TS COLUMNIST: Charting a Course to a Desirable Justice Future for Nigeria By Stanley Ibe [READ]

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Under the leadership of the Federal Ministry of Justice, Nigeria adopted its first National Policy on Justice (NPJ) on August 10, 2017. This was the culmination of a series of activities designed to build support around a draft policy developed by the Federal Justice Sector Reform Coordinating Committee.

The NPJ attempts to respond to a well-known problem – an inefficient justice system underpinned by a lack of coordination of its constituents. The federal context in which this system operates appears to be the convenient alibi for the apparent reluctance by institutions to work together – although this ought to facilitate healthy exchange and competition.

In terms of content, the NPJ identifies 17 themes around which it seeks to “engender consensus over a common vision, joint leadership and coordinated effort.” They include fair and speedy dispensation of justice; protection and promotion of human rights; alternative dispute resolution; independence of the judiciary; and synergy and coordination across the sector. For every one of these 17 themes, there was a deliberate attempt to identify the challenges as well as strategic interventions that will move the system closer to a desirable future.

Although the NPJ is a first attempt at developing a national policy on the subject, it is not the first plan. Successive administrations from 1999 established committees to review the justice sector and offer new ideas. Regrettably, most of the plans developed under these frameworks did not manage to transition from paper to action – leading many to question how the current effort will succeed where others failed.

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The question of success or failure of the NPJ is critical but dependent on factors other than the policy itself. For example, we need strong institutions to drive policy change. No matter how brilliant or beautiful the policy is, weak institutions can easily derail it. It is also the case that an efficient public sector management model is foundational both in terms of managing resources and providing leadership for the reform process.

Process is important in any discussion about reforms. Consequently, the process of preparing the policy document is as significant as the product and the plan for implementation. This is critical because the subject of discussion is one over which federal and state governments have competence in terms of developing policy and law. Indeed, at least one expert has argued that the different centres of power – federal, state and local – should be at liberty to design and implement policies and programmes of their choice without recourse to one another. Although this is a fairly valid argument, I suspect that our context demands that we tread that path more carefully. Nonetheless, I refer to the argument to underscore the need to get the power centres sufficiently convinced about the value of a unified national policy to make implementation possible at any level.

To return to the question of preparation, this writer raised concerns about the level of consultation that went into developing the first draft of the policy during a stakeholders review process. The concern was predicated on the perception that only a few states were involved in the negotiations leading to the first draft. Although facilitators of the event assured me that outreach was a priority, the question of how wide the consultations have been is a critical success/failure factor.

Naturally, the process colors the product. To the extent that any stakeholder felt left out of the process, there is every likelihood that they could question the legitimacy of the product. This writer has not read or heard anywhere that a major stakeholder did not get to make an input. However, the true test of ownership both of the process and product lies in investment in resources required to make the policy work. A major plank of this investment is developing and following through on a robust state-centric implementation plan.

Over the next 6 months, it might be interesting to see how many states actually go down the implementation route or at least have a clear conversation about what they might do with the NPJ. It bears mentioning that the NPJ is not an instruction to states but a recommendation. Therefore, the ultimate responsibility to make the policy cognizant of the peculiarities of individual states lie with those states. But states cannot do this alone. Civil society has got to play an important role in nudging, supporting, monitoring and evaluating. The public has to take ownership of this process because everyone is impacted by an inefficient justice system.

One of the major components of the national implementation plan is the annual justice summits at which states will reflect on how far they have gone and draw lessons from their peers who may have other ideas. This is a great proposal but it needs to begin within the states and then trickle up to the national level. To the extent that states take on board ideas expressed in the NPJ, they ought to lead in reviewing current problems against new proposals and adjusting plans as new developments occur.

Nigeria’s justice system clearly needs an overhaul. There appears to be some consensus on this. The main challenge is how this overhaul might be undertaken. The NPJ provides another framework to engage in dialogue and concrete action in the interest of justice. Hope it makes a real difference.

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