Citizen Observers: Social Accountability in Nigeria’s Judicial Sector

Citizen Observers: Social Accountability in Nigeria’s Judicial Sector

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Problems and Purpose

For years, the Nigerian judicial system has experienced challenges that have been barriers to its effectiveness. The system has become opaque, often limiting access to information on processes and procedures. The public perceives the closed judicial system as a medium for shoddiness, ineptitude, and corrupt practices by judges and support staff. A 2002 survey revealed that 77% of lawyers and 43% of court users claimed that within the previous year, they had been approached to pay bribes with respect to court cases (Economic and Financial Crimes Commissions Nigeria, 2002). As well, it was discovered that 66% of respondents to a Transparency International (2013) survey felt the Nigerian Judiciary was corrupt, and 24% had indicated paying bribes to the system.

There is also a public perception that judges and court staff manipulate court dates and deliberately misplace files; there are also allegations that corruption cases are subject to multiple adjournments and frivolous delay tactics by defense counsels and judges. In the words of one judge, “the administration of justice in Nigeria as a whole craves for serious reform, there are so many lapses therein” (Partners West Africa-Nigeria, 2017c). Little improvement over the years has meant that many citizens have lost trust in the Nigerian court system as well in as the country’s anti-corruption agencies.

To address these challenges, the Rule of Law & Empowerment Initiative—also known as Partners West Africa Nigeria (PWAN)—implemented the “Social Accountability in the Judicial Sector” project (SAJS) [1] from June 2016 to May 2017 in two states. It aimed at improving integrity in the judicial sector by engaging citizens to carry out observation of court cases and processes. Citizen participation was vital to the strategy: it would serve as an accountability check-board for the sector to enhance transparency and access to information on judiciary’s operations, to address outdated elements in the system, and to allow for effective reform of the justice sector. To achieve this, the project focused on anti-corruption and non-anti-corruption cases, gathered and disseminated data to influence policy reform in the judicial sector.


The Nigerian judiciary is headed by a Chief Justice of Nigeria, while the State judiciaries are led by Chief Judges who report to the Chief Justice. The Nigerian legal system is based on received English Common Law, while some states in the north also have a Sharia legal, which derives its powers from the Quran and is recognized by the Nigerian Constitution. The “Social Accountability in the Judicial Sector” (SAJS) project sought to engage judicial experts and citizens in observing court procedures and processes in both common and Sharia legal systems.

As such, SAJS targeted the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and Kano state, with populations of 1.4 million and 9.4 million respectively (Nigeria Data Portal, 2006). The FCT is the capital of Nigeria, formed in 1976 from parts of Nassarawa, Niger and Kogi States, and uses a common law system. Unlike other states, which are governed by elected governors, the FCT is headed by an Administrator appointed by the President as Minister and does not have a state legislature. Conversely, Kano State, located in Northwestern Nigeria, is a commercial center for the north where a Sharia legal system is used alongside the common law system. It is headed by a duly elected state governor, legislature and a judiciary as the third arm of government.

Neglect by the executive and legislative arms of government to adequately appropriate and sustain the judiciary across the country has greatly contributed to the challenges outlined above: lack of transparency, internal irregularities, corrupt practices and bureaucratic nature. In 2015, incoming President Buhari’s government put anti-corruption on its governance agenda, leading to the arrests of allegedly corrupt judges by the Directorate of Security Services in October 2016 (Nkawanma, 2016). These developments, as well as positive support from actors in the development and justice reform sectors, encouraged Partners West Africa Nigeria (PWAN) to implement the SAJS project in the FCT and Kano State, despite reservations from some actors based on unsuccessful previous experiences.

Originating Entities and Funding

Partners West Africa-Nigeria (PWAN), in collaboration with PartnersGlobal, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), and over 25 civil society organizations implemented the 12-month “Social Accountability in the Judicial Sector” (SAJS) project, funded by the US Embassy to Nigeria’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL).

PWAN is a non-governmental organization dedicated to enhancing citizens’ participation and improving security governance in Nigeria and West Africa broadly. The organization is located in Abuja (FCT), with national and regional reach. It is part of the Partners Network around the world, united by common approaches including participatory decision making, collaborative advocacy, consensus building, and social entrepreneurship for democratic governance. The SAJS formed part of PWAN’s Rule of Law program area.

Participant Recruitment and Selection

Partners West Africa Nigeria (PWAN), along with 15 judicial experts from the NBA, government agencies working on justice issues, civil society organizations, and the media developed the selection criteria for court observers during a methodology workshop. These included the following requirements:

  • graduate of tertiary institutions with an understanding of law, civil society, journalism, paralegal, or retired police prosecutors, youth corp members;
  • good interpersonal, communication, and report writing skills;
  • encouraging diversity in terms of gender, religious, and ethnic affiliation, and ability in the application process;
  • lawyers and non-lawyers; and
  • residence within Abuja and Kano with proximity to court premises.

