By Lemmy Ughegbe
Many unsavory comments have trailed the nomination of the Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Justice Ishaq Usman Bello for a seat as a judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague by President Muhammadu Buhari. It is disheartening when such comments come from Nigerians, who ordinarily rally support for their fellow citizens when they are involved in regional or international contestations against other nationals. It is a notorious fact that, the country enjoys an unprecedented level of solidarity during such regional or global contestation as citizens of various ethnic groups pull together, unmindful of differing tribes, tongues and religion, but united in a common purpose – to see Nigeria win. At such a time and stage, the people do not see the nominee as Isoko, Yoruba, Hausa, Ibo, Ibibio, etc. In recent times, the admirable level of national solidarity and bonding for a common purpose came to the fore. In recent times, the successful unified national clamour of Nigerian citizens with one voice to lobby international support for the second term re-election of Dr. Akinwumi Adesina and the on-going support for Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the office of Director General of World Trade Organisation (WTO) exemplify the apogee of national solidarity in pursuit of a common objective – to put Nigeria first on the regional and global landscape. In both cases, their nomination was backed by the government and people of Nigeria. And while Dr. Adesina has been successfully re-elected, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is in the final lap of the race with bookmakers tipping her to clinch the top job. No Nigerian raised questions as to the tribe, tongue or religion of either personality.
However, this was not the same cup of tea for Justice Ishaq Usman Bello when President Buhari nominated him to represent Nigeria as a Judge at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. Rather than enjoy the customary national solidarity and endorsement, he got the contrary for no fault of his. The Judge is merely what you will call a collateral damage owing to the criticism that has become a recurring decimal whenever Buhari announces his political appointments. In this case, critics have also wondered why Buhari must nominate a northerner, accusing him of always giving advantage to the north in terms of appointments. While one cannot dismiss that with a wave of hand, given Buhari’s clannish nature evident in his political appointments in the last five years, it does come across as an unfair basis to deny Justice Ishaq Bello the national support, which he deserves and obviously would have received had his name been anything close to Adesina or Okonjo-Iweala. As qualified and competent as Bello may be, the track records of lopsidedness of Buhari’s political appointees have clearly seen him, literally, in the line of fire with false narratives against him, which include the claim that he is deficient in the knowledge of criminal law justice. Justice Bello is not just a sound and courageous judge, he is knowledgeable and passionate about the administration of criminal justice and this is evident in how innovatively he has tried to make the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015 more effective and goal scoring in terms of accelerating the dispensation of justice. Specifically, the Chief Judge signed an order of Practice Direction (PD) for the ACJA as a direction on how to apply the act to ensure more efficiency in prosecution and investigation. The said PD is to give life and fervor to the said Act and give the toothless bulldog some teeth to bite.
For instance, the PD confers authority on a judge to award cost against a counsel that is absent in court on an agreed date. According to Paragraph four, Order Seven, “Where a counsel who was present in court and agreed on the next adjournment date fails to attend the hearing without good reason or sufficient notice, costs may be awarded against him.” Parapraph 7 0f the said order also provides that “where a counsel, holding brief for another counsel is unable to proceed with the business of the day, due to his unpreparedness, costs may be awarded against him personally.” Another piece of ingenuity in the Order signed by Justice Bello also almost completely discourages a defendant from jumping bail because his head will be shaved in his absence. The provision that relates to that reads: “Where a defendant who has been granted bail, or having due notice of his trial date, fails without reasonable explanation to attend or refuses to attend court for his trial, and a summons and/or warrant as the case may be, has been issued to compel his attendance without success, the trial shall continue in his absence.” The Practice Direction also empowers a judge or magistrate to award cost against any lawyer personally who files applications that have no foundation in the law in any criminal proceedings and such cost cannot be passed to his client. This caveat is very innovative as it is an incontrovertible fact that lawyers are at the heart of long delays of trials through the constant barrage of frivolous applications they throw at the court.
Being a forward looking progressive, on the 30th day of October, 2017, Justice Bello introduced the new High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja (Civil Procedure) Rules 2018 and the Rules came into force on the 15th day of February, 2018. Under the new rules, Order 37, Rule 4 is truly commendable as it provides for fast track procedure in civil cases. Under the fast track, the period from commencement to conclusion of trial in fast track procedure shall be within 30 days, the filing and adoption of final addresses is within 14 days, judgment shall be delivered within 7 days and the issuance of certified true copy of judgment shall be within 4 days. The ingenuity of this provision is made clearer when you take into cognizance the fact that cases that take 10 to 15 years could begin and conclude within 55 days under the new rules. As great as this fast track procedure may be, it is a bit too wide in scope as cases that go there are subject to the approval of the Chief Judge. But a criticism against the fast track procedure which provides that an applicant must pay a filing fee of One Hundred Thousand Naira is that it makes quick dispensation of justice the preserve of only the rich, yet they say the court is a place for the common man. Perhaps, the filing fee may require a downward review to make it more accessible to the common man. The new rules also provides for a place for electronic services of court processes and document. This has helped to checkmate those who evade services of court processes as the courts now accept substituted services electronically. The tales of how lawyers and their clients evade service of processes is public knowledge and therefore makes that provision expedient. Justice Bello has also created the enforcement procedure rules for the Child Rights Act, which has seen to even as he is documented to have enhanced the welfare of judicial offices.
Despite these laudable efforts by the eminent jurist, his nomination has been greeted by criticism within the Nigerian shore; and that portends a negative impact to his quest to sit on the bench at the Hague. What makes it more worrisome is the fact that it is coming from his fellow countrymen who are until now famed for national solidarity at a time and in circumstances like the instant one. Even the African Bar Association (AFBA) had recently warned against the negative comments from the region against Justice Bello and other nominees from the region, saying it would work against the continent’s interest at the ICC and called for a sheathing of swords. Nigerians may do well to heed that advice and rally behind their country’s nominee – Justice Ishaq Usman Bello for the common good of the country.
– Ughegbe, a journalist, Public Opinion Influencer & Human Rights Advocate writes from Abuja.