President Muhammadu Buhari wednesday decried what he described as the “terribly slow pace” of justice administration in Nigeria and proposed that criminal cases from the high court to the Supreme Court should be concluded within 12 months.
On the other hand, civil cases should not last longer than 15 months, he said in a speech to declare open the Annual General Conference (AGC) of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).
The 60th AGC, with the theme, ‘Stepping Forward,’ was NBA’s first virtual gathering.
However, despite the calls for the boycott of the conference by the Dutse and Bauchi branches of the NBA due to the dis-invitation of Kaduna State Governor, Malam Nasir el-Rufai, the number of lawyers who registered for the 2020 conference doubled from over 12,000 in 2019 to over 24,003.
While the physical attendance was in Lagos, other members were at the NBA headquarters in Abuja, with not more than 30 persons allowed at the venue.
Buhari, represented by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (SAN), frowned on multiple and conflicting court orders, judicial technicality rather than “clear common sense” and what he described as the opaque process of appointing judges.
The president recalled how it took so long for the courts to decide and eventually dismiss the election petitions he filed to challenge his losses in 2003, 2007, and 2011 presidential elections, adding that the Nigerian justice system should be reformed urgently.
He described justice administration in the country as “terribly slow” and stressed the need for an urgent reform.
He noted how it took so long for the courts to conclude the election petitions he filed to challenge his losses in 2003, 2007, and 2011 presidential elections.
He said: “In 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.
“In 2019, I was no longer petitioner; I had now become a respondent in the case of Atiku vs 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.
“My question then is why can’t we have a time limit for criminal cases? Why can’t we have a rule that will say a criminal trial all the way to the Supreme Court must not exceed 12 months?
“And why can’t we do the same for civil cases? Even if we say that civil cases must not go beyond between 12 and 15 months. I think that for me will be stepping forward.”
The president also condemned multiple and conflicting court orders, judicial technicality rather than “clear common sense,” as well as what he described as the opaque process of appointing judges.
Speaking on the issue of technicality, Buhari said: “Justice must make sense to lawyers and non-lawyers alike; as a matter of fact, more to non-lawyers because we are in the majority.
“Triumph of technicalities opens a door for all sorts of speculations 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 you must continuously improve on the selection processes for the appointment of the men and women who will serve as judges. We must cast our nets wider in search of judges, especially at the appellate level. We must put in place primarily merit-based selection processes, including mandatory tests and interviews for all applicants for judgeship.
“While our constitution urges federal character for ballots in appointments generally, this is not an excuse for mediocrity.”
In his speech, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, challenged lawyers to strive to improve the legal system so that they can be leading lights of the nation.
Muhammad stated that the virtual conference underscores the fact that the bar is setting the pace in many areas of national life.
“For holding this virtual conference in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic exemplifies the doggedness of the bar under the able leadership of Paul Usoro SAN,” he added.
On his part, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN), said Buhari had improved Nigeria’s legal system through the issuance of executive orders for better implementation of the laws.
Malami, who was represented by the Solicitor General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice, Mr. Dayo Apata (SAN), said his ministry had so far aided the recovery of $301 million looted funds, which has been “ploughed into the economy.”
In his address, Usoro, the outgoing NBA president, commended members for remaining united and professional.
“Those who are bent on dividing the bar would not relent. But we must always remember that we are one united Nigerian Bar Association. We must continue to ensure that we remain a united bar association; we must not be divided along ethnic, religious and other lines. It must always be ‘One is for all, and all is for all,” he stated.
The Dutse and Bauchi branches of the NBA had called for a boycott of the conference unless el-Rufai was re-invited as a speaker at the AGC.
El-Rufai was disinvited last Thursday following protests by lawyers over his human rights record and the poor handling of the recent killings in Southern Kaduna.
Following the dis-invitation, some lawyers had also demanded the dis-invitation of former President Olusegun Obasanjo; ex-British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair and Rivers State Governor, Mr. Nyesom Wike.
But the NBA shunned their demands.
Despite the petitions, the number of lawyers who registered for this year’s AGC doubled to 24,003 from the over 12,000 in 2019, according to Usoro.
NBA’s President-elect, Mr. Olumide Akpata, in a statement, described the AGC as the “largest virtual conference in Africa”.
Chairman of the Technical Committee on Conference Planning (TCCP), Prof. Konyinsola Ajayi (SAN), said the conference was a landmark event in the annals of the association, especially being the “first virtual conference ever to be organised by the NBA.”