The Nigerian justice system – which comprises four distinct branches: English law, Common law, Customary law and, in the predominantly Moslem north of the country, Sharia law – is in dire decline. Once the pride of Africa and the cradle of lawyers and judges that went on to serve with distinction across sub-Saharan Africa and even as judges in international courts, Nigerian justice is now often perverted such that it is the complainant who ends up in the dock, while the guilty are let off scot free.

More than 700 prisoners currently languish on death row – some 140 have been there for more than 10 years and a number for over 20 years – many of whom were not given fair trials. Furthermore, human rights are frequently violated by, for example, roadside strip searches, unlawful detention, torture to extract confessions and, most shocking of all, extra-judicial executions (the murder) of detainees unable or unwilling to pay bribes. These and other heinous acts committed by the police are not investigated or punished.

Cause of the malaise

One cause of this legal system malaise is the decentralisation of and decline in the standard of legal training; but others include low pay for lawyers and judges, inadequate infrastructure and the consequences of decades of being held in thrall, by pressure and inducements, to the changing military regimes. More seriously than this, however, is the charge that legal system decline parallels the moral decline in the country as a whole. Nigerian society is said to be far less concerned about the rule of law, ideals, ethics and morality; aspiring instead to material gain predicated on the belief that everyone can be bought, including those who administer the law. Consequently, cases end up being repeatedly postponed; case files stolen, lost or sold; evidence tampered with by police, prosecutors and even judges; and the accused locked up in dreadful conditions pending trial for longer than their sentence would be if found guilty. Nigerian prisons are often overcrowded – with inmates sleeping two to a bed or on the bare floor – disease ridden, unhygienic, and poorly supplied with food and medicines.

According to Amnesty International’s 2008 report, “The judiciary fails to ensure that all inmates are tried within reasonable time; indeed, most inmates wait years for a trial. When inmates are convicted, most courts do not inform them of their right to appeal. Nor does the judiciary guarantee that all suspects are offered legal representation. Few of the courts take the necessary steps to end the use of evidence elicited as a result of torture. In breach of national and international law, the judiciary does not guarantee fair trial standards even in the case of minors.”

In some states, however, there has been some improvement. Lagos state amended its Criminal Procedures Act, prohibiting the rather odd practice of arresting third parties in lieu of suspects, and requiring police to videotape their interviews of suspects or conduct them in the presence of a lawyer. In addition, several states set up legal aid services, albeit with limited funding and of dubious capacity and independence.

Huge challenge

Unfortunately, changing this rather desperate situation is proving to be a huge challenge, not least because human rights defenders and journalists critical of the government face intimidation, and official intolerance towards the media has increased. The latter is manifested by police raids on media offices, the closing down of TV stations, threats against, beatings and even killings of journalists by police and security forces.

Thus, like many other legal systems in the developing world, the Nigerian legal system is dysfunctional through being riddled with corruption and violence, and it is this that retards the nation. This can be changed, but only by exposing such systems to public scrutiny so that change can be effected.

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