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That Judiciary’s Self Probe

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Since the return to participatory democracy in 1999, Nigerians have had greater cause to demand, of men and women of the Judiciary who sit in judgement over others high level of integrity, impartiality and incorruptibility. This is partly because, of the three arms of government,  none is depended upon more to uphold the rule of law and ensure survival of democracy as the judicial arm.

Sadly, in spite of such high expectations, for an upright and dependable judiciary, even partial perfection still remains elusive, thus, forcing more agitations, even from among legal practitioners, for an urgent  salvage mission to check members of the Bench and Bar who tend to bend to the whims of influential   litigants in order to rubbish the sanctity of the courts. Even so, very little had been done by the Judiciary to redeem itself from such negative judgement by ordinary Nigerians, some members of the Bench and even lawyers.

Not too long ago, Lagos Lawyer and human rights activist, Femi Falana raised the same alarm that some members of the Bar and Bench were doing total disservice to the noble legal profession and expressed worry that unless urgent steps were taken to purge itself of such bad eggs, the Judiciary would totally lose public confidence.

That is why the recent probe ordered by the National Judicial Council (NJC) into activities of some of its own, among them, 23 judges across the country could not have come at a better time than now. Among those under investigation include four Chief Judges, a few Justices of the Court of Appeal as well as federal and state High Court judges.

Reasons for the probe, we understand, border on allegations of judgment fixing, unethical romance with litigants, outright sale of judgments, graft, bribery and engaging in delivery of questionable judgments.

We understand also that some of the affected judges are accused of entertaining matters outside their jurisdictions for pecuniary favours, regularly contradicting their own rulings or judgments on similar cases, dismissing cases without taking pleas, from accused persons, sale of electoral petitions to the highest bidders and at other times dismissing cases even when applications had obvious and overruling merit for adjudication. Another is the familiar unholy romance with the political class in order to influence their rise in the judiciary.

These are indeed serious issues, which if not tackled decisively could have very negative impact on the much expected impartiality of the judiciary and whittle down its much desired moral strength to defend the rule of law. If, for instance, court judgments are allowed to be based on the ability of litigants to pay their way through possible punishment, then,  justice would have become a commercial commodity on sale to the highest bidder. Such scenario   can only encourage lawlessness and anarchy.

Curiously, it was to avoid such erosion of justice in the land, that the National Judicial Council (NJC) under the leadership of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Aloma Mariam Muhktar, had, on February 20, this year, recommended the compulsory retirement of Justice C. E Archibong of the Federal High Court, Lagos and Justice T. O. Naron of the High Court of Justice, Plateau State. That measure followed similar disturbing issues bordering on dismissing grievous charges against an accused without taking his plea and for constantly and regularly making voice calls and MMS and carrying out SMS Exchanges with a lead counsel for one of the parties to the Osun State Gubernatorial Election Tribunal.

Apart from running contrary to the code of conduct for judicial officers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as contained in section 292 (1) b of the 1999 constitutions, the reported acts of misdemeanour  are capable of berating the judiciary, acclaimed to be the last hope of the ordinary citizen.

This is why The Tide considers the probe most timely and commends both the CJN and NJC for the discretion and courage of ordering such self-probe, which we believe would help check the imminent slide of the judiciary into precipice. In this regard, however, we expect the judiciary’s high command to be transparent, thorough and open  with a view to ensuring that its eventual outcome guarantees fairness, equity and justice. And all those found culpable be punished according to law to serve as a deterrent to others bent on dragging into the mind, the sanctity of the courts.

More than that,  we expect that the eventual report does not end up as many others  in other arms of government which years after are yet to see the light of day.  This is because, the survival of true democracy depends, to a very large extent, on a reputable and dependable judiciary.

Since it is said that in carrying out its sacred duty of adjucating over life and death, the judiciary must at all times ensure that justice is not only done, but be seen to have been done, we expect the Judiciary’s high command to also look into recent court judgements which many consider to be miscarriage of justice and outright desecration of the Temple of Justice.

While not taking a position on any specific instance, the recent Abuja court ruling which displaced the status quo in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Rivers State, we think deserves a proper re-appraisal particularly, as it affects, facts of the case, the judgement itself and legal implications of the matter,  with a view to seeing, if there indeed was a miscarriage of justice.

It is only when public protests against the judiciary, on account of court rulings, that bemuse the ordinary litigant and offend both common sense and natural law, that Nigerians can satisfactorily say, the Judiciary is getting it right. And it should.

