As the week rolled off, President Muhammadu Buhari, in one of his classical gaffes, gave Nigerians, and indeed the world, a new reason to be worried. Addressing the opening ceremony of the 55th Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the President said: “Nigeria needs ethical lawyers who always keep the end of justice in mind and will never sacrifice the integrity of the legal system to cover the misdeeds of their clients, no matter how lucrative the brief may be”.
No doubt, the President had, and still, talks tough about tackling corruption in the country. No one therefore needs any new pontifications on the evils of corruption. We have all seen and felt it one way or the other. We now detest it. Therefore, it is proper that the President fights it as best he can. He also needs to employ the best tools, available to him, to fight this scourge. But if we argue the President’s concerns for corruption, his comments and body language, as against the legal permits for prosecution, we may find ourselves being herded the towards systematic destruction of our legal system and governmental institutions, which ought to be stronger that any individual.
For instance we had earlier been informed that the President plans to set up special courts to handle corruption cases. We were also informed that the President was in search of fearless judges to man these courts. The Punch of August 22 exclusively reported that “Buhari is pressing for the establishment of special courts to try corruption cases. He wants the courts to be established in Abuja and the 36 states of the federation so that they can fast-track such cases.” The newspaper, in the same report, also stated that: “On Tuesday, the NJC forwarded the list of 100 judges to the anti-corruption agencies for screening.
The exercise is meant to select the judges for the special courts the President is moving to establish to try corruption cases…“The plan is to get judges that are bold, courageous, and fearless. Many of them must have delivered sound judgments (in the past). They don’t want those who play to the gallery”. The search is not for competent judges who would apply the law as it is, but those fearless enough to fear the President’s body language. Need creation of special courts, for corruption cases, is one that had long been canvassed.
But it is now being promoted by the president, and his acolytes, through open and verbal condemnation of past officials of state even without prosecution. In other words, even without trial, or observation of the justice procedures, Nigerians have already been found guilty of the crime of corruption, and are awaiting sentence hearing. As a judiciary reporter, I am meant to believe that the criminal justice procedure system includes investigation, prosecution and sentencing, if a prima facie case is established, and charge ‘proved beyond reasonable doubt’.
Prosecution itself entails fair hearing. But Femi Adesina, who is President Buhari’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, appearing on a Radio Continental live programme on Wednesday, August 19, 2015 in Lagos said: “… the President believes that anyone who has questions to answer should be ready to answer those questions. After answering the questions, if they are found guilty, they would be tried.” In other words, the accused would have to be pronounced guilty by the President, or any organ of his administration asking the questions, before they are prosecuted.
(Transcript of the Radio Interview is still on Adesina’s facebook page). Given the sort of mindset that governs our mutually suspicious political society, we probably are entering a stage reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition. This is what the legal system abhors. Justice Chukwudifu Oputa JSC, of blessed memory, once espoused the three planks of justice. He said justice has to be for the accused, for the victim and for the society. If that is a legal maxim accepted by all, then, the trend of the body language which the President espouses, works contrary and amounts to what Justice Kayode Eso JSC, also of blessed memory, would describe as “executive recklessness”.
As things are, Lai Mohammed had said that it was the President’s body language that ensured improvements in power supply; not the engineers working restlessly to make change happen. If we extrapolate his argument, we come to the conclusion, logically too, that the President’s body language is all that is needed for any accused person to be sent to prison, by a judge, who has also read, and understood the accuser’s body language. Even without ousting the legal requirement for fair hearing or fair trial, a ‘fearless judge’, having understood the President’s body language, would deny the accused bail, abuse and abridge his/her right and also ensure that no such person, standing before him or her, escapes prison. That will be in tandem with the President’s body language, not legal or judicial ethics.
Now, bringing it down to lawyers, and making such a demand of them, heightens the danger. It would come to a point that lawyers would refuse briefs to defend accused persons for fear of being tagged. Those who brave it may find themselves facing persecution by other means. They will also be accused of working against the President’s body language. And if the President fails to achieve jail for any accused person, it will not be blamed on lack of prosecutorial acumen of lawyers on the prosecution team. It will definitely be blamed on defence lawyers. They will be accused for working with ‘corrupt’ people to frustrate prosecution. But ask, is an accused not entitled to fair trial? Is it really offensive for lawyers to accept defence briefs because a president’s body language is strongly interested only in conviction?
Will judgment in criminal cases, under Buhari’s watch, not anymore be based on evidence proved beyond reasonable doubt? If that is exactly what the President’s body language is telling us, then, he should be reminded that his body language is also tending towards dictatorship. Therefore, one could logically argue that this seeming disdain for judicial order and procedure is part of reasons he ignored summons, and even personal pleas by well meaning Nigerians, to appear before the Oputa Panel. (Read Matthew Hassan Kukah’s Witness To Justice again). I recall that Maurice Ibekwe was refused bail, even when the charge against him was not treason. But when he died in detention, all those standing trial alongside, on charges of advance fee fraud, who had hitherto been denied bail, were granted same. It happened because the body language of the administration that prosecuted him wanted conviction even if due process was ignored. So, it was immaterial he had need for medical attention. In jailat- all-cost mode, the rights of the accused would be breached and justice denied him to the applause of apologists.
-ACHILLEUS-CHUD UCHEGBU e-mail: email@example.com