Many informed papers were presented at the recently concluded Annual General Conference of Nigerian Bar Association, NBA. One of the outstanding papers was presented by Chief Godwin Obla, SAN, the leading prosecutor of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, in which he proffered solution to curbing corruption in Nigeria. YOMI KAREEM was there.
The fight against corruption in Nigeria has been a Herculean task over the years, despite various criticisms from home and abroad, and the effects of corruption on the development of the country. Various successive governments could not find solution to the menace bedevilling the country, this due largely to many reasons.
Lack of political will on the part of government, our weak and entangled criminal justice system that happens to overshadow all, immunity clause being enjoyed by some top government officials (President, vice president, Governors and their deputies), are among the many challenges impeding against the fight against corruption.
Corruption has been the bane of Nigeria’s development over the past years, as it has affected virtually all facets of the society, socio-economic and political spheres of our society.
However, in an attempt to tackle corruption in the country, many challenges are being encountered which serve as bottlenecks, in the fight against corruption. One of such challenges posing real obstacle to the fight against corruption, is the lack of political will on the part of government. Over the years, successive administrations have failed to demonstrate the sort of political will that is needed to fight corruption.
Even when various agencies saddled with the responsibility of prosecuting allegedly corrupt persons, seemed to be alive to their responsibilities, their motives are seen as a political vendetta or selective witch-hunting of perceived political enemies of the government of the day.
The most worrisome of these challenges in the fight against corruption, is our criminal justice system in Nigeria, which is so weak and cumbersome. Its application has really caused a lot of set back and impediments in our criminal prosecution procedurals.
Some of the challenges also include, weak mutual legal assistance which normally arise through some of the following, location of the evidence in the criminal case in foreign jurisdiction, difficulty and unwillingness of witnesses to come forward for the trial, illicit proceeds moved and laundered in an international banking system through increasingly obscure means, the slowness of the mutual legal assistance process.
Immunity against prosecuting certain categories of political officeholders is another major impediment in the fight against corruption in Nigeria. Section 308 (1) of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, puts restrictions on legal proceedings, arrest or imprisonment, or the compelling of appearance by process of court, against the President, Vice President, Governors and Deputy Governors.
The implication of this immunity clause is that, even when it is alleged, investigated and confirmed that these official have engaged in corrupt practices, it is impossible to arrest or prosecute them until after their tenures, when the illicit funds or assets have either dissipated or laundered.
The legal infrastructure and the slow judicial process, is another major setback in our criminal justice system that is causing impediment in the fight against corruption.
The accused persons and the counsel take advantage of every available technical loophole, to prolong the prosecution, thereby subjecting the appellate process to abuse, thus, frustrating the entire process. It has also been pointed out by legal professionals that, our criminal justice system, which we inherited from England and Wales, favours the accused person and puts a high burden of proof on the accuser.
The contentious issue here is that, given our peculiar socio-political circumstances, should Nigeria still rely on the same tenets of criminal justice as that of the United Kingdom with a transparency ranking of 78 per cent. Proving corruption cases in Nigeria is really a herculean task, as you are required to provide more than sufficient evidence to prosecute your case.
Collecting of frivolous court injunctions is another ploy being adopted in the process of stalling proceedings as regards prosecution of corrupt cases in the country. It is common to see defence lawyers filing all sorts of interlocutory appeals and stay of proceedings, all for the sole purpose of stalling criminal trial at the lower court. This is known to be a major tactical delay and manoeuvre adopted by lawyers to frustrate trials in criminal prosecution.
Threats to lives of witnesses and absence of witness protection programme, is another major setback in our criminal justice system “according to an EFCC Report, not less than 19 key officers of EFCC have been assassinated, as at 2013.
This is no surprise considering the risky nature of their work, and the low protection nature of their operations exposed them to grave risk. As a result of this, witnesses and operatives are really not enthusiastic to pay the supreme prize that might be attached to the task of prosecuting criminal trials.
Coupled with this, is the inconsistency and uncertainty of judicial process. The pronouncements of courts of coordinate jurisdiction, on certain matters relating to the prosecution of corruption cases have been inconsistent or even contradictory. This has been a major setback that complicates, prolongs and stalls criminal prosecution.
Inadequate resources is another big challenge militating against fighting corruption in the country, especially when it comes to cross-border corruption. It is very expensive retaining the requisite team of experts for the prosecution of persons accused of committing cross-border corruption.
Cross-border crime requires huge expenses to finance the investigation, as it involves sending teams across borders to investigate and seek foreign collaboration, this certainly requires huge amount of resources.
The three arms of government need a synergy and commitment, to singularly and collectively contribute towards the fight against corruption. The national assembly has equally not live up to its legislative responsibility, in the fight against corruption, several evasive move had been made by the previous past legislature, in their passage of critical bills that would helped in the fight against corruption.
As said earlier on, most of our inherited laws are so archaic and obsolete that, they are weak in fighting corruption. This is why a criminal who have stolen a mobile phone can bag 15 years imprisonment, while on the other hand, a government official that has either misappropriated or siphoned public funds to the tune of say N200 billion, can bag just six months imprisonment.
With the highlighted factors above, one would see that the fight against corruption has been hampered by many reasons. So the political will on the part of government is key, towards the holistic fight against corruption. With the appropriate laws put in place by the legislature to fight corruption, the governments agencies set up to fight corruption, should also be empowered to carry out their statutory functions without interference or influence from a higher authority.
So that they will not be perceived to the selective, or party instrument used only to persecute perceived enemies of the government of the day.
The criminal justice system will also need to be strengthen to reflect modern reality, especially as it pertain to our society Nigeria vis a vis the complex nature of the modern day crime against our archaic legislation. There should be further strengthening of the mutual legal assistance process; this involves the power to summon witnesses, to compel the production of evidence and other relevant documents, to issue search warrants and to serve process.
Plea bargaining has also been canvassed as part of measures to achieve these feat, but it has also faced its own criticism. Some are of the opinion that it is a soft landing for alleged criminals. Furthermore, the retirement, elevation or death of judges should not deter, or be an impediment in criminal trials.