Domesticating ACJA challenging, work in progress – Ota-Okojie

Felix Ota-Okojie

As part of the on-going justice sector reform across the six geo-political zone in the country, the train of the Presidential Committee christened Federal Justice Sector Reform Coordinating Committee (FJSRCC) berthed in Yola, last week, in continuation of its workshop and interface with stakeholders saddled with the responsibility of implementing the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA 2015). In this interview, the Secretary of the committee, Felix Ota-Okojie, gives account.

Sir, let us know how it has been domesticating ACJA?

The domestication of ACJA has been a work in progress. It has progressed from one state to the other such that as at today, ACJA has been domesticated in about 31 states, leaving only 5 states that are at different stages of the domestication process. So, the expectation is that by next year, hopefully, all the states would have come on board so that we can have some uniformity in the administration of criminal justice in the country.

What have been the challenges in the course of criss-crossing the geo-political zone domesticating ACJA?

The challenges basically have been that of implementations. You see one thing is to have legislation, another thing is implementation. So, given the number of states that have adopted the ACJA and if they can now bring some bites into the implementation of the law, then we will begin to feel the impacts of the reform as enshrined in those laws.
So, the challenge now is getting the states to step up the implementation of the laws that they have passed.

At the federal level, we have continued to drive the process of implementation through the various training, programmes, workshops, advocacy, sensitization and capacity building of institutions, personnel and other stakeholders that are charged with one responsibility or another under the ACJA across the geo-political zones. So, what we are doing here in Yola is a continuation of that effort. The expectation is that when we do this, it would spur the states to now come on board to see the need to also step up their implementation efforts so that the benefits of the law can be made available to citizenry.

What forms of feedback mechanism do you have in place to ascertain the workability of Sections 29, 33 and 34 of ACJA?

Yes, we have put in place a feedback medium. One of such mechanisms is to form a group of all the participants that we have trained. At such training, we bring them to a syndicate session where we now gather them at their various states level.
After that, we now get their names, telephone numbers to create a WhatsApp group through which we interface with the participants via the platform.

They are also able to ask questions, raise issues and carry out activities relating to implementation of the ACJA or their States laws.
So, through that, we are able to track how the implementations are taking place and challenges associated with it.

Looking at the validation that took place in 2018 and now, would you say the exercise is moving at an expected pace?

My answer is yes. The pace at which ACJA domestication is moving is quite encouraging.

You recall when we had that validation in 2018, the number of states that adopted ACJA was about ten states. But between 2018 and now, we have had about 31 states that have now adopted the law with about five states to go. That in itself is tremendous progress.

Also, some States have also stepped up their implementations. For instance, Lagos has just even reviewed its own laws. Only last week, the Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu just signed the amendment law to their own ACJA law which has now incorporated all the experiences they have garnered over the years in the course of implementation.

Anambra and few other states are also doing very well in their implementations. So, we are also using that to encourage other states to step up so that they can also come at par with such states.

Not only that, we have also encouraged states to undertake peer review. Some states have gone to Lagos to understudy how the state has put in place its various implementation mechanisms through this platform. So, in a nutshell, we are making progress.

After implementing ACJA, could you tell us how the South-South and South-West states are fairing being the first set of states to be trained in the course of domesticating ACJA. I mean, are the states making progress, are they walking the talk, what about other states still behind, are you fast tracking that?

We are interfacing with states that are yet to conclude fully their domesticating process. What we mean is that the law is yet to be assented to.

I am pleased to divulge to you that there are virtually no states that have not taken this bill to their various states assemblies. But what they are contending with is that the bills are still in various stages.

Some are in their first reading stage, some second reading, some are at the public hearing stages, others have their legislators pass it only waiting for governors’ assent. That is why I said earlier that soon, others remaining will do the needful going forward.

Aside from this workshop, are you looking at any other ways to interface with the Police and Magistrates who happen to be two key stakeholders who can help to curb rights violations in the country?

We are looking at other ways to improve that synergy between the police and the magistrates. If you look at the core of these provisions, you would discover that their relationships must be strengthened.

For example, the regular oversight inspection visit to police stations by magistrates would go a long way in enhancing ACJA implementation, giving the expectations by such visits.

Don’t forget that during such visits, the magistrate is expected to take records of all those arrested, those that have been charged to court and those that were not.
And in some deserving cases grant bails, direct for arraignment if offence non bailable in the immediate. So, for me, if that is sustained for a very long time, it would not only promote speedy dispensation of justice but also help address all manners of human rights violation that have characterized the system.

The move to a very large extent would also help in curbing the menace of prison in all the facilities and congestion in our various prisons that we currently face.

How would you assess the justice sector reform programme from a stakeholder perspective now?

Reform is always work in progress; you cannot completely reform a system within a certain period of time. As you are reforming, new challenges will definitely come up to be addressed.

A good example is Lagos that is reviewing its laws to meet current challenges. For as a team, we will continue to encourage states in sustaining the will and determination to get over issues and hurdles therein.

At FMOJ level, we will continue to engage, advocate, drive and encourage states that are lagging behind to come to speed with the pacesetter states even when institutions are reluctant.

Remember that when the system works well, it is for the advantage of all and if not, all would be at the receiving ends.

Lastly sir, could you give us a clue on the adopted National Policy on Justice?

The national policy on justice is one that has provided a roadmap and broad guidelines through which all the reforms we have undertaken in the administration of criminal justice are channeled or situated as the case may be.

So, it is in the policy that the issue of reforming the criminal justice law, its practice and procedure, civil justice and the whole gamut of the administration of criminal justice were contained and that is what we are driving.

Efforts are also on to have a national policy on arbitration to drive our alternative dispute resolution (ADR) system to enhance a justice system that will meet citizens’ aspirations.

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