Why justice in Africa is slow and unfair

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The wheels of justice may turn slowly in Zimbabwe, but in some other parts of the continent they have almost fallen off. In the Central African Republic (CAR), for instance, UN peacekeepers lament their inability to arrest criminals in the town of Kaga Bandoro because there are no holding cells to hold them, never mind courtrooms or judges to give them a fair trial.

Zimbabwe and the CAR are extreme examples, but across much of Africa you find courtrooms that are dilapidated and judges who take an age to resolve disputes or sort the innocent from the guilty. Among the myriad problems Africa faces it may seem odd to prioritise the provision of justice. But until legal systems become faster and fairer, the continent will struggle to attract foreign investment.

In Ghana the Judiciary was scandalised in 2015 when an undercover journalist aired footage and audio recordings of judges taking bribes or demanding sex to sway their rulings. As many as 34 were implicated, many of whom have since been fired or have retired. Nigeria, too, has recently suspended judges as part of its crackdown on corruption. But the problem spreads far beyond West Africa.

When Afrobarometer, a pollster, asked people in 35 African countries whether they thought judges were corrupt, 65% said that “some” or “most” of them were. Another 11% did not hedge their bets, answering that “all of them” were crooks.

To be fair, being a judge can be risky. In Nigeria several judges, or their wives and children, have been kidnapped in recent years, although it is not clear whether these were simply for ransom or to change their minds on a point of law. And lawyers have been killed in Mozambique and Kenya.

Yet some of Africa’s judges and courts do their citizens proud. For many years Zimbabwe’s judges stood up to Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the country since 1980 with little regard for the law. Some judges ruled against him even when thugs chanting that they should be killed invaded their courtrooms. Having failed to silence them, Mugabe resorted to driving them from office and into exile before packing the bench with party hacks.

South Africa’s Constitutional Court has also been a beacon of independence in standing up to the government. But Jacob Zuma, a president facing 783 charges of corruption, has systematically undermined other elements of the justice system.

Courts that work and honest, independent judges are but two elements of the complex of rules, institutions and traditions that make up the rule of law. Among the other essential elements are governments that try to act within the law and, when they fail to do so, obey the courts. The World Justice Project, an NGO based in Washington, DC, considers these among 44 factors to construct an annual Rule of Law Index. This shows that although sub-Saharan Africa is not the only region where the rule of law is weak, it could do a lot better. South Africa, the best in the region, is 43rd in the global index. Zimbabwe ranks 108th out of 113 countries.

Yet things may be improving. Many African countries are buffing up their laws and courts to woo foreign investors. And the prosecution of some crimes is being internationalised. This happens not just through organisations such as the International Criminal Court, which deals with serious violations of human rights, but also through the judiciaries of some rich countries. Anti-bribery laws in America and Britain, for example, not only focus the minds of British and American businessmen, who risk arrest if they pay bribes in Africa, but also of Africans who worry that they may be arrested for bribery at home when they travel abroad. This means that even in places where the courts are weak, people can be forced to play by the rules. (The Economist)

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