Court observers were then recruited through open solicitation and recommendations by stakeholders. The project recruited 30 observers in FCT, and 47 observers in Kano. Each observer was then supported by a supervisor assigned by PWAN to ensure delegated duties be carried out effectively.

Methods and Tools Used

Partners West Africa Nigeria (PWAN) commissioned a literature review and led a methodology workshop and observer trainings. They also developed monitoring tools for court observation, case monitoring, and court users’ surveys.

Desk review: A judicial expert conducted a review of the Nigerian Judicial system from 1999–2016 to serve as literature to inform the project (see PWAN, 2017a).

Training of observers: Citizen observers were trained on the Nigerian judicial system, observation methodology, court decorum, and etiquettes. They were assigned courts and three cases each to observe. Facilitators included magistrates, NBA members, and PWAN members. The training was an opportunity for observers to ask questions about what they were to be observing.

Court observation: This approach allowed for engagement and collaboration between the judiciary and the implementing organizations and relied on citizens’ active participation through daily visits to court rooms to gauge procedures and processes and to monitor cases.

Court users’ survey: This process produced an evidence-based report on happenings in the court rooms from the view of litigants, witnesses, victims, and lawyers. It served to balance observer reports.

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

Partners West Africa Nigeria (PWAN), NBA, and other implementing partners undertook initial advocacy visits to the judiciary in Abuja and Kano to inform and solicit collaboration on the project (Enumah, 2016). Both judiciaries supported the project, assigning 15 courts in Abuja and 47 in Kano. There, the Chief Judge assigned the Chief Registrar of the Judiciary as the point of contact, and was particularly appreciative of the opportunity (PWAN, 2016) to move towards reforming the system and changing attitudes of individuals working in the judiciary. In Abuja, the Chief Judge designated his Special Assistant as a point of contact and indicated his availability for the project.

After the advocacy visits, PWAN organized a methodology workshop where assessment criteria for court observation were established, as follows:

  • Efficiency: The time it takes to commence and dispose of cases, as compared with policies and laws on speedy trials [2];
  • Accountability: Ensuring the judiciary is publicly accountable;
  • Accessibility: Measuring how often the court sits in chambers as compared to open courts;
  • User Satisfaction: Assessing equal opportunities regardless of the nature of the case or parties involved (fairness and equality); and
  • Independence of Courts and Judges: Based solely on information from the court observer regarding comportment of judges, relations with lawyers and other parties, and level of independence in carrying out functions.

Observers in Abuja assessed Magistrate and High Courts in pairs, while those in Kano were individually assigned to Magistrate, Kano State High, Federal High, Industrial, and Sharia courts. Each observer visited assigned courts for three days a week and submitted weekly reports to PWAN. Five to seven observers were assigned to a supervisor who was responsible for the collation of completed data forms and submission to PWAN. Observers and supervisors were paid monthly stipends to assist with transportation.

Initially, there were reservations by judges and support staff being observed as to the intent of the project and some courts denied access to case files. However, the Chief Judges directed them to allow observers to access the case files in the spirit of transparency. Periodically, observers who were unclear about proceedings were allowed by the judges to sit in chambers for further explanations. In some situations, support staff welcomed observers and attended to inquiries requiring further clarification.

PWAN analyzed data from court observations quarterly and presented findings first to the judiciary before releasing them publicly before the judiciary, justice sector actors, civil society organizations, (PWAN, 2017d) community-based organizations, observers, supervisors, media, and funders (PWAN, 2017e).

Findings revealed the extent and complexity of decay in the judicial system, including the following:

  • poor diligence to duty by prosecutors, defense lawyers, and litigants and sometimes administrative assignment of judges/magistrates contributing to delays in determination of cases.
  • inadequate budgetary allocation to the judiciary to ensure proper facilities for discharge of duties;
  • poor provision of legal aid services, particularly in the common law courts;
  • more instances of speedy trials and access to justice in Sharia courts; and
  • a lack of political will by the executive and legislature to address challenges in the judiciary (PWAN, 2017c).

As trust built through the project, PWAN regularly updated the Chief Judges on situations coming out of the observations, informed them of challenges faced in the course of the observation and requested that their office address the problem. In all cases, the leadership attended to these requests, which enhanced the smooth running of the observation exercise.

