President Muhammadu Buhari Wednesday suggested that criminal cases from the High Court to the Supreme Court should be concluded within 12 months, while civil cases should not last longer than 15 months.
By Adebisi Onanuga and Robert Egbe
Buhari spoke at the 60th Annual General Conference (AGC) of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), with the theme, ‘Stepping Forward.’
The President, who was represented virtually by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo in the NBA’s first virtual AGC, described justice administration in the country’s courts as being “terribly slow”, adding that it needed urgent reform.
According to him, it took too long for the courts to decide and eventually dismiss the election petitions he filed to challenge his losses in the 2003, 2007, and 2011 presidential polls.
Buhari said: “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.
“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 lamented three other issues: multiple and conflicting court orders, judicial technicality rather than “clear common sense” and opaque process of appointing Judges.
Regarding technicality, he 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.”
Also speaking, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad challenged lawyers to strive to improve the legal system so that they can be leading lights of the nation.
Justice Muhammad stated that the virtual conference underscores the fact that the Bar is setting the pace in many areas of national life.
He said: “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.”
Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), said President Buhari has “improved” Nigeria’s legal system through the issuance of Executive Orders for better implementation of our laws.
Malami, who was represented by the Solicitor-General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice, Dayo Apata (SAN), said his ministry has so far aided the recovery of $301 million looted funds which he said has been “ploughed into the economy.
Out-going NBA President, Mr Paul Usoro (SAN) commended NBA members for remaining united and professional.
He said: “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 stressed.
There had been calls by some lawyers including the Dutse (Jigawa) and Bauchi Branches of the NBA for a boycott unless Kaduna State Governor Nasir 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 handling of the recent killings in Southern Kaduna.
Some lawyers had also demanded the disinvitation of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Rivers State Governor Nyesome Wike.
Blair, in particular, was singled out on account of his role in the 2003 British and American Invasion of Iraq.
But the NBA did not honour their demands and, despite the petitions, the number of lawyers who registered for this year’s AGC doubled from over 12,000 in 2019 to over 24,003.
About 25,000 delegates were expected to participate in the conference, according to Usoro.
NBA President-elect 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 that the conference is a landmark event in the annals of the association, especially being the “first virtual conference ever to be organised by the NBA.”
Physical attendance at the Conference is holding at the Eko Hotel and Suites in Lagos, as well as the NBA Headquarters in Abuja, with not more than 30 persons allowed at the venue.