There is need for the Federal Government of Nigeria to guide against whipping up public sentiments against judicial officers whenever it found itself on the wrong side of judicial verdicts, as attempts to demonize the judges and intimidate the judiciary bode ill for the administration of justice in the country.
It is, indeed, a matter of regret that we have, as a group, come to the conclusion that the various prosecutors of alleged economic crimes in the country tend to prefer the mob-induced trial through the media space - where they grandstand and play to the gallery - to the courts to get self-awarded favorable verdicts.
It is about time for anti-graft agencies and Presidency officials to exercise maturity when reacting to unfavorable judicial pronouncements that they find disagreeable.
We at the New Independence Group(NIG) would like to believe that the country’s judicial system provides for appeal, up to the Supreme Court. This is one avenue for litigants to get redress at higher judicial chambers if there is provable miscarriage of justice at the courts below.
Thus, we regard the resort to public chastisement of judicial officers by Presidency officials, and insinuations of under-the-table deals against them, each time anti-graft agencies lose court verdicts, as emotional blackmail which is an ill-wind that blows no one any good.
Of particular note is the sharp criticism of the courts, as well as the back-and forth media exchanges between Presidency officials and the National Judicial Council (NJC) over the recall of some suspended judges and the clean bill of health recently given by the Code of Conduct Tribunal to President of the Senate, Dr Bukola Saraki. To be clear, Justice is a three-way road – for the victim, the society and the court.
Evidence has been led, in several instances, that anti-graft agencies arrest suspects before fishing for evidence rather than the reverse course, thus jeopardising the entire process from the very beginning.
Prosecuting suspects in the media and demonizing judicial officials after cases have been lost in court, when of a truth the judges have been boxed into a corner with badly prepared charges and laughable theatrics of prosecution witnesses.
For us at NIG, the threshold for criminal prosecutions is steep in virtually all jurisdictions with which Nigeria shares amity. Therefore, the onus is on the prosecuting agencies to be thorough and professional in the discharge of their duties. Jurisprudence prescribes that it is better to free nine criminals than to wrongly convict one innocent suspect.
Unlike civil suits that are determined on the balance of probabilities, criminal matters must be proven beyond reasonable doubt. The task is daunting, so the prosecuting agencies cannot afford to be sloppy.
We have noted, for instance, that the Presidency has railed against the Code of Conduct Tribunal, over Saraki. It has also roundly condemned the National Judicial Council (NJC) for recalling some judges who were suspended in the wake of their trial for alleged corrupt enrichment.
And we have also observed that the media has largely toed the path of the Presidency on the matters, unfairly pitting the public against the judicial officers.
Our conclusion, therefore, is that the resort to media war against the Tribunal in the case of Saraki, and NJC in the recall of the judges, is an indication that the Executive arm of the government of Nigeria is more interested in mob justice than the time-tested due process of law.
In an interview with the Punch newspaper, Special Adviser to the President on Prosecutions, Mr Okoi Obono-Obla, was quoted as saying that the Executive would appeal the judgement and “other nonsensical” court rulings which, according to him, could jeopardize the administration’s war on corruption.
Similarly, Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption, PACAC, Itse Sagay, a Professor of Law and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria(SAN) suggested, disparagingly of the Tribunal, that the acquittal of Saraki could be a result of the so-called “Nigerian Factor".
According to Sagay, as quoted in an interview with a media Organization, "If you look at this case, the prosecution was very organised. Evidence was brought out very clearly. In fact, I would say mountains of evidence.
So, nobody can blame poor prosecution in this case. So, what is the problem? A Nigerian factor? We don’t know." For us, at NIG, the statements credited to the president’s aides stand condemned for being indecorous and indecent.
As Saint Bernard of Clairvaux warns, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. Desirable as it is, the war on corruption must follow due process if it will not move from prosecution to persecution.
For the purpose of clarity, we here recall the submission of the Defence in the Saraki matter, dated 21st May, 2017 in which the President of the Senate argued that the most basic principle of fair hearing was neglected by the prosecution before filing the 18-count charge against him.
The Defence team argued before the Tribunal that the principle of audi alteram patem, hearing the other side, was brusquely brushed aside by the prosecution before filing the charge against Saraki. It is unheard of in this age that an investigating team can come to the conclusion of trial without any attempt at presenting facts at its disposal to the accused for clarification and better understanding of the matters at stake.
Without prejudice to the conclusions that the Court of Appeal may arrive, now that the matter has proceeded to that judicial chamber, there is little wonder that the Conduct Tribunal came to its verdict in the light of the absence of fair hearing argued by the defense.
Again, it is wrong to upbraid NJC for recalling suspended judges who had been cleared of criminal charges, while disregarding the pains that litigants in the hundreds of cases before their courts would be put through if their matters are reassigned to other courts to start afresh. Some cases might have taken up to five years and are only awaiting final judgement.
Starting de novo will surely make many litigants lose faith in the court system and prefer a resort to self-help next time. This is more so when appeals against the judges have not commenced, and there is no legal obstacle to proceeding with the fresh action.
In conclusion, NIG would like to caution that the Federal Government, as well as public commentators must know that the country’s jurisprudence can only be on a sure path if prosecutors do their jobs conscientiously, rather than demonise judicial officers who cannot go beyond the law to please the mob.
Akinyemi Onigbinde, Convener, Nigeria Independence Group, for and on behalf of NIG