By: Salisu Suleiman
The cold-blooded murder (euphemistically, extra judicial killing) by the police of the leaders of the Boko Haram sect, hardly comes as a surprise to those familiar with the law enforcement and justice system in Nigeria. Before copying the American ‘Service with Integrity’, the official police slogan was ‘Fire for Fire’. It would be foolhardy to expect friendship from a force that fires before asking questions.
Along with the police, the judiciary is central to the administration of justice. The federal and states Ministries of Justice, Legal Aid Council, to the National Judicial Institute, to the Law Reform Commission, the National Judicial Council, various courts of law up to the Supreme Court are part of the overall machinery of law enforcement and administration in Nigeria.
Most Nigerians denounce the failures of the executive and the legislative arms of government especially with the return of what we like to equate with democracy in 1999. But has the judiciary fared any better, or made a positive impact on the country? How about law enforcement and the administration of justice in Nigeria? Is our country truly governed by the rule of law?
As demonstrated by the killing of the Boko Haram members, the Nigeria police routinely shoot unarmed suspects without trial. How many drivers and passengers have been shot dead by police trying to extract N20, and what has happened to the officers who did the killings? What has been heard of the famous Apo Six, cruelly murdered by the police in cold blood a few years ago? Some Nigerians would rather run into real armed robbers on highways than run into desperate policemen. The former may rob you and leave you alive. If you are robbed by the police, you are as good as dead.
The Nigeria police was established as a coercive arm of the British colonialists and it is yet to free itself of that mentality. The language it speaks best is the language of force and violence. For the police, it is always ‘we’ against ‘them’. Similarly, criminal law in the country is mostly antiquated. The penal code was drafted in 1903, and bears little or no bearing to the social realities in Nigeria today. Our Arbitration laws are so outdated that legal practitioners prefer to take arbitration cases to other countries. Despite the advancements witnessed in the medical sciences in the last half century, the country’s Pharmacy Act has not changed in the nearly 50 years. Forensic science is primeval. Despite the fact that DNA evidence is regarded as nearly 100 percent accurate, it hardly appears anywhere in our statues.
By international convention of 1 policeman to every 140 people, the country has a huge deficit of police officers. Nigeria needs at least 1 million policemen, but we have only about 300,000. Most of them are ill-trained, ill-equipped, naturally ill-tempered, and very prone to ‘accidental discharges’. The Public prosecution mechanism is almost infantile. Police corporals and sergeants with little or no legal knowledge prosecute cases in our courts.
Similarly, our prisons are jammed beyond the brim. Prisons built to hold two or three hundred now hold thousands. First time (and sometimes innocent offenders) are locked up in the same prison cells with convicted murderers and armed robbers. There are hardly any modern, functional juvenile facilities in the country. There are few, if any prisoner reform programs to ensure that incarcerated persons not only get education and vocational skills, but come out as better citizens upon their release. At the moment, even the shortest stint in jail is equivalent to a degree in crime and the operations of the criminal underworld. Rather than reform, our prisons actually train criminals.
Private legal practitioners also have a role to play in improving the judiciary and the administration of the criminal justice system. It has been alleged that lawyers representing rich and powerful clients often bribe judges to obtain favorable rulings. It was reported recently that a SAN is being paid N35 million to defend a suspect in a murder case. By any standards, that is plenty of money. And plenty of money can buy plenty of black coats. And black robes. It is alleged.
It seems that the worse crime one can commit in this country is the crime of poverty. The Legal Aid Council is supposed to work as the Office of the Public Defender, but with thousands of indigent defendants in jail for crimes for which they plead innocence, one is forced to question the effectiveness of that body. People have been known to spend years awaiting trial for crimes that if convicted, the penalty may be a couple of months in prison, or even a fine. Save for a few religious bodies, pro bono is not a concept that many Nigerian lawyers agree with. And so for not being able to afford legal representation, our jails are chocked with persons accused of stealing fowls, goats, tubers of yam and other mundane items.
If anyone tells you that the police is your friend, run. If anyone tells you that our country is governed by the rule of law, run even faster. No one condones crime, but it seems that in Nigeria, if you want to commit a crime, do not steal a useless fowl, hungry goat, or tattered pair of shoes. Do not steal a bottle of palm oil or a loaf of bread. That would land you in jail for 10 years or more without trial, or a bullet in your back for ‘attempting to escape’. Grab a couple of billions. With that, and with the police and the ruse of law, you would be guaranteed a quick release (if charged at all) and an apology from the state for violating your human rights.