Critical Conversations

Obasanjo-Gumi Security Dialogue and the Rationale Behind Calls for Special Courts

When Former President Obasanjo and Sheik Gumi held a closed-door dialogue in Abeokuta last Sunday, it attracted a lot of curiosity among the citizens. As the duo emerged from their closed-door meeting after some hours, their joint statement called for special courts to prosecute bandits and kidnappers across the country.

They made this known through a communiqué they issued immediately after the meeting. Their joint statement even revved up the curiosity that was building up over ex-President Obasanjo’s talk with a man many Nigerians view as the godfather of banditry in the country.

It is in fact no news that the country is in mortal danger in view of the criminal activities associated with insecurity. This is ranging from banditry to kidnapping. There have been calls for how some of these problems can be curbed. In light of this, it is quite germane to take cognisance of the propositions made by former president Olusegun Obasanjo, and that of prominent cleric, Alhaji Gumi.

According to the former president and his new peace associate, the special courts would cut the long bureaucracy in dealing promptly with cases of banditry, kidnapping, ransom demanding, and unlawful carrying of weapons. The duo insisted that the hardened criminals must be dealt with a hard blow, while noting that unlawful possession of arms should be seriously punished.

While urging Nigerians to support the government in the fight against insecurity and desist from politicising it, they appealed to the Federal government to take up the issue of security within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) towards a regional solution:

“Every community must be encouraged and empowered to stand firm and strong against criminals.

“There should be protected and reward covertly for whistleblowers against criminals living in the community.”

Some of these propositions and appeals are quite reasonable. On the issue of rewarding whistleblowers, it is important to note that some enemies within have been exposed on this account. For instance, an army officer and his girlfriend were arrested by authorities in Zamfara State.

According to the Zamfara State Government, they were apprehended following their engagement in aiding bandits with military uniforms and ammunition in the state. This was however made possible owing to what Bello Matawalle defined as the “courage and patriotism of the individual who came forward with information that led to the arrest of these traitors”.

Meanwhile, on the issue of establishing special courts to tackle banditry, kidnapping, and other security crimes, Nigerians are asking, what is the rationale, and how can it help deplete these crimes? It is noteworthy that the calls for the setting up of special court had prior to this time, gained traction within some circles, though it was directed at issues related to graft, rape, and gender-based violence.

In November 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari had called for the creation of special courts to improve efficiency in the judicial process. He called on judicial officers to work towards the creation of special courts to assist the speedy administration and dispensation of justice in the country. According to the president, creating an efficient structure for special crime courts or designating existing courts as special courts with competent and credible judicial officers will help remove administrative bottlenecks in the judicial process.

While some insist that special courts are totems of military rule and should have no place in a democracy, a special court designated for corruption and financial crime cases in the country delivered 324 judgments, struck out 12 cases, and reserved 62 cases for judgment within six months of establishment. The details are contained in the report of the Corruption and Financial Crime Cases Trials Monitoring Committee (COTRIMCO), inaugurated in November 2017 by then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen. It is on these heels that many believe that specialised courts will always deliver in ensuring the timely trial of all pending and incoming cases associated with banditry, kidnapping, and even insurgency.

But there are certain reservations expressed by a few and that is in the area of ensuring that justice is served. It is a common saying that justice delayed is justice denied.

As certain players in the field noted, the processes that involve justice cannot be hurried or rushed all in the name of wanting to ensure that it is served on time. Everyone appearing in court before a judge has the right to have the judge listen carefully. In the case of in-custody arraignments, a judge needs to confirm a defendants’ name and date of birth, review a public defender application, determine whether the person is qualified for a public defender, and determine conditions of release.

As pundits note, the process of determining this last phase can be complicated. With the assistance of supervised release, the public-defender attorneys, and court personnel, a judge has a lot to consider when making the decision. One gets a better idea when the process of every in-custody defendant who appears before a judge is multiplied in a day. For someone like Ambassador George Adeosala, he opined that what Nigeria needs are more judges and a simplification of these processes as opposed to special courts.

It becomes important to speed up the process of judicially trying these criminal elements and suspects, but there are also prejudices regarding their appearance at the special courts. Some of them include the fact that one is not privy to appeal and one is already considered a criminal even before trial.

Setting up special courts to tackle banditry and other security-related crimes is quite intelligent, but it is not as clear-cut as the merits sounds. For instance, President Asif Ali Zardari’s emphasis on prosecuting accused terrorists in legal courts renewed interest in Pakistan’s anti-terrorism court (ATC), a parallel legal system established in 1997 under the Anti-Terrorism Act to dispense quick justice for those charged with terrorist activities.

Although the involvement of Pakistani militants in the Mumbai attacks in November 2008 placed the spotlight on the special courts, it is quite interesting that as hundreds of militants surrendered, there were divergences as to how they should be dealt with according to the law.

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More so, ATC trials were delayed following security concerns. In cases where suspects were accused of heinous crimes, in-camera trials were conducted in jail. Arranging logistics for such hearings can lead to prolonged delays. Additionally, complainants and witnesses often refuse to testify against the accused. Since extensive militant networks look out for most terrorist suspects, witnesses fear being targeted during the course of traffic

Furthermore, personal security concerns on the part of judges, state prosecutors, and defense counsels frequently lead to qw2w the postponement of hearings. For example, Khwaja Sultan, the defense counsel for one Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, who was accused of plotting the 2008 Mumbai attacks, petitioned the Rawalpindi special court to transfer Lakhvi’s case to another in Lahore citing security concerns.

In his petition, he claimed that he feared Indian intelligence officials would target him during his long commute to Adiala Jail, where Lakhvi is being tried. The Lahore High Court refused to transfer Lakhvi’s trial, but asked the government to ensure the counsel’s security.

Beyond the impact security concerns have on the verdicts of special courts for terrorism and by extension insecurity, the politicisation of the process or the susceptibility of being politicised undermine the credibility of convictions. In the Paskitan’s anti-terrorism courts, for instance, most of them were issuing convictions on the authorities’ instructions, rather than on the basis of transparent trials.

While Olusegun Obasanjo and Alhaji Gumi might have made very strong propositions, it is important that several other things are considered and incorporated to seal all loopholes in a possible future policy on special courts.

Peters Abodunrin