension of the strike in a communique issued at the end of its NEC meeting.

It cited the intervention of the National Judicial Council (NJC) and others in reaching the decision to suspend the strike.

In a broad sense, the union’s demand is for compliance with constitutional provision which places the state judiciaries’ budgets on the first line charge, a status that enables them to receive their funds directly from the federation account.

President Muhammadu Buhari had last year signed the Executive Order 10 for the enforcement of the constitutional provision. The 36 state governors had kicked against the executive order.

JUSUN took the decision to call off the strike in June despite that its demand for the implementation of the agreement it signed with the state governors on financial autonomy of the state judiciaries had yet to begin.

Virtual court sitting launched at Kuje correctional centre

The AGF launched the pilot project for the deployment and use of virtual court sitting facilities at the Kuje Correctional Centre, Abuja on Monday, December 6, 2021.

The virtual court sitting at the Kuje Correctional Center, Abuja is said to be aimed at speedy determination of cases; thereby deepening government’s policy of decongestion of correctional centres across the country.

Mr Malami noted that the project was conceived to ensure the timely hearing and determination of time-bound cases, adding that the use of digital technology would also eliminate difficulties in conveying inmates to court.

He said it would further ensure the safety and security of the inmates and law enforcement officers.

He explained that the system, would equally ensure speedy dispensation of trials in line with section 36(4) of the Nigerian constitution which provides that every person shall be entitled to fair hearing within a reasonable time.

Umar Gwandu, the AGF’s spokesperson also explained that the development “is part of the process to implement the Post-COVID-19 Justice Sector Plan marshaled out by the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice in April, 2020”.

Mary Odili’s home invasion

A major highlight of the year in respect of the judiciary is the incident that occurred in the evening of October 29, 2021, when armed security operatives raided the Abuja residence of Mary Odili, a Justice of the Supreme Court.

Mrs Odili, currently the second most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, is the wife of Peter Odili, a former governor of Rivers State.

The Inspector-General of the Police, Usman Alkali, the Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the State Security Service (SSS), initially linked to the raid, later denied involvement.

But police authorities would later say that a “fake” chief superintendent of police, Lawrence Ajodo, had applied for and obtained a search warrant from the Wuse Zone 6 magistrate’s court in Abuja, for execution on the Maitama, Abuja residence of Mrs Odili, who is the second most senior justice of the apex court.

Mr Ajodo had claimed in the court document that he was acting on behalf of a joint team on assets recovery allegedly being coordinated by Mr Malami-led Federal Ministry of Justice.

Despite Mr Malami’s denial of any link to the incident, Mr Ajodo, while being paraded by the police headquarters along with 13 other suspects, insisted that he was engaged by the minister as a ‘consultant’.

Mr Malami, who promised to order an investigation into the incident, again deniedany link to Mr Ajodo or the raid on the home of Mrs Odili.

Displeased with the denial of involvement by the authorities, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) rejected the panel of investigation which Mr Malami promised to put in place, because “he cannot subject himself to a panel that he set up.”

Addressing journalists at a press conference in Ikoyi, Lagos, NBA president, Olumide Akpata, described the raid as an assault on the judiciary, calling on President Muhammadu Buhari to set up an independent panel of inquiry to unravel who authorised it.

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The NBA also set up a committee to carry out an independent investigation of the incident.

Also displeased with the wave of denials by the authorities, the Supreme Court, in a statement also condemning the invasion of Mrs Odili’s home, noted that “there have emerged discordant tunes from the various security agencies that allegedly participated in the dastardly act.”

Condemning the raid, the Supreme Court drew similarities between it and the similar one carried out by SSS operatives on the houses of some judges, including two Justices of the Supreme Court, in Abuja and other parts of the country in 2016.

It urged the Inspector General of Police to discretely probe the matter and make its outcome public.

Although, none of the reports of the various pledged investigations had been made public, the federal government, on December 15, arraigned15 persons fingered in the illegal raid on Mrs Odili’s home before the Federal High Court in Abuja.

Deaths of Supreme Court judges

The deaths of two Supreme Court justices were also part of two tragic occurrences that hit the judiciary in 2021.

While Sylvester Ngwuta, 69, died just about three weeks to his 70th birthday and retirement from the bench, on March 30, Samuel Oseji, aged 67, died of an undisclosed ailment in September.

Mr Oseji’s death reduced the number of the court’s judges to 17 even as more of them are set to retire in the incoming year.

Foot-dragging on prosecution of 400 suspected Boko Haram sponsors

In May 2021, the Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr Malami, disclosed that the federal government was about to begin the prosecution of 400 suspected Boko Haram financiers.

The AGF had said the government would soon “resuscitate and reinvigorate the existing special terrorism courts in the country” for the purpose of prosecuting the 400 suspects.

