Exactly 20 years after Nigeria supposedly got rid of men in camouflage, the country’s democracy is experiencing a nosedive in ways that words alone cannot adequately capture. Ironically, members of the judiciary appear to be aiding the attack against Nigeria’s democracy.
An example is the recent ruling in Agba Jalingo’s case in Calabar, Cross River, where the presiding judge, Justice Simon Akpah Amobeda, granted an application filed by the police asking to conceal the identity of its witness. This ruling calls for serious concern and questions the criminal justice system in Nigeria. In delivering his ruling, the judge held that the police’s witness will testify behind curtains in a cubicle. He said the defendant and his counsel will not be privy to the name, alias or any other details of the witness. “His Lordship” did not stop there, he further ruled that the public and the press will not be allowed into the courtroom whilst the witness is testifying against Agba Jalingo.
Section 36(3)(4) of the Nigerian constitution provides as follows:
(3) “The proceeding of a court or the proceedings of any tribunal relating to the matters mentioned in subsection (1) of this section (including the announcement of the decisions of the court or tribunal) shall be held IN PUBLIC.”
(4) “Whenever any person is charged with a criminal offence, he shall, unless the charge is withdrawn, be entitled to a fair hearing IN PUBLICwithin a reasonable time by a court or tribunal.”
Never before have I heard of a trial where an accused defends himself against allegations made by a masquerade. Justice Simon Amobeda’s ruling is unacceptable! It betrays the tenets of justice and threatens Jalingo's right to a fair and impartial trial.
In ACN VS LAMIDO (2012) the Supreme Court held that:
“The test whether a party in a case was given fair hearing is the impression of a reasonable person who was present at the trial or who was aware of the proceedings. From his observation, he would have no difficulty concluding if justice has been done in the case.”
Going by the doctrine of precedent, Justice Amobeda is duty-bound to follow and apply the decision of the Supreme Court by allowing members of the public to be present at Agba Jalingo’s trial in order to tell whether or not Jalingo had a fair and just trial.
More disturbing is the fact that Justice Amobeda previously dismissed a bail application filed by Agba Jalingo and subsequently sent him to prison where he has now spent more than one month. His primary crime being that he carried out his journalistic duties by daring to ask the Cross River State Governor, Ben Ayade, to account for a missing N500m meant for a microfinance bank in Calabar.
The judge’s decision to now welcome masked witnesses to testify against Jalingo and to bar the public and the press from witnessing the proceeding, is unjust, lacks transparency and therefore unacceptable in a 21st century democracy. The judge has the right to recuse himself from this case if he cannot ensure that the scale of justice is balanced throughout the proceeding.