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Editorial

That Wike’s Bold Move Against Soot

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Following the painfully obvious failure of the Federal Government and its security agencies to rein in those behind illegal oil bunkering and artisanal crude oil refiners in Rivers State, the Governor, Chief Nyesom Wike, lately declared war against operators of the crude oil refineries in the state.
The audacious action of the governor specifically aims at tackling the environmental threat induced by soot, emanating from the illegal refining of crude oil in parts of the state. Consequently, Wike directed the chairmen of councils to go after all the illegal crude oil refining sites and shut them with immediate effect. The state Chief Executive made this declaration in his 2022 New Year address to the state.
Measures were outlined and effected to tackle the soot, which have been successful so far. The Rivers State Task Force on Illegal Street Trading has been executing hit-and-run raids on some illegal crude oil refining sites in Port Harcourt and arresting several persons. Again, many identified illegal crude oil refining spots and activities in the state have either been shut down or virtually destroyed.
Governor Wike had recently declared 19 persons wanted for operating illegal crude oil refining locations, directly responsible for soots prevalent in the state. Barely 24 hours after the declaration, the Rivers State Police Command officially announced that its operatives arrested and paraded 18 persons implicated in illegal oil refining activities in various parts of the state.
Recall that a report by a technical committee set up by the state government to investigate causes of soot in the state a few years ago disclosed that the soot was engendered by subversive activities of illegal refiners and the alleged complicity of security agents, among others. A reviewed report of Prof. Roseline Konya’s findings indicated that about 22,077 persons had suffered needlessly from respiratory-related ailments in the last five years.
Medical experts have associated the persistent soot in the state with rising cases of cancer and infertility. Their assertions were corroborated by a recent study published in the Journal of Health and Pollution titled: “Exposure to Heavy Metals in Soot Samples and Cancer Risk Assessment in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.” According to the researchers, the study was carried out to determine the presence and levels of heavy metals in soot along with a cancer risk assessment of heavy metals exposure in Port Harcourt.
A specialist and consultant surgeon at the Rivers State University Teaching Hospital (RSUTH), Port Harcourt, Dr. Ibifuro Green, said about six million residents of Rivers State faced the risk of developing cancer of the lung and other respiratory problems, following the never-ending raining of cancerous hydrocarbon elements, commonly referred to as “black soot” on their environment. This startling revelation should be of genuine concern to all.
Meanwhile, the gloomy predictions by many health professionals are that if nothing is done urgently to halt the soot, many residents might experience chronic respiratory diseases, heart problems and an increase in mortality rate. This is becoming real as some persons, who have found it very difficult breathing while in Port Harcourt, have relocated to other places.
We commend the governor for listening to the cry of Rivers people by resolving to take on all crude oil thieves and refiners precipitately. While successes recorded in the war against oil thieves are acknowledged, we urge security agents to collaborate closely with council chairmen and traditional rulers to complement the governor’s efforts towards ending the public nuisance in their locations.
Rivers people cannot be their own implacable enemies. We must collectively fight this peril. The hazard we are faced with is becoming worrisome. Everyone who lives and does business in Rivers State should be solicitous about the soot and its effects. Time has come to end the impending catastrophe. It is necessary to know that the combined effect of soot and COVID-19 poses an existential threat to all residents of the state.
Those aiding and abetting illegal bunkering activities in different parts of the state who have been identified should be named, shamed and prosecuted, regardless of their political affiliations and status. Wike has shown that he is decisive and firm in prosecuting the fight, as a success in the war cannot afford favouritism. Residents must report shrewd operators of illegal crude oil refineries and other damnable activities to task forces set up at the state and local government levels for immediate action.
Furthermore, a strong institutional capacity for the judiciary is imperative. The Rivers State Assembly should exercise effective oversight, insist on the swift prosecution of offenders, and demand accountability from all recognised groups and institutions involved in the anti-soot crusade. Civil society organisations in the state should not give up but join the fray through unrelenting public engagements. There should be no cover-ups and sacred cows.
There is a need for the Federal Government to vigorously collaborate and assist the Rivers State Government in finding a lasting solution to this crisis. It is quite amazing why the federal authorities, whose security agencies have further complicated the soot situation by their collusion, have failed to take interest in ending this challenge. This is mainly the Federal Government’s business that requires a collective and inclusive solution as quickly as possible.

