A new report by the United States Department of State has alleged that the judiciary in Nigeria remains susceptible to corruption and is constantly under pressure from the executive and legislative arms of government.
In its “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2021,” the US stated that although the constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, political leaders influence the judges and lawyers, particularly at the state and local government levels.
The document added that there was a widespread public perception that judges were easily bribed, and litigants could not rely on the courts to render impartial judgments.
“Many citizens encountered long delays and reported receiving requests from judicial officials for bribes to expedite cases or obtain favourable rulings,” the report stated.
It listed understaffing, inefficiency, and corruption as factors preventing the judiciary from functioning adequately.
Other challenges, the US stated, included the absence of continuing education requirements for attorneys coupled with the fact that police officers were often assigned to serve as prosecutors.
It alleged that judges frequently fail to appear for trials, stressing however that the salaries of court officials are low, and officials often lacked proper equipment and training.
“The constitution and the annual appropriation acts stipulate that the National Assembly and the judiciary be paid directly from the federation account as statutory transfers before other budgetary expenditures are made to maintain their autonomy and separation of powers.
“Federal and state governments, however, often undermined the judiciary by withholding funding and manipulating appointments,” the US report noted.
On problems with trial procedures, the US posited that although defendants were presumed innocent and enjoy certain rights, authorities do not always respect these rights, most frequently due to a lack of capacity.
“Insufficient number of judges and courtrooms, together with growing caseloads, often resulted in pre-trial, trial, and appellate delays that could extend a trial for as many as 10 years.
“Although accused persons are entitled to counsel of their choice, there were reportedly some cases where defence counsel was absent from required court appearances so regularly that a court might proceed with a routine hearing in the absence of counsel, except for certain offences for which conviction carries the death penalty,” it alleged.
According to the document, in some cases, the police would demand additional payment from family members who wanted to attend a trial even as the authorities could hold defendants in prison awaiting trial for periods well beyond the terms allowed by law.
Furthermore, the document alleged that Nigeria’s anti-corruption agencies, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) as well as the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) were mainly focused on pursuing low and mid-level corruption cases.
The US stated that although there had been a few indictments of active top level government officials, the cases were being hampered by administrative delays.
The US document stated: “The ICPC holds broad authority to prosecute most forms of corruption. The EFCC’s writ extends only to financial and economic crimes.
“The bulk of the ICPC and EFCC’s anti-corruption efforts remained focused on low- and mid-level government officials, although both organisations brought indictments against various active and former high-level government officials.
“Many of the corruption cases, particularly the high-profile ones, remained pending before the courts due to administrative or procedural delays.”
Although the law provides criminal penalties for conviction of official corruption, the government, the US report stated, did not consistently implement the law, and government employees, including elected officials, frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
“Massive, widespread, and pervasive corruption affected all levels of government, including the judiciary and security services.
“The constitution provides immunity from civil and criminal prosecution for the president, vice president, governors, and deputy governors while in office. There were numerous allegations of government corruption during the year,” it added.
On the government’s posture towards human rights abuses, the report noted government officials sometimes cooperated and responded to such cases, but generally either dismissed allegations, did not provide substantive response, or did not publicise outcomes of investigations.
The document added that in the north-east, there had been reports that the military threatened civil society groups and humanitarian organisations after aid provided by the organisations purportedly reached insurgent groups.
Even though the law establishes the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) as an independent non-judicial mechanism for the promotion and protection of human rights, it noted that the role of the body has been largely advisory as well as for training and advocacy purposes.
“During the year, there were no reports of its (NHRC) prior investigations having led to accountability. The law provides for recognition and enforcement of damages awarded to plaintiffs, but it was unclear whether this happened,” the report stated.
On insurgency in the North-east by the militant terrorist groups Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), it noted that the terrorists continued to conduct numerous attacks on government and civilian targets, resulting in thousands of deaths and injuries.
According to the US report, this has led to the internal displacement of more than three million persons, and the external displacement of more than an estimated 327,000 Nigerian refugees to neighbouring countries as of the year’s end.
Quoting the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the document noted that more than 24,000 persons were registered as missing in the country, with the majority from the conflict area in the North-east.
“There were reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. According to Amnesty International, the whereabouts of at least 50 suspected supporters of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) group arrested in Rivers State between October and November 2020 remained unknown at year’s end,” it said.
It stressed that ineffective and non-existent civil registration and identification management systems in areas hosting displaced persons, refugees, and returnees remained a concern.
For refugees, the report pointed out that even when civil documents were obtained, community members and local officials were sometimes unaware of their legal rights or standing, which could also prevent them from moving freely, obtaining work, or accessing health care.
During the year, the US posited that ISIS-WA terrorists demonstrated increased ability to conduct complex attacks against military outposts and formations.
“During the year ISIS-WA terrorists took over significant territory formerly held by Boko Haram. ISIS-WA expanded efforts to implement shadow governance structures in large swaths of Borno State,” it said.
In the South-east, it stated that following IPOB’s launch of its military wing, the Eastern Security Network, in December 2020, in the first quarter of the year, local media reported 54 violent attacks on civilians and security forces and 222 deaths, representing a 59 per cent and 344 per cent increase, respectively, compared with the quarter prior to its establishment.
It stated that while some reports estimated the number of Boko Haram and ISIS-WA abductees at more than 2,000, the total count of the missing was unknown as towns repeatedly changed hands, and many families were still on the run or dispersed in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Culled from THISDAY