Section 36 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, as well as a plethora of High Court rulings deprecating the act of parading suspects before trial are as clear as daylight on the protection given to the principle of fair hearing and the presumption of innocence of the accused.
The Nigeria Police on the other hand, are equally as blatant and downright nonchalant in their disregard of these constitutional safeguards for the citizen.
On this fundamental issue of principle and sanctity of the Nigerian justice system, the police beg to differ; they regularly poke a finger in the eye of the law, placing themselves high above the law in this regard, while damning the consequences. What makes this more alarming from this column’s standpoint is the seeming acquiescence of society at large about it.
Our lawmakers and the executive branch of government are indifferent, civil society groups respond to it with inertia and the public feel pretty jaded about it all, seeing it as amusing and a piece of theatre to savour. The only people who feel burdened enough to highlight this odious element of our justice system in the media appear to be the odd individual and personalities with prescience and a weight to throw around. Why?
The answer to the above puzzle is traceable to the village-square mindset of the pre-colonial era that still permeates the Nigeria Police thinking in the modern era. In that frictionless communard populated by people aligned to a deep sense of right and wrong, where the sin of the father is usually visited on the sons, daughters and siblings of the wrongdoer, naming and shaming becomes a most potent tool in the hands of those entrusted with the responsibility of enforcing community rules. The mere mentioning of a person’s name and the commission of a criminal act in the same sentence carry such opprobrium that the person so-named is shunned by the rest of the community, and is tainted for life thereafter. In the village square, one man’s fortune is everybody’s fortune.
Conversely, one man’s misdemeanour is everybody’s cross to bear. The village-square mentality is a relic of a bygone order in a bygone culture where the individual is the community, and community the individual. We, nonetheless, and irrespective of the techno drama of the modern life, remain very much by-products of that tradition.
A more utilitarian explanation for the inexcusable police violation of the law in parading suspects is convenience and resources. The police are simply overwhelmed with levels of criminality in society, and little or no incentive for them to do a thorough job of investigating, especially amidst dwindling resources. It is a matter of interest to us in Africa to note that in the West, sometimes, authorities can spend $1m to investigate and convict a theft of $100,000.
For them, the end always justifies the means. The greater good and health of society require that no sum is spared in the investigation and punishment of offenders. Here on the continent of Africa, we have yet to arrive at that level of sophisticated administration of justice. What we have, instead, is the law enforcement officers doing what appears to be their ‘best’ to curtail crime and criminality by harping on the naming and shaming logic of a by-gone age. It appears that the razzmatazz of parading suspects on TV and other media is an end in itself for the police; a wink to the public for marks for effort.
Linked to the question of resources is the police desire to promote deterrence by parading suspects. It is a cheaper and quicker way of achieving that it seems. What baffles right-thinking citizens in this country, however, is that every police recruit ought to know that the mere fact of parading someone in public undermines their right to fair hearing. There is no smoke without fire, a lot of people would conclude, which also undermines the presumption of innocence until proved guilty in a court of law.
Parading of suspects in Western jurisdiction is anathema to their notion of justice, and would not be countenanced in any way. The main reason for this being that, there is a jury trial embedded in their system, which is absent in ours. Jury trial is a process by which 12 people randomly selected from the public where a crime is committed, sit in court, hear the evidence against the accused, and are then asked to pronounce on the person’s guilt or innocence following a direction on the law from the judge. This is standard practice in most Western jurisdictions.
By contrast, we do not have jury trial in our jurisdiction. A judge sitting alone usually hears the evidence against the accused and pronounce on guilt or innocence after lawyers on both sides have presented their arguments. We do not have jury trial in our jurisdiction for all sorts of reasons, chief among which is the problem of mass illiteracy, and inadequate database of citizens up and down the country. These anomalies are not insurmountable, but, they are needed to be rectified first, to make jury selection truly neutral and random as it operates elsewhere. The argument runs then, that, under our system, trial by media has a minimal effect, since there is no jury to influence. Judges cannot be influenced by the media. Or, can they?
Let us swiftly disabuse the mind of the reader by saying that notwithstanding their antiquarian wigs and gowns, judges are products of the same society which has given them the authority to sit in judgement of others. They too feel what others feel when confronted with the allusion of guilt on the face of a suspect being paraded in the media by police. That said, they, (the judges), ultimately hold the key to resolving this malaise once and for all. Every case brought in front of a judge where the accused is found to have been paraded beforehand ought to be dead on arrival.
A police parade of a suspect should be enough to disable a subsequent trial in a court of law in this country, as it is fundamentally prejudicial to a fair hearing. So, no more endless judicial pronouncements on the need to stop the parade of suspects, no more point excoriating senior police officers for parading suspects when, based on the foregoing, the case against the accused is bound to be thrown out later by a judge. No more need to start waging a rear-guard effort endlessly suing the police. We need a hero amongst the judges, we need one ready to put his head above the parapet; one who would, ab initio, treat a case of police parade of a suspect as a jurisdictional issue. It should rank as a solid foundation for a preliminary objection which can be raised at anytime during the proceedings.
Once established, the judge does no more than throw out the case against the accused who had been paraded hitherto. Let the prosecution appeal against the decision to the Supreme Court, from here until Kingdom come. That would teach them. Above all, it would cut off the head of the marauding snake called police parade of suspects in this country by rendering it a futile exercise.