At the end of the project, a policy brief on the project was produced and disseminated to the relevant justice sector policy makers. PWAN also organized an award program to recognize the judges, magistrates, Sharia court khadis, and court staff who had been diligent in their duty throughout the exercise. The celebration highlighted those particular courts who improved on timely sitting, diligent case management, and persistent carrying out of duties.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

The “Social Accountability in the Judicial Sector” (SAJS) project goal was to create greater incentives for sustained judicial reform through the judiciary, embodying principles of accountability, integrity, transparency, and commitment to duty. To this end, it availed Nigerians the opportunity to engage with the judiciary in an open space and shed public light on court activities. Some key outcomes included:

Increased accountability and transparency
The project enhanced accountability in the judiciary. In Kano, judges who were not sitting in time (9:00 am) started doing so by the second quarter of observation. The judiciary benefitted from this, as more cases could be attended, thus decongesting the system. Court users and NBA members also benefited from the change in behavior as their appearances to court became more timely and useful. In line with this, the Chief Justice of Nigeria has recently strengthened the inspectorate division in the judiciary to monitor and ensure judicial officers come to work and sit from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm as per civil service rules (Olowolagba, 2018).

Court observers also increased transparency, especially as they were granted access to case files where there was no precedent for this practice. While some courts opened up in the first attempt, others had to be compelled by the leadership of the court before access was granted.

Need for enhanced resources provided to the judiciary
Information from the findings revealed inadequate budgetary allocations to the judiciary by the executive and legislatures, resulting in poor availability of facilities, insufficient court rooms (Kano), poor power supply in the courts (Kano and Abuja), and the unavailability of electronic recording systems in the courts. The project also revealed the inadequate provision of legal aid services in courts across both states (PTV Online, 2017).

Enhanced credibility for organizations working on judicial accountability
A less predictable and quantifiable outcome has been a niche created for Partners West Africa Nigeria (PWAN) as a pivotal organization in justice sector issues in Nigeria. For instance, the FCT judiciary has made PWAN a stakeholder in its annual prison visit exercise, where court trials are undertaken on prison premises, and persons unduly detained can be released.  

Expanding reach through social media and technology
Deliberations with the NBA in Kano led to the creation of a Court Observer mobile app (PWA-Nigeria, 2017) to be used by lawyers and support staff who visit the courts. The mobile app contains an electronic version of the observation tools and allows for continued observation after the project’s conclusion. Additional data is still being generated and collected by PWAN from different states across the country.

Ongoing demand from judicial actors for continued oversight
Judges, lawyers, and court staff have stated a desire to continue with the project once it has concluded. As an indicator of perceived success on the part of the public officials, many expressed a willingness and determination to continue working towards PWAN’s mission to reform the judiciary, as the following quotes (PWAN, 2017b) reveal:

“The project is a very good and laudable initiativeI am really in support of any project which will transform the judiciary. I believe we need more of such initiative because it will go a long way in transforming the system.”
- Judge (Kano)           

“It really impresses me as a judge to be observed in my duties. [PWAN] has brought very crucial project which can reflect the present condition of judicial sector in Kano state. I wish it be here again in Kano state.” 
- Sharia Court Khadi (Kano)

Engaging citizens in court observation led to significant results in less than a year, leaving many involved with an appetite for greater work around judicial accountability and transparency in the country.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

A number of lessons were learned through the “Social Accountability in the Judicial Sector” (SAJS) project, including the following:

Engaging early for buy-in and constructive collaboration
Initial reservations on the part of some judges and court staff could be mitigated since Partners West Africa Nigeria (PWAN) and the project were independent (e.g., on the arrests in the sector), while remaining intent on contributing reform to the sector in a collaborative way. The collaborative approach—whereby stakeholders were engaged early and meaningfully—proved to be more productive than other previously-attempted strategies. A history of failed independent projects meant stakeholders had reservations at the inception. Once the judiciary recognized that the intention of the project was not to spy, but to collaborate in making the sector work, they opened their doors and allowed access to the courts and processes. The initial advocacy visits opened the doors to collaboration, support and transparent relationships with key actors in the judiciary, which set up PWAN and the citizen observers for success.

Early emphasis on getting initial buy-in and support guided the strategy for engagement and created a level of trust between PWAN and the judiciary, as evidenced by the high level of political showed by the Chief Justices in both states and other judicial actors throughout.

