At the 60th annual general conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), President Muhammadu Buhari said justice administration in Nigerian Courts moves at a “terribly slow pace”. He handed this charge to the NBA, in a keynote address read on his behalf through a virtual interaction by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. While stressing that the fabric of our society “is stitched together by our system of justice and law enforcement”, Buhari asked these important questions: “Why can’t we have timeliness in all our cases? Why can’t we put in place the rules that will state that a criminal trial all the way to the Supreme Court, must not exceed 12 months in duration?”
The Constitution, which is our grundnorm, has this to say regarding the timeline within which Defendants ought to be tried:
“Whenever any person is charged with a criminal offence, he shall, unless the charge is withdrawn, be entitled to a fair hearing in public within a reasonable time by a Court or tribunal.”
It needs to be said that a speedy trial in criminal proceedings is an aspect of the right to fair hearing as guaranteed by Section 36 CFRN, even though there is no time limit within which a trial for a criminal offence must be concluded. On what “reasonable time” connotes, the Supreme Court had the phrase explained in the case of R. ARIORI & ORS VS MURAINO B. O. ELEMO & ORS per Obaseki, JSC remarked:
“Reasonable time must mean the period of time which, in the search for justice, does not wear out the parties and their witnesses and which is required to ensure that justice is not only done but appears to reasonable persons to be done.”
This lack of specificity on what reasonable time connotes has been the bane of our criminal justice system and what the Bill tried to address. Criminal cases continue to take donkey years in Courts with defendants going through mental and emotional turmoil. What’s worse, some defendants that are not on bail would have already served close to the total number of years the punishment for the crime they were charged with, stipulated by the time their cases get to the Supreme Court, which is our final appellate Court. For instance, the case of Obasi v. State took over 20 years to get to the Supreme Court. The apex Court, decrying the length of time it takes for justice to be delivered in our Courts gave this sobering thought:
“This is apparently a case with chequered history and seemingly unending determination for over 20 years, yet still in the pipeline.”
In giving voice to the emotional and mental turmoil Defendants go through, the three wise men in the case of Okoli v State had this to say:
“Unarguably, it is generally expected that an accused person who is facing/undergoing a criminal prosecution, is tried timeously so that he knows his fate in respect of the charge(s) preferred against him. For, as long as the charge(s) are hanging on his head, it cannot be said that he is totally free in the exercise of his fundamental rights to freedom of movement. Such an accused person naturally is subjected to an emotional stress and a resonating feeling of uncertainties regarding his fate and for as long as the trial lingers on, the charges against the accused person, hangs as the sword of Damocles over his head. That is why it is axiomatic that a speedy trial is preferable at all times, to a long and delayed trial, for, as it is said, justice delayed is justice denied.”
It is important to note that the concept of timelines within which to try some cases is not alien to our jurisprudence. Section 285 of the 1999 Constitution (First Alteration) Act 2010 introduced new Subsections (5), (6) and (7) as follows:
“(5) An election petition shall be filed within 21 days after the date of declaration of results of the election.
(6) An election tribunal shall deliver its judgment in writing within 180 days from the date of the filing of the petition (six months)
(7) An appeal from decision of an election tribunal or Court shall be heard and disposed of within 60 days from the date of the delivery of the judgment of tribunal.”
With that amendment, electoral disputes now span a maximum of eight months, from Election Tribunal to Appeal. This is very progressive as it has dealt with the problem of electoral cases dragging on for years, whilst one of the parties enjoys the perks of the disputed office.
But this was not always the case. Before the amendment, the delay that accompanied some election petitions was so embarrassing that some took four years, which is the same as the number of years the candidate who won the disputed election would spend in Office. It is interesting to note that the petition filed in 2007 by Hope Democratic Party against the election of President Umaru Yar’ Adua of blessed memory, lasted up to four years before getting to the Supreme Court, and same was sent back for re-trial by the Supreme Court.
At the previously mentioned NBA Conference, President Muhammadu Buhari, reminiscing about his election petitions following his loss in the 2003, 2007, and 2011 presidential polls had this to say about how long it took for the tribunal to hear the matter and pass the verdict:
“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 case, someone who did not legitimately win the election would have been in office all that time”. The President continued “In 2019, I was no longer a Petitioner. I had now become a Respondent in the case of Atiku and Buhari and the whole process took barely six months; just over six months. What was the difference? The law had changed since my own in 2003, 2007 and 2011.
“You had now introduced time limits for election petitions. Everything must be done within a six to eight-month period.”
The question to be put to the National Assembly is that if, in their ultimate wisdom, time limits were put in place for electoral cases, should criminal trials also not be time-bound?
In the real sense, a smarter, time-bound, more efficient and professional dispensation of criminal justice in Nigeria would benefit the entire country. Nigerians will repose more confidence in the ability of the Judiciary to give them faster justice, which is crucial for keeping the people law-abiding.