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Editorial

Improving Criminal Justice Delivery

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The December 2021 jail delivery exercise by the Chief Judge of Rivers State, Justice Simeon Amadi, during
which 27 inmates of the Port Harcourt Maximum Security Correctional Centre were granted pardon and discharged, has again brought to the fore the need to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the judicial system in the state.
The freed inmates included those who were either awaiting trials and had spent more than eight years in detention, as well as those who had health challenges. According to the Chief Judge, the jail delivery was in the exercise of his “powers in Section 34 of the Rivers State Administration of Criminal Justice Laws” (ACJL) and added that the decongestion of the correctional centres should be a major concern for stakeholders in the administration of justice.
Justice Amadi attributed the congestion of the correctional centres to several factors, including non-filing of information on case files, wrong charges, lack of diligent prosecution, among others. He said, in the pursuit to achieve decongested custodial centres in the state, the management of the state judiciary had “approved that periodically, magistrates will be posted to the centres to continue the exercise”.
Undoubtedly, the judiciary, which is the third arm of government, performs a very important function of interpreting the law. It dispenses justice without fear or favour. Most importantly, the administrators of the judiciary are desirous of speedy justice dispensation because justice delayed is justice denied.
Interestingly, in both criminal and civil justice administrations, time is of the essence as delay defeats equity. However, recent happenings in the criminal justice administration in Rivers State appear not to take cognizance of the very essence of time. The Administration of Criminal Justice Law of Rivers State 2015 was no doubt enacted to facilitate justice delivery but unreasonable delays continue to be a pain in the ass as there is seeming unwillingness on the part of both the judiciary and public prosecutors to help matters.
The law is explicit, “A defendant charged with an offence punishable with imprisonment for a term exceeding three years shall, on application to court be released on bail…” except for certain reasons. The resultant effect of unreasonable delay is that the correctional centres in the state have become a dumping ground for all manner of defendants, sometimes over fathom and frivolous charges.
Unfortunately, the correctional centres in the state are filled to the brim. The Port Harcourt Correctional Centre which was initially meant for about 804 inmates now has more than 4,000 with attendant congestion and health hazards. There is obviously nothing to learn at the centre except the ugly experiences that inmates pass through. Many inmates who ought to be refined after their experiences come out hardened and society is worse for it.
Surprisingly, Amadi, during his recent jail delivery, discovered to his chagrin that certain inmates at the Port Harcourt Correctional Centre had no files. As benumbing as the fact appears, it underscores the fact that their detention at the correctional centre can only be adjudged illegal. Every detainee at the correctional centre must have been brought there upon a charge known to law. If the charge is bailable, the Magistrate’s Court must “suo moto” grant bail whether on the application of the defendant’s counsel or not.
Regrettably, that is not the case today. The supervisory role of Chief Magistrates to visit police stations in the local government areas where they have their courts is often neglected. Besides, withholding charges, a situation where matters are referred to court without the requisite jurisdiction have worsened delay in justice delivery.
For many years, defendants often await the advice of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) but to no avail. Most defendants are remanded in correctional centres without trial for more than 10 years despite the constitutional provision that an accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction. Some defendants, in the course of awaiting trial, serve out the prison terms of the alleged offences if they were properly convicted, yet, cannot regain freedom.
Pathetically, these defendants are abandoned to their fate; no information is filled and there is no advice from the DPP. Even when bail applications are made to the High Court by counsel on their behalf, the judges stick to the old order of not easily granting bail to applicants charged with serious offences often without a diligent perusal of the defence counsel’s motion and accompanying processes.
One condition for the grant of bail to a defendant charged with murder is the defendant must have remained in detention for one year and above without arraignment, absence of information as well as trial. Another reason for granting bail to an applicant charged with murder pertains to the health status of the detainee. If the applicant is seriously ill, he or she can be granted bail.
The situations under which a defendant charged with a serious crime can be granted bail are provided for in our extant laws, especially in the ACJL, yet, the conspiracy of the judges who stick to the old order and public prosecutors who arbitrarily oppose bail applications have put paid to the efforts to ensure speedy dispensation of justice.
To ensure a speedy dispensation of justice in the state, all hands must be on deck. The State Ministry of Justice and the judiciary must live up to their billings. This is because the number of inmates at the correctional centres across the state is increasing by the day as many defendants remain without trials for a long period.
Again, judicial officers still write in long hands. They have not kept pace with developed countries of the world that make use of electronic equipment to record court proceedings. Since writing in long hands is slow and tedious, it, in turn, slows down the administration of justice. The problem here is not the shortage of manpower, but the system adopted, hence, the need for toeing the electronic path.
We strongly advise the administrators of our justice system in the state to turn a new leaf and address the nagging problem of unnecessary delays occasioned by lack of diligence on the part of public prosecution or the reliance on the old order by judges where defendants charged with grave criminal wrongs are simply allowed to rot in jail without trial.

