Plea bargain is a process whereby a defendant in a criminal case agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge or to cooperate with the prosecution in exchange for a reduction in sentence or other benefits. The aim is to encourage defendants to accept responsibility for their actions and to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system by avoiding lengthy trials.
The use of plea bargain in the Nigerian criminal justice system is a relatively recent development. The practice was introduced in 2015 with the enactment of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA), which allows for plea bargain in certain circumstances. The application of plea bargain in the Nigerian criminal justice system has been met with mixed reactions. On the one hand, proponents argue that it has the potential to reduce the backlog of cases in the Courts and expedite the administration of justice. It also has the potential to encourage defendants to plead guilty, which can lead to a quicker resolution of cases and a reduction in the number of cases going to trial. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission Act is the first federal enactment that introduced the concept of Plea bargaining into the Nigeria Criminal Justice System.
The historical rise and spread of plea bargain got to the Nigerian criminal justice system though with criticisms following suits. From all indications, plea bargain was never part of any Nigerian Law until 2004 when the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission was established. The Act36 establishing the Economic and Financial Rimes Commission by virtue of S. 14(2) is the first federal enactment to experiment with a form of plea bargaining. The section provides as thus:
Subject to the provision of S. 174 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, the commission may compound any offence punishable under the Act by accepting such sums of money as it thinks fit, exceeding the maximum amount to which that person would have been liable if he and been convicted of the offence.
This provision is the stronghold that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has held on to prosecute public office holders. From its establishment, the Commission is charged with the responsibility of enforcing the provision of:
a. The Money Laundering Act 2004
b. The Advance Fee Fraud and Other Related Offences Act, 1995
c. The Failed Banks (Recovering of Debts) and Financial Malpractices in Bank Act 1994
d. The Banks and Other Financial Institutions Act 1991
Additionally, a plea bargain undermines the principle of the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. The process can be abused by prosecutors who may use coercion or intimidation to force defendants to accept plea deals, even when they may be innocent. Another concern is that plea bargaining may lead to inconsistencies in sentencing, with defendants who can negotiate better deals receiving lighter sentences than those who are unable to do so. This may also create an incentive for defendants to plead guilty even when they may have a strong defense, simply to avoid the risk of a harsher sentence if they go to trial.
There are concerns about the capacity of the Nigerian criminal justice system to effectively implement plea bargain. The process requires skilled prosecutors and judges who can assess the merits of plea deals and ensure that they are fair and just. There is also a need for effective oversight mechanisms to prevent abuse of the process.
Lastly, while plea bargaining has the potential to improve the efficiency of the Nigerian criminal justice system, there are also valid concerns about its potential to undermine the principles of fairness and justice. As such, it is important to ensure that any use of plea bargaining is carefully regulated and monitored to prevent abuse and to ensure that the rights of defendants are protected.