That well-known saying about the long arm of the law catching up with people who have committed a crime does not seem to enjoy general applicability in Nigeria. Our experience shows that well-placed people or those with considerable means easily get away with crimes. They are able to evade arrest or trial when efforts, provoked by public outcries, are made to bring them to book. When, that is, if at all, they are put on trial, they often leave unscathed, without being convicted, at the end of the day because of a lack of diligent prosecution.
There is a growing case of deceased wealthy or highly-placed people who escaped justice for criminal acts committed against others and the society because while alive they were not taken to trial or convicted in any court of law (even if the court of public opinion holds them guilty). Painfully but helplessly the public is watching as highly-connected public offenders live ostentatiously with no serious attempt by the authorities to throw the book at them until they pass on peacefully. No one can comprehend the irreparable damage this kind of mental assault does to the public psyche. Only God knows how much deviant behaviour and corrupt tendencies have been stirred up by mere consideration of this situation. Even the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Christian Bible warns that ‘when the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong’ (Eccles. 8:11 NIV).
Evidence on the ground invariably shows that our system of administration of criminal laws is in dire need of reform. Criminal cases, when initiated, drag on forever. Some are dismissed for lack of evidence or diligent prosecution. Some continue to suffer all kinds of adjournments that make people wonder if there is a conspiracy between the prosecution and defence lawyers to beat any previous record for longest running trial (a case in point being the ongoing Major Al Mustafa & others trial for murder). Some end in what the public considers a mistrial or even miscarriage of justice. Some cases have never even been brought to trial while the suspects have spent years (some of which are beyond the prison terms for the crimes for which they are accused) languishing in prison or detention centres. There are also growing cases of unsolved assassinations, murders, kidnappings, robberies, frauds, etc. All of these are adding to the growing culture of impunity.
The criminal justice system, as it presently is, leaves much to be desired. It creates the impression, rightly or wrongly, that there is no equality before the law, that certain special breed of people are above the law or governed by a different law than the one the rest of us are subject to. This generally tends to promote the feeling that justice is guaranteed only when the wealthy or highly placed are involved as victims and that victimised poor and less-privileged may have no legitimate option but prayer (as borne in the saying ‘God dey, na im be poor man prayer’). However, we know the poor can also seek other forms of ‘justice.’ Their resort to jungle justice or juju for ‘traditional justice’ is evidence of growing lack of faith in our criminal justice system.
It will be folly on our part because of our religiosity to look to nemesis (or divine retribution) to make up for the deficit in our criminal justice system when God Himself expects us to put our system in perfect order. The ultimate nemesis (hellfire) will not be unveiled until the end of the world. If we leave everything to that time, total breakdown of law and order will take place now as people will be forced to take the law into their own hands. To fail to reform our criminal justice system will seem like a thoughtless invitation to hell by way of chaos and anarchy to come and reign supreme. When that happens, there will be no respite or escape from the consequences, even for the highly placed.
In undertaking reforms in the administration of justice, one key area to start with is democratising or levelling access to justice. Access to justice must be brought within the reach of all crime victims who seek redress. It should be made as easily accessible as possible so the common man who feels his fundamental rights have been violated sees going to the police and local magistrate as the most logical and convenient thing to do rather than taking the law into his own hands. There is no gainsaying the impact a diligent prosecution of a well-placed crime suspect (or one with considerable means and connected to the corridors of power) can have on encouraging ordinary people to use our court system as the first resort.
The police cannot pretend that they do not know that a great deal of the responsibility for bringing this situation about rests on their shoulders. They as well as the court of first instance must be alive to the duty of diligently initiating and concluding criminal cases in good time with outcomes that indicate incontrovertibly that justice has been served without fear or favour to the criminal and the victim or victim’s family. The outcomes should clearly indicate that justice was not only done but was seen to have been done.
The offices of the attorneys-general and minister/commissioners for justice across the federation should lead in the effort to reform our criminal justice system. The system has been in need of reform for a long time. For obvious reasons, no military administrations (they themselves being an aberration) thought it expedient to undertake the reforms. But it is deplorable that ten years into an uninterrupted democratic dispensation, no meaningful reform has taken place yet. A call for an immediate declaration of a state of emergency in the judicial sector by the federal government will not be out of place.
Law practitioners should show more concern about the appalling state of affairs in the administration of criminal justice. The Nigerian Bar Association, the Body of Benchers, National Judicial Council and law practitioners in general should not leave the matter to attorneys-general and minister/commissioners for justice, considering that they are political appointees whose benefactors may have an axe to grind. Lawyers owe it a duty to the society to press for and have implemented radical judicial reforms that will help to extend the arm of the law, making it truly long and thus restore faith in our criminal justice system.
Accelerated efforts must be made to identify all the bottlenecks and legal encumbrances that undermine the criminal justice system. Law officers must look at every legal procedure, every legal requirement, every rule and every precedent that inhibits the law or shortens the arm of the law, making it powerless against certain special breed. They must introduce new rules where existing ones fall short and push to make existing legislations tighter to the point where criminals cannot find loopholes to exploit. They should generally seek to enthrone a more advanced system with stronger legal safeguards to forestall conviction of the innocent and wrongful acquittal of the guilty.