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Editorial

No To Ban On Doctors’ Strike

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The House of Representatives may, on resumption from its Christmas and New Year recess, examine a bill prohibiting strike for medical professionals in the enrolment of the three tiers of government. The bill, if passed, will facilitate administrative and judicial processes for resolving trade disputes involving medical practitioners in government employment.
It is entitled: “An Act to Amend the Trade Disputes Act Cap T8, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004 to Prohibit Medical Practitioners in the Employment of Federal, State, and Local Governments (as employees in the essential service sector) from Embarking on Strike and to Accelerate Administrative and Judicial Proceedings in the Determination of Trade Disputes Involving Them and Related Matters.”
Sponsored by Rep Simon Chukwuemeka Atigwe (PDP, Enugu), the bill, which is entered on the House Journal as House Bill (HB) 1618, had earlier scaled first reading in the House and is thought to be scheduled for second reading which is the debate on the general principles of the bill before it goes for public hearing.
Reacting to the proposed law, the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) and the Joint Health Sector Union (JOHESU) knocked members of the House of Representatives over plans to proscribe strikes in the health sector. The bodies described a bill to that effect as draconian and an onslaught on the democratic rights of employees.
Recall that doctors and other health workers frequently get involved in industrial actions, which have paralysed the health system in the country. In 2021, for example, the NARD were on strike for 63 days because the government was unable to meet its demands. The National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives, Lagos State chapter, is also proposing to go on a strike by January 10 over the failure of the state government to meet its demands.
There is no doubt that this move by the legislators will amount to a gross violation of the rights of the medical workers to declare their grievances with amicable negotiation and, as a last resort, launching industrial action. The right to strike is a universal democratic right of all employees, regardless of their workplace – whether private or public.
Our legislators must recognise that industrial actions or strikes are not undertaken for nothing; some issues contribute to them. If there must be a law to ban strikes in the medical sector, then, the House of Representatives should first promulgate a law that will inhibit the government from reneging on several agreements it enters into with health employees.
Furthermore, there should be laws to prevent the government from delays in payment of salaries, pensions and gratuities, promotion and disbursement of entitlements of workers. They should pass legislation that requires us to improve the infrastructure in our hospitals and ensure that consumables are available at all times.
Anything short of that as preconditions to the law to prohibit strikes by health workers means the government wants to arm-twist, gag and turn health providers in Nigeria into captives and lame ducks. The result of this will particularly be a spike in the already colossal migration of the workers to other countries with better service conditions, where their efforts, abilities, and expertise are better recognised.
Indeed, the bill is tumultuous and runs counter to the freedom of expression of health workers. Instead of creating a system in which medical workers do not have to go on strike, the Federal Government seeks to infringe on their rights to declare their resentment. Unfortunately, these legislators fail to understand the privileges that democracy confers. Why would legislators, who are supposed to sympathise with Nigerians as representatives of the people, come forward with such a bill? Shame!
Medical and health workers’ strikes are a global phenomenon, reported in both remarkably developed and progressive countries. Strikes by health workers are of increasing concern for international and local health authorities. They are an obstacle to achieving the universal health coverage contemplated by the World Health Organisation.
However, while the right to strike is regarded a fundamental one, medical workers in Nigeria, notably doctors, must realise that they have a moral duty to adhere to the Hippocratic tenets of the medical profession and fiduciary obligation to their patients. Under Hippocrates oath, doctors are deemed to be in a social contract and obliged to treat a patient’s health and life as a preference over everything else and going on strike may be seen as a contravention of such contract.
As essential workers, Nigerian doctors and health care providers should invariably strike a balance between improved health care services for patients and the need to press for justifiable wages for themselves to fulfill their primary human needs like everyone. So, we advise health workers in this country to act in the best interests of patients and make their health and their lives a priority above all else.
Resolving persistent strikes in the health sector calls for fiscal and ethical solutions and a moral commitment to promoting the health and welfare of Nigerians. All stakeholders involved in the management of the medical profession in this country are required to come to the negotiating table. A conference between health workers’ unions and associations and the Nigerian government is long overdue. Instead of banning strikes in the sector, a work system must be established where medical staff see no reason to declare a collective action.

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