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Nigeria's Judiciary Faces Growing Responsibilities - 2004-07-01

The judicial system in Africa's most populous country, Nigeria, is facing growing responsibilities, as more and more citizens, religious groups, unions, political parties and non-governmental organizations are turning to courts to resolve their disputes.

In June, Nigeria's court system ended a general strike by ordering the government to roll back prices at gas pumps, while at the same time telling union leaders their protest action was illegal.

The Nigerian author of the recent book, The Pursuit of Justice and Development, Gbolahan Gbadamosi, says what is surprising is that the ruling was respected by both sides.

"For the first time, the judiciary tried, and came to the side of the masses of the country, and ordered that government should revert to the old price, and also told the labor, 'please suspend the strike.' So, for the first time, it's a victory for the judiciary in Nigeria," he said.

Another case brought to court last month by a small non-governmental organization asked judges to prevent former Liberian President Charles Taylor from being granted asylum in Nigeria. Mr. Gbadamosi says this case might have little chance of succeeding, but he adds that at least human rights activists are getting an opportunity to express themselves.

A Nigerian federal court is also considering whether President Olusegun Obasanjo's recent imposition of emergency rule and dismissal of the civilian governor in violence-wracked Plateau state were illegal.

A retired justice of the Nigerian Court of Appeal, Moronkeji Omotayo Onalaja, says many Nigerians lack faith in the two other branches of government, which are seen as rife with corruption, and either too powerful, in the case of the executive, or too weak, in the case of the legislature.

"It is only the judiciary that the people have confidence in," he said. "The executive and the legislative have not got much confidence. And the judiciary, the chief justice of Nigeria have been very articulate, and maintained the discipline and the ethics of the profession. They just set up the code of conduct for themselves, and they adhere strictly to the code of conduct."

A number of judges recently found guilty of being bribed were swiftly dismissed, as part of an effort to uphold judicial integrity.

Recent landmark court decisions include redistributing natural gas and oil revenue back to the areas where the resources come out of the ground, giving more power to local governments and allowing small political parties to compete in national elections.

Nigerian civil liberties activist Chima Ubani says there is good coming out of the court system, but he believes it needs to become more independent.

"There has been some good, some bad, some ugly," he said. "Some of the good sides, I would say, there have been a few cases in which the judiciary has shown it could indeed be the hope, the last hope of the oppressed. On the very low side, the downside, we have seen several instances of executive manipulation of judiciary."

Mr. Ubani alleges court cases against election results in 2003 were dismissed because of what he calls executive interference. He says corruption cases against high-profile businessmen and politicians have been bogged down for the same reason.

Government officials deny this. They say the Justice Ministry is trying to speed up the adjudication process and make it cheaper to access and less complex.

As part of these reforms, the government has also integrated the Islamic Sharia system of northern Islamic courts into the overall secular system. At least two judges at the Supreme Court are now required to be Sharia law experts, and all cases from the Sharia courts of appeal can be further appealed to the federal courts.