A non-partisan and functional judiciary is the hallmark of an ideal democracy anywhere in the world. Because of its importance in human society, it behooves on those who are entrusted with the dispensation of justice to be guided by the principle of truth, fairness and morality. The justification for the existence of judiciary was popularized by a French Philosopher (Baron de Montesquieu) in the 18th century through the Principle of Separation of Powers which states that personnel who make laws should be separated from those who implement those laws; those who implement the law should be separated from those who interpret laws. Meanwhile, the differentiating factor of a judiciary in a democratic and non-democratic regime under the premise of separation of powers is the independence to interpret the provisions of the law which are made by legislative houses. In Nigeria, reality has revealed an incoherence in the what “ought to” and what “it is” of the justice system, especially the integrity of trials in the Nigerian courts of justice. It is against this backdrop that an assessment of court trials in Nigeria becomes necessary.
No doubt that extant laws in Nigeria include but not limited to the constitution, criminal or Penal code, electoral act, labour act and land use act have specific provisions that outlines offences and jurisdiction of trials. A critical assessment of those laws conspicuously recognized civil and criminal trials, which can be handled by either one or all levels of courts ranging from the magistrate to the supreme court. For proper understanding, civil trial is a lawsuit or non-criminal legal proceeding initiated by an individual or company in court against someone that they say caused them some loss, harm, or injury etc. while, a criminal trial is the examination of evidence by judge(s) to decide whether, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the defendant has committed an alleged crime. However, another form of trial alien to existing laws but holding sway in Nigeria justice system is the “political trial”. Political trial is a criminal trial with political implication, it is the expression of totalitarian or authoritarian system, where the administration of justice is political.
Generally, the manifestations of the politicization of the Nigeria judicial system are in three notable ways, namely; the burgeoning rate of political trials clogging up the courts, leading to interminable delays in court processes and corroding the reputation of the courts as credible arbiters on law and justice, judicial corruption has become the norm, not the exception, and unduly politicization of the process and quality of judicial promotion and appointment as we experienced in the contentious suspension of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen at the detriment of the independence and integrity of the judiciary.
Specifically, the delay of judgement, non-compliance with the decision of court(s), persecutions etc are the major highlights of political trials in Nigeria. In this context, some of the prominent political trials in the Nigeria court of law are; the prosecution of the erstwhile Governor of Sokoto State, Alhaji Attahiru Bafarawa on an amended 34-count charge of cheating, criminal breach of trust and diversion of public funds to the tune of over N15 billion allegedly misappropriated during his reign as Governor between 1999 and 2007, the accused was arraigned in December 2009 and the case was adjourned to March 15 and 16, 2018 and later July 31, 2018. The Sokoto State High Court eventually discharge and acquit Attahiru Bafarawa of the corruption charges. In a similar vein, the trial of the former Governor of Nasarawa State, Aliyu Doma prosecuted by the EFCC on a 10-count charge bordering on money laundering and financial crimes to the tune of N8 billion alleged to have been committed between January 2007 and December 2009 in contravention to Section 14(1)(a) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act 2004 and punishable under section 14(1) of the same Act, the case was eventually closed on June 23, 2016. Another case of political trial is the prosecution of the former spokesman of the People Democratic Party, Olisa Metuh who was arraigned by the EFCC on seven counts charges of money laundering for allegedly receiving N400 million from the office of the national security adviser. A federal high court in Abuja had pronounced him guilty on all counts of money laundering and sentenced him to seven years in prison on February 25, 2020. On December 16, 2020, the Court of Appeal, Abuja Division, nullified the seven-year jail sentence handed Olisa Metuh, holding that the Federal High Court Judge was biased in handling the case.
Furthermore, the handling of Omoyele Sowore, Sambo Dasuki and Ibrahim Zakyzaky cases also depict political trial on one hand and sheer disregard for the respect for the rule of law on another hand. According to different commentaries, the politics of Bafarawa’s trial was as a result of his position on sharia law in the North during his reign as Governor, Aliyu Doma trial was to break the hegemony of PDP in Nasarawa, Olisa Metuh’s trial is more of persecution for his role as an ex-spokesman of the People’s Democratic Party to mention but few. The continued delay in many political trials is basically the function of investigation. Due to the political implication of most of the cases, prosecutors do not have tangible evidence to prosecute accused persons before charging them to court. It is imperative to note that the ultimate goal of political trial is to get accused behind bar not to administer justice, thus the principle of fairness, integrity, truth and morality become desecrated.