Fresh impetus has been introduced into the anti-graft drive with the raft of measures announced by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, last week. He has directed Heads of Courts to create Special Courts in their respective jurisdictions for speedy trial of corruption cases. This is a welcome development; in fact, their existence is long overdue. While anti-corruption agencies with investigative and/or prosecutorial powers have attracted more attention, judicial specialisation is an increasingly common feature of national anti-corruption reform strategies.
The Heads of Courts, according to the CJN, are to designate “one or more courts, depending on the volume of such cases, as Special Courts solely for the purpose of hearing and speedily determining corruption and financial crimes. Where such cases come on appeal, to either the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court, special dates on each week shall be fixed solely for hearing and determining such appeals.”
Besides, a comprehensive list of all corruption and financial crime cases are to be compiled and forwarded to the National Judicial Council, whose new sub-unit – Anti-Corruption Cases Trial Committee – will monitor the enforcement of this initiative. Lawyers, especially the Silks, accustomed to dilatory and vile tactics, handling such cases have been warned to desist from such behaviour as the hammer of apex legal disciplinary bodies will fall on any errant practitioner.
There is no better time than now for this innovation. Other countries have embraced it and recorded resounding successes. Indonesia’s Special Court for Corruption Crimes in Jakarta gained prominence for a nearly 100 per cent conviction rate from 2004 to 2011. With too many cases in one court, an environment less congenial to speedy trial and corruption running riot, cases are bound to be muddled up in regular courts in Nigeria.
Worse, the looters, their counsel and warped judges employ a mixed bag of deception – interlocutory applications, ex-parte motions and perpetual injunctions, among others – to stifle corruption trials. This explains why the prosecution of the ex-governors that left office in 2007 has remained at rudimentary stages since then. Judges are often intimidated with the appearance of between 30 and 90 Senior Advocates of Nigeria in a single case. At the Supreme Court, appearance of such lawyers has now been limited to just five in one case.
Efforts had been made in the past to establish special courts for corruption cases. Former chairmen of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission even championed the cause. One of them, Ibrahim Lamorde, had stressed in 2015, “The challenge my colleagues and I are facing…is the issue of prosecution of corruption, economic and financial crimes in regular courts.” Understandably, the drive to create them met a brick wall. Many lawyers, especially SANs, driven by selfish motives, kicked against it, preferring instead the environment that muddled up and dragged on cases.
But Onnoghen does not need to be reminded that the taste of the pudding is in the eating. Against the backdrop of endemic corruption in the judiciary, well acknowledged by a legion of stakeholders, special courts in themselves hold no promise unless they are headed by judges “known for their integrity, honour, uprightness and unblemished records,” as Itse Sagay, Chairman of Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption, opined.
Therefore, as a revolutionary impulse in criminal justice dispensation in Nigeria, the implementation must be clinical. The crucibles judges go through in Kenya before being considered fit to be appointed through the Vetting of Judges and Magistrates Act 2011 should not be ignored. There, a broad-based committee, consider: Pending complaints or other relevant information from any person or body, including the Law Society of Kenya, Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission and National Intelligence, among others, before the coast is cleared for the nominee.
It is unfortunate that despite the admission of both the bar and the bench of the endemic of corruption in the judiciary, the NJC has not done enough to rid it of the filth. There is no substitute for the enforcement of disciplinary codes guiding the bar and the bench. A former CJN, Mahmud Mohammed, was spot-on when he told the Senate in 2016 during his confirmation hearing, “The problem is with us. We don’t want cases to finish quickly,” when quizzed on delayed justice delivery.
Regrettably, the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, bemoaned at a public lecture last year that the order of the day is, “Go home and sin no more: Corrupt Judges escaping justice in Nigeria.” Such dereliction of duty explains why 64 judges “were disciplined as appropriate,” by the NJC with only retirement between 2009 and 2014. A judge in the temple of justice that soils his/her hand does not go unpunished in decent societies.
Some of these bad eggs still hold sway. They and their allies at the bench have ensured the demobilisation of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, widely applauded at inception as capable of giving traction to justice delivery.
The evidence of looting public funds here is staggering. Corruption has rendered Nigeria prostrate, given reports even from outside our shores. A United States-based Global Financial Integrity based on data from World Bank and International Monetary Fund, said a total of $182 billion was siphoned from Nigeria between 2000 and 2009; and “Nigeria is the leading source of illicit financial outflow from sub-Sahara Africa.”
Yet, the judiciary has been weakened by its infiltration by corrupt politicians and lawyers. Bewilderingly, President Muhammadu Buhari noted that corruption “will kill Nigeria, if we don’t kill corruption.” Buttressing this point, he put the amount of funds looted in the 10 years to 2015 at $150 billion. According to the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, in a statement, recoveries between May 29, 2015 and May 25, 2016, including interim forfeiture (cash and assets) amounted to N3.4 trillion. Between January to August this year, the EFCC says N409 billion and $69 million were recovered from looters. This is in spite of the stifling of 103 high-profile cases, mostly those of politically exposed persons and recurrent fresh discovery of hidden funds and assets.
The recoveries could have been much more, had special courts been integral part of Nigeria’s legal response to corruption. Malaysia and Singapore are among countries that have used the strategy to deepen their anti-graft war. Malaysia has 14 of such courts, which its Deputy Commissioner on Anti-Corruption Commission, Datuk Mustafar Ali, said has revolutionised trial. “With many dedicated courts on corruption, prosecution cases can be attended quickly,” she enthuses. Besides, the country also has a “name-and-shame” database where it uploads names of those that have been convicted of corruption, which Ali says the US has adopted, and seen as a model globally.
An effective judiciary is a powerful weapon against corruption. But there is still much to be done to strengthen it for the anti-graft war. Special court system must go in hand with broader judicial reform. Fair judicial salaries and pensions, Transparency International says, make court personnel less vulnerable to bribery. These should reflect experience, performance and an honest track record. In the face of powerful interests, several measures can also protect judges from pressure. These include investigations of credible allegations against them, and limited liability for decisions. For once, corrupt judges should go to jail here. Court officials must be aware that if corruption is proved, they will be removed in a fair, open way. However, making the special courts to achieve the desired objectives in Nigeria is not the duty of the judiciary alone, but a challenge for all, especially civil society and the media, who crave for good governance and a better society where public funds work for the good of all.