Nine months down after inauguration, the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, has aside oversight functions, deployed legislative activism into making things work in the third arm of government . Taiye Odewale reports.
Strengthening judiciary and related matters
Though is not up to a year that all the 69 standing committees of the 9th Senate commenced activities as they were inaugurated on Wednesday, September 25, 2019, but legislative activism deployed so far by the one on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters under the chairmanship of Senator Micheal Opeyemi Bamidele (APC Ekiti Central), solely to strengthen the judiciary, is worth examining.
First of such legislative activism was the investigation carried out by the committee on alleged invasion of courtroom in Abuja by operatives of the Department of State Services ( DSS) for forceful arrest of Omoyele Sowore, (convener of #RevolutionNow), who was standing trial on alleged treasonable offences then.
The committee’s investigation of the alleged invasion of the courtroom was on the strength of the Senate’s resolution to that effect on Thursday, December 12, 2019, which arose from a motion personally moved by the chairman of the committee himself, Senator Micheal Opeyemi Bamidele (APC Ekiti Central).
Invasion of courtroom
Senator Bamidele, who came under order 43 of the Senate Rules, (personal explanations ), to move the motion, said since the invasion had raised a lot of concerns from Nigerians, there was no way the senate as a law-making institution would look the other way.
“The judiciary must find our voices at this time and more so since the courtroom is believe to be a sanctuary that should not be desecrated with such an alleged invasion , thorough investigation needs to be carried out to get the facts of the matter”, he submitted then.
Expectedly, the motion and the investigation carried out a week after , not only put an end to such invasion but led to the release of Sowore himself by the federal government as ordered by the court of law by abiding with bail granted him.
‘Clammed down’ on social media
The committee also in March this year during a Public Hearing on Internet Falsehood, Manipulations, and other Related Matters Bill, 2019 sponsored by Senator Sani Musa (APC Niger East), demonstrated such activism by putting the bill on the table for Nigerians to naked and devour in terms of contributions for or against.
Strikingly at the beginning of the public hearing which held on Monday, March 10, 2020 at the Senate wing of the National Assembly, the committee through its chairman, Opeyemi Bamidele, told Nigerians that though the bill is sponsored by one of them but preponderance of opinions for or against by Nigerians, would determine the position of the committee and by extension, that of the Senate on the bill as regards its passage or rejection.
“Our duty here today as a committee at this gathering on further legislative action on Internet Falsehood, Manipulations, and other Related Matters Bill, 2019, is to aggregate views of Nigerians on it and be guided by preponderance of opinions for or against”, he said.
The committee’s open demonstration of neutrality on the bill that day, paved the way for aggrieved Nigerians to kick against it right , left and centre, culminating into rejection reports written against it by virtually all the journalists who covered the public hearing.
The gale of attacks by Nigerians against the bill from the Executive Vice Chairman of Nigerian Communications Commission, Professor Umar Danbatta, to 60 other groups or bodies like the Amnesty International, the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) etc, made the sponsor of the bill, Senator Sani Musa, to hurriedly leave the venue of the public hearing.
It would be recalled that only the Nigerian Army and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, supported the bill that day.
Virtual court proceedings
In response to social distancing brought about by COVID-19 Pandemic in public arena, the Chairman of the Committee last month, came up with a bill for legalisation of virtual court proceedings across the country.
According to Senator Bamidele, the bill which has been given first reading on the floor of the Senate, when fully considered and eventually passed into law, is a necessity at this time and even in line with modern trend.
He said: “Technology has been adopted as an instrument for speedy delivery of judgments on cases in advanced nations. Many cases are being heard through teleconference and judgements passed through same route.
“Apart from decongesting our courts, it helps during emergency situations as we are experiencing under coronavirus pandemic. Virtual proceeding is expedient to save our nation from anarchy in times of emergency like this.
“Judiciary as an arm of government must move with the tide. As a way of complying with the social distancing policy of government under COVID-19, the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Executive Council now holds weekly meetings through virtual means so that the nation will not suffer good governance.
“The same method has been adopted by governors in many states and I see no reason why the judiciary can’t adopt same to entrench the rule of law in the system, because one can’t get justice when activities of courts are suspended indefinitely, because justice delayed is justice denied”.
Dormancy of law reform commission
Also last month, precisely on Wednesday, May 21, 2020, the committee as a whole, expressed concern over the dormancy of the Nigeria Law Reform Commission which it said, has culminated in the existence of obsolete laws in the country’s statue books.
The committee made the critical observation during the screening of the newly appointed chairman, Professor Jummai Audi, and three other board members forwarded to the Senate for approval by President Muhamnadu Buhari.
Specifically, a member of the committee, Senator Peter Nwaoboshi (PDP Delta North), said: “This commission as the body constitutionally saddled with the responsibility of law reforms, ordinarily supposed to be visible but not visible at all”.
Another member of the committee, Senator Ajibola Basiru (APC Osun Central), said for the commission to have in its record, only seven attempts of law reforms between 2017 and 2020, shows that is dormant.
“The worrisome aspect of the dormancy is the existence of obsolete penalty clauses in our law books begging for review.
“Obsolesce of penalties like N200 fine or six months jail term for offenders of serious crime is ridiculous and not deterrent as it supposed to be”, he said.
Similarly, “raises the ante charge” was given to the newly appointed President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica Dongban Mensem, during her screening by the committee.
Specifically, Senator Bamidele on behalf of the committee told the now sworn in Court of Appeal President as a presidential nominee then that the enthusiasm with which Nigerians greeted her nomination and respect the Senate had for it by suspending its rule for expeditious screening, should not be in vain if eventually confirmed.
“You must demonstrate the required courageous leadership the judiciary deserves by standing up in fair and fearless manner by the Nigerian people when it comes to justice.
“Your lordship must ensure that Justice is not only delivered but in timely manner because justice delayed, is justice denied.
“It should not be business as usual, the very reason the Senate and by extension, the National Assembly, is revisiting the budget of the judiciary which is less than 1 percent of the N10.509trillion 2020 budget size for the country”, he said.
He added by declaring that the committee would look into the budgetary votes of the judiciary as regards welfare packages for judges and justices. According to him, “the welfare situation of the judicial officers, is nothing to write home about”
“The last time salaries and emoluments of judicial officers were reviewed was in 2008, the benefits of which have been completely eroded by inflationary trends.
“This sector might go into extinction if the needful is not urgently done because in years to come, Nigerians may no longer be interested in going into the sector “, he warned.
Kicks against N11bn slash of budget
Little wonder that during consideration and passage of the revised 2020 budget , Senator Bamidele as chairman of the committee kicked against N11billion slashed from the original votes earmarked for the Judiciary in the earlier passed 2020 budget in December 2019.
The reduction in the budgetary votes, according to him, would further worsen the already pathetic situation of the Judiciary as far as underfunding is concerned.
Arguably going by legislative activism cum interventions, the Senator Bamidele-led committee on judiciary is deploying, the third arm of government is in for better positioning for timely justice delivery to concerned Nigerians.