From the Amalgamation Act of 1914 to that of the Code of Conduct of 1989, century-old laws are manipulated to give Nigerians an illusion called the rule of flaws
By SEGUN ELIJAH
IT was late June. Olumide Ogunnubi, a firefighter with the Lagos State Fire Service, was dispatched to pull out a plumber that accidentally plunged into a well at Ikotun. Mid-way down the well, Ogunnubi’s safety belt snapped. And he hurtled down to the belly of the well. Dead.
News of the tragedy jolted a couple of Lagos lawmakers in the state assembly. They didn’t blame the belt or fate in their call for investigation. They would rather stitch up the state’s Fire Service Law for the firefighter’s death in a well.
“We also call on the state government to upgrade the fire service equipment and update the Fire Service Law of 1972,” Hon. Segun Olulade from the Epe Constituency said June 24. If Lagosians took that motion seriously, they’d conclude the fire service law was rusty. It should have been, truly—-after 43 years, during which Lagos itself witnessed a great deal of change.
And if age doesn’t wear out a law, then its crumminess does. Upward-spirallying death rates and property losses confirm this. In 2014, Lagos lost 157 residents in 1,932 fires across the state. Home Affairs ex-Commissioner Oyinlomo Danmole said between January and March of 2015, 20 people got roasted in fire disasters. In the last four years, about 600 lives have been smoked out. In naira value, the state lost N23 billion in properties to these conflagrations.
And the ruins are not limited to Lagos. The crappy fire law is licking lives and assets across the federation. The Federal Fire Service said 2012 alone witnessed 470 fires in which 185 Nigerians died, and N19.5 billion worth of goods went up in flames. Annually, Nigeria loses about N50 billon to infernos, according to ex-Minister for Interior Patrick Abba Moro.
In spite of all these figures, fire doesn’t hit an average Nigerian right on the nose as the biggest deadweight some wooden Acts in the Law of the Federation of Nigeria (LFN) 2000 have created. Corruption, at every point, tips the scale. The most populous black nation on earth lost $157.46 billion to graft between 2003 and 2012. The U.S-based Global Financial Integrity’s report last December put this down as illicit financial outflow from Nigeria within the ten-year period.
The Economic and Financial Crime Commission has been patting itself on the back for making some recoveries. In June, G.K. Latona, EFCC’s head of legal and prosecution department, said the commission retrieved $11 billion in the last 11 years. While the figure seems a piffle to GFI’s decade-long report, it also falls way below expectation in Nigeria where over $7 billion was illegally scooped out of the oil sector in 2012.
For a country that has about 70 percent of its population scraping by on $2 per capita daily to have been bilked that much is a problem. And it’s a calamity when its criminal justice system and anti-corruption bodies are too wobbly to put up a serious fight thanks to calcified laws. If Ibrahim Lamorde, the commission’s boss, would face up to it, he should admit his figure (of recovered loot) is a poor showing. But he won’t. Lamorde likes to play the blame game too—like knocking the judiciary, especially the bar, which, in turn, fingers the criminal justice system for standing on its head.
Former Chief Justice of Nigeria Aloma Mukhtar agreed the question is not about legal development. Nigeria, she said, has made giant strides in that direction. Over 100 years, the LFN corpus has got some makeovers—neatly bound in thick-backed 24 volumes of 471 chapters. It carries 298 military decrees—that’s about 62 percent of the contents—and 173 Acts, after few repeals. Every administration has also tried to re-word the 234-page 1999 Constitution, with all its verbosity. But all the cosmetics aren’t enough. “It is disheartening that many of our laws are still archaic, obsolete, alien and are not consistent with current realities,” Mukhtar said at the law summit the Nigeria Institute of Advanced Legal Studies organized in 2013 in Abuja.
That was why she spent her one-year-long tenure bitching and pushing for reforms in the legal system. She was very particularly about the criminal justice system so porous you can walk off with a vault, and later pay a handful in fine, or spend two years in jail. The Police Pension scam and the court judgement in 2013 was a landmark of sorts. An Abuja High Court Justice Abubakar Talba handed down a six-year term or a fine of N750, 000 to John Yakubu Yusufu, one of those leeches that drained N32.8 billion off the Police Pension Fund. Legal experts say most of these creeps wriggle out of court cases because they take advantage of the technicalities in court proceedings. “That was because the legislators, while drafting the laws never anticipated advancement of criminal offences as they are today,” Mukhtar told the Law Reform Commission during the fourth Criminal Justice Reform Conference last year.
