- Says prison congestion, threat to national security
As judges and other judicial staff in Nigeria spent the Christmas without salaries, a former Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Ondo State, Mr Olawale Fapounda has called on President Muhammadu Buhari to urgently convene a special meeting with all governors in the country to dialogue on how financial autonomy would be granted the judiciary if the battle against corruption in the judiciary must be won. AMEH EJEKWONYILO reports.
Fapounda, a rights activist advised that President Buhari and the governors’ meeting should also fashion out ways of establishing an independent judicial benefits and compensation commission.
Delivering a lecture at the 2016 lecture series of the National Association of Judiciary Correspondents (NAJUC) in Abuja, the former Commissioner for Justice said that the dialogue between Buhari and the governors should undertake a comprehensive review of salaries and benefits of all judicial officers in the country including the lower court judges.
He pointed out that the biggest news in the outgoing year was the arrest and prosecution of some judges on alleged corruption but remarked that it was not enough to fight the problem in the judiciary in that way alone.
“To be sure I am yet to see how the prosecution of these judges will fundamentally change the reality of our court system. The issue of poor infrastructure affecting all court, defective judicial appointments and the tragic inability of most of the state governments to support judicial financial autonomy are known obstacles.
“Fighting judicial corruption is a good idea but a judiciary that frequently goes cap in hand to the executive for funding even for the most basic of its needs cannot by any stretch of imagination inspire citizens’ confidence.
“The biggest news in 2016 is the arrest and ongoing prosecution of a number of judicial officers. You know better than I do that our judiciary faces certain inherent problems, which show the weaknesses and defects of the system. These require immediate reforms. Corruption is just one of these challenges. Judicial corruption is not simply about judges taking bribes, it includes all forms of inappropriate influence that may damage the impartiality of justice.
“A judgment or Court order that does not follow judicial precedent or is inherently defective can be prima facie evidence of corruption. Others challenges include the backlog of pending cases in all our courts, the use archaic systems, poor infrastructure and limited recognition of lower courts.
“The other important criminal justice institution is the Nigeria Police. Violations of rights in the criminal justice system are largely attributable to police action or inaction.
Speaking on the seemingly intractable rot in the nation’s police force and its attendant effects on Nigeria’s criminal justice administration, Fapohunda pointed out that there had been a stiff resistance to the transformation of the force.
“There appears to be a deep-seated and strong resistance to the idea of police reforms in Nigeria. Indicative of the deeply entrenched resistance to police reform is the fact that there have been more than 14 years of debate on policing and reform facilitated by multiple committees on police reforms. The findings and reports from these initiatives have largely gone unimplemented.
“Public perception of corruption, impunity, absence of accountability, incompetence, and failure to control the law and order situation plague the police force. In the past two years, the Police have embarked on a wide range of reforms aimed at reversing this perception and transforming the Nigeria Police into a true public servant capable of elevating the sense of security of Nigerians.
“These reforms measures include facilitating the enactment of a progressive Nigeria Police Services Bill to replace the outdated Police Act 1968. Also in response to the considerable unhappiness with the system of inquiring into Public complaints against the police, the police have reviewed its police complaints handling process. There is now in place a citizen’s complaints system, which aims to work openly, quickly, effectively, impartially.
“These interventions have by no means solved all the problems with the police and policing in Nigeria, the immediate concern is that much of these initiatives were led by the sheer determination of the past inspector general of police. If what we read from your colleagues is anything to go by, the current Inspector General of Police (IGP) has shown in words and deeds that he is not likely to continue these reform initiatives.
Similarly, the human rights crusader expressed concerns over the continued parlous state of the Nigerian prison system. “The Nigerian Prisons Service is a key institution in our criminal justice framework. The inconvenient truth is that in the last 12 months the wind of change appears to have blown away from the Nigerian prisons.
“Our prisons continue to be a source of concern due to overcrowding, under staffing, inadequate and inappropriate conditions for prisoners, poor administration, long detention of those awaiting trial and limited access to legal advice and representation.
“There are a number of ongoing challenges affecting the ability of the prisons service to achieve its mandate. The first is its archaic legislation. Not unlike the Nigeria Police, the Prisons Act was last reviewed in
1972. A Bill to amend the Prisons Act 1972 was first laid before the House of Representatives in 2001. In 2016 the process of enactment is still on going.
“The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Legal Aid Council and several penal reform groups have consistently identified that prison facility as one of the worst prison facilities in Nigeria. Conditions were described as ‘deplorable and unconstitutional’. The capacity of Port Harcourt Prisons is 804, at the time of our visit it held 3,865 prisoners. More than 3000 over congested. The sanitary and physical conditions were shocking. The population of awaiting trial prisoners was 3,381.
He also identified the problems bedeviling the prison system. “A major problem is the transportation infrastructure of the prisons. There are limited functional vehicles. Access to court by inmates was therefore a challenge. Rehabilitation programmes especially in the area of hands- on vocational training was virtually nil to non- existent. In any case delivering such a programme given the overcrowded state of the prisons will have been difficult.
“As a former State Attorney- General, I am well aware of the politics of Federal and State Governments as it relates to support for the Prisons. In this case it would seem that party politics and not the politics of fiscal federalism is the major obstacle.
“To be fair, Rivers State had peculiar historical problems with the administration of justice including the prolonged closure of courts. While this background information is helpful in placing the situation in perspective, it goes without saying that solutions and not explanations will be desirable going forward.
“The point must be emphasized that the situation in Port-Harcourt prisons is not just a human rights or an access to justice issue but one of national security. The Federal Government and River State government cannot afford a jailbreak in Port-Harcourt Prisons or the sort that happened in a number of other States. This is more so given the current security concerns in that state.
“The situation in Ikoyi Prisons is largely the same. The facility was built in 1961. It has a capacity of 800. At the time of our visit it held 2,361 prisoners. The number of awaiting trial prisoners were 2,044. The story is the same with most of the 227 prison facilities across Nigeria. It needs to be emphasized that the way we treat prisoners is a reflection of how much consideration we show for respect for human dignity, the very cornerstone of human rights.
The former Justice Commissioner averred the tense security situations in the North-East and the Niger-Delta continue to undermine the full realization of human rights in the country. “I agree that there are many challenges. Dealing with historical issues arising from bad governance, including violations by non-state actors is sadly becoming the norm in our daily existence.
“The activities of Boko Haram, rampaging herdsmen, Niger -delta avengers, kidnappers, armed robbers all constitute grave threats to the enjoyment of our human rights. My response is that we need a human rights specific and strategic approach to human rights. It is crucial that government at all levels engage with their citizens and civil society in a serious and continuous dialogue about protecting and advancing human rights.”