Another day in court: wildlife crimes grinding too slowly through the wheels of justice in Nigeria
A 2021 ivory and pangolin trafficking case had its latest day in court and EIA was there to document the proceedings as well as the challenges of securing justice in Nigeria.
The wooden pews in Courtroom No 10 at Lagos Federal Court were packed last Wednesday (15 June) as lawyers assembled for the day’s listings, which included the trial of defendants Mohammed Berete, Traore Djankoba and Isiaka Musa.
The three were arrested in Lagos in July 2021 following the interception by Nigerian Customs agents of 196 sacks of pangolin scales weighing 7,137.40kg, one sack of pangolin claws weighing 4.60kg and 29 sacks of elephant tusks weighing 870.4kg.
Wilson Ogoke, Wildlife Policy Coordinator with our partner Africa Nature Investors, and I squeezed into the back row of the court alongside barristers in their wigs and gowns.
Honourable Justice T.G. Ringim presided as Berete and Djankoba took their place in the dock. Musa was absent and his barrister explained the reason for his non-attendance – a motorcycle accident in May this year had left him seriously injured and unable to attend court as he recovered in his home village.
The prosecutor argued that since there was no medical evidence of Musa’s injuries from the accident (which had occurred some two months previously), a warrant should be issued for his arrest so that he could be brought before the court.
However, the defence lawyer pleaded with Judge Ringim, explaining that he had spoken with Musa’s family only the day before and had been assured that the suspect would attend any future hearing.
After a few minutes of deliberation, Ringim sided with the defence, adjourning the case until 15 November 2022 and releasing the defendants on bail once again.
A conspicuous omission in this case is the circumstances surrounding two other suspects, Sediki Berete and Moyribinet Berete, who were mentioned in previous hearings and are believed to still be on the run. In a statement made at the time of the incident, Comptroller General of Nigeria Customs Service Col. Hameed Ali (Rtd.) described Moyribinet Berete as the “kingpin”, explaining that “security agencies at all entry and exit points are on red alert to track and arrest him to face justice. He is, therefore, advised in his interest to surrender himself to the NCS”.
But to date the status and whereabouts of these outstanding suspects is unknown. Given the seriousness of the case, common practice would be to issue arrest warrants and, in the case of suspects operating across borders, to issue a Red Notice through INTERPOL.
In the world of counter wildlife trafficking, the activities we conduct, including training of law enforcement officers, developing legislation, gathering intelligence and conducting investigations, arguably lead to one destination – the criminal court.
Yet despite extraordinary levels of investment and international recognition of wildlife trafficking as a form of serious, organised crime, prosecutions against wildlife traffickers are woefully rare and in Nigeria, one of the most significant global hubs for wildlife crime, no prosecutions against wildlife traffickers have yet reached a conclusion.
Court delays such as this are costly, both in financial terms and human resources. While suspects remain at large, there is a significant risk of them mobilising to commit further offences and when cases fail, the good work of enforcement officers is undermined.
Successful prosecutions send a message that wildlife crime will be treated seriously across the criminal justice system and spur the efforts of enforcement officers, driving the momentum needed to dismantle transnational trafficking networks, preventing further crimes against the environment and those whose survival depends upon it.
EIA will continue to monitor the progress of this case.