He said the government was profiling some high-profile Nigerians strongly suspected to be financing terrorism for prosecution.

He also disclosed that investigations revealing the suspected terrorism financiers were triggered by a recent conviction of some Nigerians in the United Arab Emirate (UAE) for funding Boko Haram.

The minister also said the government was taking more measures to counter insurgency and general insecurity in addition to the move to prosecute the 400 suspected Boko Haram financiers.

But seven months after, the suspects are yet to be put on trial.

Declaring bandits as terrorists

On November 26, the Federal High Court in Abuja declared the activities of bandits’ groups as acts of terrorism.

The verdict strengthened the call on the federal government to declare bandits ravaging the North-western and the North-central regions as terrorists.

This followed an ex-parte application filed by Mohammed Abubakar, the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), the Federal Ministry of Justice, for the proscription of two groups of bandits.

The bandits have been vicious in kidnapping and killing their captives across Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna, Benue and Sokoto states.

In his ruling, the judge, Taiwo Taiwo, specifically held that the activities of Yan Bindiga and Yan Ta’adda bandit groups constituted acts of terrorism.

According to court documents, the federal government based its decision on security reports, which confirmed that the bandits were responsible for the “killings, abductions, rapes, kidnappings,” in northern Nigeria.

Nnamdi Kanu’s re-arrest, return to Nigeria

In June 2021, the leader of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu, was re-arrested and brought back to Nigeria to face his trial.

Mr Kanu and a co-defendant are facing treasonable felony and terrorism charges at the Federal High Court in Abuja.

At a joint press briefing with the SSS in Abuja, the AGF, Mr Malami, disclosed that international collaborative efforts with security agencies led to Mr Kanu’s arrest and repatriation to Nigeria.

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Mr Kanu fled the country in September 2017 after an invasion of his home by the military in Afara-Ukwu, near Umuahia, Abia State.

The Nigerian government obtained a court order on September 20, 2017, to designate IPOB a terrorist group and to proscribe it.

He did not give details about where Mr Kanu, 53, was arrested, but subsequent claims by family members that the IPOB leader was abducted in Kenya has not been denied by the federal government.

Although Mr Kanu has since been re-arraigned on an amended seven-count charge before Binta Nyako of the Federal High Court in Abuja, the Nigerian government, in October, blamed the separatist leader for some violent attacks in Lagos and other parts of the country during the October 2020 #EndSARS protest.

Mr Malami said the IPOB leader, through his online broadcasts, instigated the large scale destruction of public assets during the #EndSARS protest particularly in Lagos, as well as the South-east and South-south regions.

The AGF also addressed journalists in Abuja on the update on investigations on Mr Kanu and another separatist, Sunday Adeyemo, also known as Sunday Igboho.

He said Mr Kanu set up the ESN, an armed wing of IPOB, to carry out “subversive activities” against Nigeria.

Violent activities of IPOB have always been known to be restricted to the South-east, where the ESN violently enforced a sit-at-home order on Mondays.

The minister also said “Kanu was also accused of instigating violence especially in Southeastern Nigeria that resulted in the loss of lives and property of civilians, military, para-military, police forces and destruction of civil institutions and symbols of authorities.”

NHRC’s #EndSARS panel’s award of compensations to victims police violence

The Abuja #EndSARS panel probing allegations of human rights violations perpetrated by the defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and other units of the Nigerian police, on December 23, 2021, awarded N146 million to victims of gross rights violations.

The 11-member Independent Investigative Panel commonly referred to as #EndSARS panel, was set up by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to probe various various forms of rights violations perpetrated by the operatives of the defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and other police units.

The setting up of the panel, replicated in about 29 states and Abuja, was spurred by the nationwide #EndSARS anti-police brutality protest led by the youth against brutal activities of men of the defunct SARS in October last year.

The protest ensured SARS was proscribed, with authorities promising broad police reforms and setting up of the judicial panels of inquiry across the states to award compensation to victims.

However, during the compensation ceremony in December, the Secretary to the panel, Hilary Ogbonna, enumerated several challenges that militated against the panel’s mandate.

He admitted that funding remained a huge challenge to the effective working of the panel, a revelation that confirms PREMIUM TIMES’ earlier reported this year about how inadequate funding crippled the panel’s proceedings for several months.

He itemised operational challenges with the police in terms of lack of records and serial disobedience to the panel’s orders, which frustrated its work.

“What happens to the remaining 143 petitions?” Mr Ogbonna wondered about the fate of the pending complaints that must be adjudicated upon by the panel.

As a result, the panel adjourned indefinitely as “NHRC will continue to seek funds to administer the panel and to compensate victims”.

“There will be no more sitting until funding comes,” the panel secretary said.

There is no doubt that year 2021 was filled with many challenges in the justice sector, but the new year offers fresh opportunities to engender the much-needed changes in the judiciary.

Premium Times

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