Her successor Justice Dahiru Musdapher felt the same about the criminal justice system: its gummy proceedings, frivolities, prison congestion, and others. “The situation is made more precarious due to the archaic and obsolete nature of the laws regulating the criminal justice system,” he said at the 2015 refresher course for judges at the National Judicial Institute in Abuja in March. He was only hammering the urgency of rejigging the criminal justice administration by trashing both the Criminal Procedure Code and the Criminal Procedure Acts whose nuances usually ravel up the threads of legal proceedings. Both have spent over 50 and 100 years respectively, almost untouched. And the Penal Code administered up north has remained practically the same for more than five decades.
So it’s no surprise that judges blink over husbands muscling their wives in the north. Section 55 of the Penal Code allows a man to pound his wife moderately enough to avoid “grievous bodily harm”. That’s: so long as he doesn’t break her bones, spill her blood, or chop off her limbs, a husband can safely assault his wife.
“Although some northern states have made some minor adjustments,” the former CJN noted in a lecture he delivered last year at the Federal University, Dutse, on law reforms. “Can we say those adjustments are enough to confront the present legal realities on the ground?” No, really. The states have been ringing the changes with a clause here, and a comma there.Yet the hit-or-miss approach won’t stick that fast. The military 30-year rule was no mean damage to the Nigerian laws.
Many analysts still rue how the 298 decrees retained in the LFN now make some Nigerians a law unto themselves. But democracy watchers like to think the nation’s return to democracy in 1999 has entrenched the rule of law. Musdapher, however, said the rule of law thrives where the law is relevant to the yearnings of society.
As of now, the Nigerian laws and realities aren’t on the same page. Mukhtar, Musdapher, and other bigwigs among the lawgivers, lawmakers, law enforcers, and rights watchers have agreed the nation’s justice dispensation needs a revamp. They know it won’t be easy purifying the filthy-rich SANs that exploit constitutional loopholes to prolong hopeless cases; they know ridding the bench of billionaire judges would take a lot of doing; and they are sure the filibustering legislature would need some blackmailing to make them tweak the laws shielding them. Those are the nuts to crack in the reforms.
And the politicians appear the knottiest. “I perceive what I regard as deliberate indifference or absolute lack of commitment and political machinations on the part of the political class in the area of law reforms,” Musdapher noted. The Criminal Justice Administration Bill, the Administration of Justice Commission Bill, and six other reforms-oriented bills have been gathering dust in the National Assembly. It’s no oversight, sure. The lawmakers could be hyperactive if they chose. Like the Senate did June 3—when they made short work of passing 46 bills to law in 10 minutes. They might just be metering their commitment to the reforms.
The Nigeria Law Reform Commission ought to be into the reform with both feet. It, however, has its own headaches. Tucked inside the ministry of health building in Abuja, the commission has been a flotsam among government agencies since 1979. And any administration that cares much about the rule of law won’t ignore such commission—or make it so cash-starved its chairmen are always groaning. About N424 million was allocated to the NLRC for 2015, which is 1.6 percent of the N4 billion appropriated in 2013 for the Office of the First Lady, unconstitutional as it is. Cash crunch isn’t all. Kefas Magaji, the head of the commission, also told a newspaper in July their reform proposals get short shrift in the National Assembly. With all these excuses, the commission has cause to blame somebody else for its hibernation. In its 34 years of activities, the NLRC can boast of rehashing eight mouldy laws at the federal level.
The state commissions are just about the same. Lagos, where fireman Ogundimu died in a well and an honourable blamed it on the backwardness of the state fire law, has its own reform commission. It was established in 2007, but inaugurated five years later by ex-Gov. Babatunde Fashola. The National Daily enquiry (by electronic mail) to the commission on the fire law was neither acknowledged nor answered. But the office of the attorney-general of Lagos has some records. Former AG Ade Ipaye reeled out a long list of innovations in the state’s justice system during a press briefing in 2013. In the first year of operation, said Ipaye, the commission developed a comprehensive Sentencing Guidelines Bill to provide statutory framework for sentencing of offenders in Lagos State. It was working on two 54-year-oldContract Law and Tort Law, and a 57-year-old Sale of Goods Law.
Probably the fire law isn’t on the card now. More people could still roast to death as the 43-year-old law guides fire service in Lagos.
But the crude fire service won’t be the only arsenal for weapons of mass destruction either in Lagos or elsewhere in Nigeria. Courts administered by old-fashioned milords will also have some. “An ignorant judge is no better than a mass murderer,” Musdapher said, catching in his dragnet Sharia court judges and magistrates. “In his ignorance, he would have committed so many blunders that even the pains of appeal could not rectify.” And, naturally, there’s little hope for any democracy riddled with such howlers in the temple of justice.