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President Muhammadu Buhari on Wednesday suggested that criminal cases from the high court to the Supreme Court should be concluded within a year.
He also wants civil cases to end within 15 months.
Buhari spoke at the 60th Annual General Conference (AGC) of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), with the theme: ‘Stepping Forward.’
The President was represented virtually by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo at the conference that had 24,000 participants.
An erstwhile United Kingdom Prime Minister, Tony Blair, also spoke at the Conference, despite the petition against him for his role in the 2003 British and American invasion of Iraq.
Others that spoke at the conference were Chief Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad; Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami; Governors Babajide Sanwolu (Lagos) and Nyesom Wike (Rivers) as well as out-going NBA President Paul Usoro (SAN); the newly elected President of the association, Olumide Akpata, and a former Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu
Buhari, at the first ever virtual AGC by the NBA, advocated urgent review of justice administration in the country because it is “terribly slow.”
He made reference to his election petition battles, saying it took too long for the courts to decide and eventually dismiss his cases in the 2003, 2007 and 2011 presidential polls.
The President said: “In the end, I lost all three cases. I wondered then, why it needed to take so long to arrive at a verdict and if I had won the case, someone who did not legitimately win the election would have been in office all that time.
“In 2019, I was no longer petitioner; I became a respondent in the case of Atiku(Abubakar) vs Buhari and the whole process took just over six months.
“What was the difference? The law had changed since my own in 2003, 2007 and 2011. Time limits for election petitions had been introduced. Now, everything must be done within a six to eight-month period.
“My question then, is why can’t we have a time limit for criminal cases? Why can’t we have a rule that will say a criminal trial all the way to the Supreme Court must not exceed 12 months?
“Why can’t we do the same for civil cases? Can’t we say that civil cases must not go beyond between 12 and 15 months? I think that for me will be stepping forward.”
President Buhari also spoke on three other issues: multiple and conflicting court orders, judicial technicality rather than “clear common sense” and opaque process of appointing judges.
Regarding technicality, he said: “Justice must make sense to lawyers and non-lawyers alike. As a matter of fact, more to non-lawyers because we are in the majority. Triumph of technicalities opens a door for all sorts of speculations about the true motives of the court and can only detract slowly, but surely from the authority of our courts.
“The other issue is on the appointment of judges. I believe that you must continuously improve on the selection processes for the appointment of the men and women who will serve as judges. We must cast our nets wider in search of judges, especially at the appellate level.
“We must put in place primarily merit-based selection processes, including mandatory tests and interviews for all applicants for ‘judgeship.’
“While our 1999 Constitution urges federal character for ballots in appointments generally, this should not be an excuse for mediocrity.”
Also, Chief Justice Muhammad challenged lawyers to strive to become the leading lights of the nation by improving the legal system.
Muhammad stated that the virtual conference underscores the fact that the Bar is setting the pace in many areas of national life.
“For holding this virtual conference in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic exemplifies the doggedness of the Bar under the able leadership of Paul Usoro,” he said.
Justice Minister Malami (SAN) praised Buhari for “improving” Nigeria’s legal system through the issuance of Executive Orders for better implementation of our laws.
Malami, represented by the Solicitor-General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice, Dayo Apata (SAN), said the ministry had so far aided the recovery of $301 million looted funds, which has been “ploughed into the economy.
While Sanwo-Olu urged the NBA to show leadership in the country, Wike challenged the conference to have a robust deliberation on the issue of national identity.
“You (NBA) are older than Nigeria, so, you need to show Nigeria real leadership,” the Lagos State governor said.
Usoro commended NBA members for remaining united and professional.
He said: “Those who are bent on dividing the Bar” would not relent. But, we must always remember that we are one united NBA. We must continue to ensure that we remain a united bar association; we must not be divided along ethnic, religious and other lines. It must always be ‘One is for all, and all is for all.”
NBA President-elect Olumide Akpata, in a statement, described the AGC as the “largest virtual conference in Africa.”
Physical attendance at the conference was at the time of filing this report holding at both the Eko Hotel and Suites in Lagos, as well as the NBA headquarters in Abuja, with not more than 30 persons allowed at the venue.