The Oscar Pistorius Trial: A High Benchmark for Nigeria’s Justice System

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Mr. Dan Obioma

John Daniel Obioma is an Associate Editor with The Economy magazine;

Whether we like it or not, Oscar Pistorius has made quite a name for himself. At 11 months of age, his two lower legs were amputated on medical advice to save his life. But by sheer determination, Oscar rose to become the toast of South African sports fans. With the use of prosthetic (artificial) legs, he has won many laurels for his country in sprinting and in multiple Paralympic Games. Commendable, isn’t it?

For another reason, however, Oscar is perhaps the only man in living memory who shot and killed his lover on a Valentine’s Day. Apparently carried-away by his rising profile and celebrity status, Oscar simply refused to listen to the voice of self-control. He acquired a firearm, ostensibly for self-protection, but became notoriously trigger-happy with it. He would harass and endanger people’s lives with his gun in a restaurant; he would spray bullets with excitement through the sunroof of his car with reckless abandon, and other criminal tendencies. On February 14, 2013, Oscar shot his girl friend, Reeva SteenKamp four times through the toilet door, killing her in the process.  According to him, SteenKamp was supposed to be in the bedroom but somehow found herself in the toilet unnoticed. He therefore pleaded not guilty because by mistaking her for an intruder he only acted in anticipated self-defence. It was indeed an emotion-laden trial reminiscent of the 1996 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the same country.

The trial opened on March 3, 2014 and on September 12, 2014, the presiding Judge, Thokozile Masipa, found Oscar not guilty of murder (that is, premeditated crime), but guilty of the culpable homicide (the equivalent of manslaughter) of SteenKamp; and also guilty of reckless endangerment with firearm at a restaurant in a separate incident. Culpable homicide is the unlawful and negligent killing of a human being. Finally on October 13, 2014, Oscar Pistorius was sentenced to five years imprisonment. The punishment may not be commensurate with the weight of crime, but it goes to show that indeed nobody is above the law.

The “beauty” of this case is that it mirrors in diverse ways, a completely opposite image of what obtains in Nigeria. One, it was a case where the wide popularity of the accused, his powerful connections and threats to the life of the presiding judge did not sway the course of justice. Two, the case reflects, to a large extent, the institution of a strong judicial system in South Africa that proves to be incorruptible and difficult to manouvre. Three, the court proceedings were covered by the print/electronic/social media, making it a global issue where justice was not only done but also seen to have been done. Four, that the entire trial lasted only six months, (March 3 – September 12, 2014), an unparalleled legal feat which few countries, excluding “the giant of Africa,” can accomplish, constitutes the subject of this discourse.

Overall, Pistorius’ case has raised a fundamental question on the quality of the criminal justice system in Nigeria – a system rooted in corruption, impunity and incompetence, which certainly slow down the wheels of justice. Here is a country where preliminary investigation could take up to five years before hearing starts. Here is a country where an accused could be detained for 7 – 10 years without trial for a crime or felony that should otherwise attract 3 – 5 years of imprisonment, if found guilty. For instance, Henry Okah’s case in the same South Africa was quickly adjudicated and concluded, whereas Charles Okah’s case in Nigeria has not even gone half-way. Again, Major Hamza Mustapha’s trial lasted for twelve years, at the end of which many people and interest groups still felt dissatisfied and disappointed with the judgement. A catalogue of high-profile but inconclusive cases which Nigerian government methodically swept under the carpet would be too numerous for this column, but suffice it to mention just a few. The Dele Giwa murder case did not survive the investigation stage. So also did Chief Bola Ige’s and Chief Funso William’s assassination cases. It could be that our police are grossly incompetent to handle credible investigation, as in the case of Aminu Ogwuche, the suspected Nyanya bomb-blast mastermind, who was recently discharged for want of diligent prosecution. At other times, unknown forces and powerful interest groups may frustrate an otherwise credible prosecution process for selfish reasons.

Not quite long ago, some Nigerians in positions of authority were implicated in corruption (embezzlement) charges. They include Farouk Lawan, Femi Otedola; Ayo Fayose (now governor of Ekiti State); Femi Fani Kayode (former Aviation Minister); Dimeji Bankole (former speaker, House of Representatives); Abdulrasheed Maina (in respect of Police Pension Fund); Stella Oduah (former Aviation Minister); the several companies involved in the fuel subsidy scam; NNPC’s unremitted $20 billion to the Central Bank of Nigeria; and many more. Most of the people mentioned above have had their sins forgiven or mitigated by reason of their membership of the ruling political party. Nobody mentions their cases any more. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) itself is obviously emasculated and drips in corruption. That’s why an ex-governor of Rivers State, could procure a perpetual injunction never to be investigated or arraigned for corruption charges. Is he morally and legally justified to protect himself against justice? Has the EFCC ever challenged that injunction?

Nevertheless, the saying goes: there is no smoke without fire. Some factors are responsible for the entrenchment of corruption and inefficiency in our judicial system. The appointment of judges is hardly based on merit but rather on sentiment, personal as against professional recommendation and connection to the top. All of these dovetail to mediocrity.  Again, the Investigating Police Officers (IPOS) who should be enlightened professionals, usually worsen the litigation process due to illiteracy/ignorance of the law and corruption. Added to this is that certain provisions of the constitution, such as the immunity clause, can frustrate an otherwise credible investigation. Also, in our country, Nigeria, members of the civil society are not willing to volunteer information to help the prosecution process (as we saw in the Oscar Pistorius case). Here, people are afraid of police double–dealing attitude (betrayal) and insecurity. Finally, the power of connection is so potent in Nigeria that when a top member of the political or business elite indicates interest in a case, its trial suffers untold delay or outright abortion; even the ultimate judgement may be flawed or skewed, amounting to a rape of justice. All these factors and more frustrate the emergence of a strong judicial institution in Nigeria. But there is no problem without solution.

Do we still remember the Buhari/Idiagbon regime (Jan. 1984 – Aug. 1985) in the fight against corruption and injustice? Though that government was short-lived, it was quite effective in turning things positively around in Nigeria. Corruption and injustice will stop once a leader is disciplined and has the political will to deal with it. But when the leadership is rather protective of corrupt citizens or creates a platform for their soft-landing, corruption and injustice simply become a way of life.

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