2020 Nigeria Bar Association’s (NBA) Annual General Conference

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I am deeply honoured to have been invited yet again to speak at the Nigeria Bar Association Conference. I do not know of any other group of individuals outside the legal community that are as crucial to the sustenance of our democracy, law and order, than the men and women in the legal profession as lawyers, judges and magistrates. And I must say that through the years on the balance, the legal profession has played its numerous roles commendably.

Now at 60 years of age, in the midst of the worst global public health and economic challenge in living memory, the theme you have chosen, “Step Forward”, is so apt. If my interpretation is correct, ‘step forward’ means ‘taking responsibility’. It may also mean making progress, boldly taking on the challenges of the future.

There is no better moment to take responsibility than now. We are facing some of the most daunting social and economic challenges, global and locally, yet we are in a period of the most remarkable opportunities ever.

If you will permit me, there are a few areas where I believe we need to step forward and resolve some of the nagging problems of our system of administration of justice.

Reform is urgent because the fabric of our society is stitched together by our system of justice and law enforcement. We cannot afford to have the stitches come undone.

The first issue I would like to commend to your consideration is the terribly slow pace of trials. I am not a lawyer, but I have been both a casualty and a beneficiary of the judicial process.

I was before the courts for two and a half years, 27 months from 2003 in the now-famous case of Buhari and Obasanjo. It took me two and a half years to fight for a four-year Presidential mandate.

In 2007, I was again in court for 20 months, almost two years, also as Petitioner and later then appellant in the case of Buhari and INEC. And in 2011 again as petitioner in the case of CPC and INEC. I spent another 8 months in court.

At the end, I lost all three cases. I wondered then why it needed to take so long to arrive at a verdict. And if I had won the cases, then someone who did not legitimately win the elections would have been in office all that time.

In 2019 my status improved, I was now no longer petitioner, I became first respondent, in the case of Atiku and Buhari and the whole process took barely 6 months. What was the difference? The law had changed since my ordeal in 2003, 2007 and 2011. You have now introduced time limits for election petitions. Everything must be done within a 6-8 month period.

My question then is, why can’t we have time limits for all cases? Why can’t we put in place, the rules that will say that a criminal trial all the way up to the Supreme Court must end in 12 months? And that a civil trial must not exceed 12-15 months? I think that for me this will be stepping forward.

The question of speed raises a related concern. In the context of a competitive global economy, the speed of our legal institutions and processes must match and keep up with the global pace of transactions. This has implications for our efforts to promote the ease of doing business and position Nigeria as a favored investment destination.

Enhancing the speed of our court processes brings the options provided by technology into focus. Digitization of court processes, records and services is very much the new frontier of justice delivery and will dramatically enhance access to justice and affect trial timelines.

COVID-19 is highlighting the possibilities of virtual platforms in every dimension of service delivery and going forward, we must maximize these possibilities in the justice sector.

Already, in a very commendable response to the realities of functioning during a pandemic, the Supreme Court has endorsed virtual court proceedings.

Technology has already permanently transformed the way we do business. It is destined to change the way our institutions work. We must intentionally ride this tide rather than be submerged by it.

The second issue for me is the multiple and sometimes conflicting orders of courts. Again, I will give you an example.

Recently, my party, the APC, had an internal crisis. In the six-week period before I chaired the meeting of the party to resolve the issues, there were at least 10 different conflicting rulings of the courts across the country. The most incredible one was one court saying we should not hold the meeting, then on the eve of the meeting, a state high court somewhere ordered us to hold the meeting! Again, I am not a lawyer, but surely these sorts of multiple and conflicting rulings of courts, sometimes ex parte, really make a mockery of the judicial process.

The third issue is the seeming bias towards technicality over the clear common-sense justice of cases.

If justice is to be seen to be done, then the outcomes of cases must make sense to the average person and not just to the refined minds of learned persons alone. Justice must make sense to lawyers and non-lawyers alike. As a matter of fact, to non-lawyers, because we (lawyers) are in the majority.

In any event, the triumph of technicalities opens a door for all sorts of unsavory speculation about the true motives of the court and can only detract slowly but surely from the authority of our courts.

My fourth issue is on the appointment of judges. I believe that we must continuously improve on the selection processes for the appointment of the men and women who serve as judges.

First, we must cast our nets wider in search of judges, especially at the appellate level. Second, we must put in place primarily merit-based selection processes including mandatory tests and interviews for all applicants for judgeships.

While our Constitution urges Federal character for balance, this is not an excuse for mediocrity. If a particular zone is to produce a judge, why can’t we find the best talents in that zone? Our country has excellent men and women everywhere.

Permit me to say a word or two on security, law and order, as it relates to our criminal justice system. We have in the past few years, had to deal with insecurity. We feel the apprehensions of our people keenly because ensuring their safety and wellbeing is the primary purpose of government, this is a charge which we take seriously and which we seek to fulfill, daily.

But the fight against insecurity and to establish law and order, requires the full cooperation of all, especially the various structures for law enforcement and administration of justice. In a huge Federation such as ours, our criminal justice response is sometimes challenged. I hope some of our State Attorneys General are here.

If like some of us listen to the radio, you will often hear ordinary people asking questions about why criminals have not been sent to jail. So, for example, they would ask why a suspected murderer has not being prosecuted. Of course, the question many will ask is, so, what is Buhari doing about that?

Under our system, detection, arrest and investigation of offences are federal responsibilities discharged by the police and other law enforcement agencies, but prosecution is usually a State responsibility.

This is because most offences are State offences, so as we insist that the police must do more in terms of apprehending offenders, we must also work harder at the State level to prosecute criminals and ensure those guilty ones are sent to jail. The responsibility is both a Federal and State responsibility.

Again, take for example, the issue of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) which is a scourge that degrades not just women, but our common humanity.

At the Federal level, we have enacted laws such as the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act to address this criminal violation of the dignity of women. But the Act still has to be domesticated by the States because rape is a State offence that is prosecuted in State courts. We are actively building the capacity of the police to tackle SGBV crimes, but we need corresponding energy at State level. Several States have already domesticated the law and are fighting the scourge of sexual violence assiduously.

Consequently, when Federal law enforcers investigate rape cases and make arrests, securing convictions is hinged on the work of State prosecutors. I have made this point that no branch or tier of government can undertake the reforms necessary to enhance justice delivery on its own. We need partnerships of progress between the Federal and State governments and also the legal profession, and our administration of justice system. We need the collaboration of the Executive, the Legislature at all levels to drive the reforms that we need.

Mr. President of the Bar, the next 60 years will see a vastly different country. We will be the fourth largest country by population in the world, and we can be one of the ten largest economies in the world, one the most technologically advanced, we can be the safest place on earth to live and work, we can be a fair and just society, assuring all our people regardless of ethnicity or religion of equal opportunities. None of that can happen without a dynamic and robust system of administration of justice and without our working together.

Let us pledge today, to step forward into this exciting future, working together as one.

Thank you and happy 60th anniversary.