Improved problem analysis using data generated through social accountability
The data generated through observation and survey allowed PWAN to shed additional light on the problem and demystify assumptions and the initial view that judges are the main reason why cases are not attended to. Members of the judiciary were themselves able to identify some of these causes. According to an observer in a Magistrate court in FCT:

“The Chief Magistrate (for the court I observed) after attending the second release of findings said to counsels present in court the following day: ‘I think learned counsels should also be observed as well and not just the judges alone.’ … She…has realized that most delays in cases were usually due to avoidable adjournments on the part of lawyers.” (PWAN, 2017b)

In the end, problems in the sector were caused a number of different actors, including lawyers, prosecutors, and other parties. Corroborating the need for evidence-based data to debunk assumptions, a lawyer and regular court user had this to say:

“The court observation program is a welcome development; it could shape government policy and individuals’ opinions about the court. Most impressions are based on rumors and sentiments, but with the information-based observation program we will all have a different impression and opinion about the court.” (PWAN, 2017b)

Finally, in showing how the gaps were also due to the poor availability of court facilities and resources, the data generated through citizen engagement also draws the lines of accountability beyond the judiciary and to the executive and legislative branches responsible for adequately resourcing the sector.

The role of citizens in fostering a culture of accountability
The legal profession and civil service in Nigeria have internal and external accountability structures; however, due to the longstanding ineffectiveness of these mechanisms, citizens have tended to forget their democratic duties, allowing for impunity and corruption in the sector. The SAJS project has shown that when citizens do engage to play a watchdog role, public officials can and often do respond. In the words of a judge:

If judges and other stakeholders know that someone somewhere is monitoring their activities, I am certain that they will sit up and do the needful and this will have a positive impact in reforming the system.” (PWAN, 2017b)

While some officials work tirelessly to ensure effectiveness in the system, more need to be engaged. The observation served as an opportunity for those working with integrity and making impact to continue the good work, while allowing others who were defaulting to improve.

The participation of ‘skilled citizens’
The citizens engaged in observation were Nigerian graduates with a relatively advanced level of education and skill. While perhaps limiting in terms of broader civic engagement in judicial accountability, this was seen as a necessary first step in profiling observers, given that many of the officials within the courts would not see “average citizens” as credible and legitimate observers of the courts. These “skilled citizens,” whose training included information on how the judicial sector works and how to engage and interact with officers within it, as well as an opportunity to learn about the court system and Nigerian governance structure, were able to effectively navigate this environment and create a relationship between citizens and the judiciary. Again, using observers who were graduates was helpful in making recommendations on how reforms may be introduced in the sector based on skilled observations.


Secondary Sources

Economic and Financial Crimes Commissions Nigeria. (2002). EU/UNODC project. Retrieved from

Enumah, A. (2016, August 30). Judiciary not to blame for state of anti-corruption war, says FCT Chief Judge. ThisDay. Retrieved from

Nigeria Data Portal. (2006). Nigeria population census-2006. Retrieved from

Nwakanma, O. (2016, October 16). The DSS arrest of judges. The Vanguard. Retrieved from

Olowolagba, F. (2018, February 28). CJN Onnoghen orders judges to resume sitting 9am daily. Daily Post. Retrieved from

Partners West Africa-Nigeria. (2016, December 13). Advocacy visit, Kano State High Court [Video file]. YouTube. Retrieved from

Partners West Africa-Nigeria. (2017a). Desk review on the Nigerian Judiciary (1999-2016). Retrieved from

Partners West Africa-Nigeria. (2017b). Notable quotes from Social Accountability Project. Unpublished internal document, Partners West Africa-Nigeria.

Partners West Africa-Nigeria. (2017c). Presentation on the findings of the Court observation, Court user satisfaction user survey and case monitoring quarter 3. Retrieved from

Partners West Africa-Nigeria. (2017d). Release of Court observation findings of the first quarter, Kano. Retrieved from

Partners West Africa-Nigeria. (2017e). Release of the Court observation findings Abuja, quarter 2. Retrieved from

PTV Online (Producer). (2017, March 28). Group professes that legal aid still inadequate for FCT court users [Video file]. YouTube. Retrieved from

PWA-Nigeria. (2017). PWAN – Court Observer (Version 4.0). [Mobile application software]. Retrieved from

Transparency International. (2013). Global corruption barometer: National results: Nigeria. Retrieved from

External Links

Partners West Africa-Nigeria


PWAN: Policy Brief- Measures to Strengthen Accountability of Judicial Officials



[1] Acronym created by author for ease of reading and not commonly used to reference the project.

[2] The intent of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015 is that criminal trials would be adjudicated speedily. Section 396 of the law further mandates courts to adjourn cases on day-to-day basis.

*This case was produced and submitted by a graduate of the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University with the support of J. Landry, C. Irving & R. Garbary.

Case Data


Abuja FCT
1B Faith Crescent, Off Natasha Akpoti Street,
900108 Abuja , CT
Federal Capital Territory NG


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Wednesday, June 1, 2016
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Wednesday, May 31, 2017
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US. Embassy (Nigeria) Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement
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