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By Godwin Tsa, Abuja
The month of July was a historic one for both the College of Judges and staff of the Community Court of the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) as they embarked on a pilgrimage to Goshen City, a holy land for the Living Faith Church located in Nassarawa State.
At the city of Goshen, the court brainstormed on solutions for the myriad of issues that pertained to the future prospects for growth of the court.
The event was the ninth annual judicial retreat of the Community Court of Justice, ECOWAS, under the theme “The ECOWAS Court of Justice: Prospects for Growth.”
The ECOWAS Court of Justice is the principal legal organ of the community and plays an important role in the integration process of the sub-region.
Given the serene environment of Goshen City, it was not by mistake that the organisers took the venue of the retreat outside the hustle and bustle of Abuja, where the court is located.
The four-day programme captured discussions on the organisation and the functioning of the court; relationship between the court and other community institutions; enforcement of the decisions of the court; perspectives on the award of compensation; computerisation of court processes (e-filing); implementation of the recommendations of past judicial retreats and finalisation of the report.
In attendance were over 80 staff of the court, led by its president, Justice Jerome Traore. Other judges of the court at the event were Justice Hameye Foune Mahalmadane; Justice Yaya Boiro; Justice Maria Do Ceu Silva Monteiro; Justice Friday Chijioke Nwoke and Justice Alioune Sall.
After exhaustive and robust discussions by various presenters, which were conducted in English and French, the president of the court, Traore, made a clarion call for the court to “jealously guard its independence” in the face of the ongoing institutional reform by the community that will adversely affect its capacity to discharge its four-fold mandate.
His fears were envisaged by the reform, unveiled during the June statutory meetings of the community in Monrovia, Liberia, which proposed a reduction of the number of judges of the court from seven to five.
Traoré spoke against the backdrop of the progressive increase in the number of cases filed before the court, the number of court sessions and the proposed creation of an appellate chamber in the court, which he said was a recipe for effectively emasculating the court.
“Observations during the retreat revealed the need for the court to guard jealously the effectiveness of its independence as the court is currently feeling harshly shaken by a process of reforms conducted without regard to its opinion,” he said.
He disclosed that all the participants at the retreat regret this decision of reducing the number of judges.
“The retreat has discussed at length about this issue because, as you know, cases are increasing at the court of justice and you know that one of the purpose of the court is to deliver justice timely. Reducing the number of judges from seven to five will now create a lot of problems, add to the time for the delivery of judgment,” he said.
Traore noted that some of the recommendations arrived at include reviewing this decision by the political arm of ECOWAS because cases were increasing in the court; and also the issue of having an appellate chamber, which, according to the treaty, could play a role of a court of arbitration.
“With all these elements, we believe that the civil society, the jurists, the NGOs should also take ownership of this decision and make the society understand it for the advantage of everybody to see the court of justice at least to maintain the number of judges if not to increase,” he said.
The president also disclosed that the court would embark on sensitisation to bring the member state missions to appoint the authorities in charge of the execution of court decisions, stressing that only four member states have appointed authorities to enforce the decisions of the court.
The president of the court revealed that unlike previous retreats characterised by debates and direct interactions between the panellists, the just concluded session focused rather on the panel discussion of issues and the clash of arguments.
Consequently, the debates allowed the participants to point out the difficulties encountered by our institution not only in its internal functioning but also in its relationship with the other institutions of the Community, within the context of the intentions of the extant provisions of the Revised Treaty on the independence of the Court.
One of the values of the retreat, Justice Traore said, is the need for the court to remain mobilised to confront the identified challenges so as to strengthen the court and avert its progressive dismantling under the ongoing cost saving institutional reform embarked on by the community.
He paid tribute to the participants for their enthusiasm despite the complexity of the themes and the intensity of the retreat, as the discussions were characterised by “cordiality, conviviality, generosity and diversity” articulated in the spirit of frankness.
Also, the Director of Research, Communication and Documentation, Dr. Usman Diallo, said the theme of the retreat was chosen because of the institutional reforms currently going on in the community.
He stressed that “this would cause many difficulties to the court. As it is today, the court has more than 87 cases, so the court cannot cope with all these work with only three or four judges working.”
“We would like to oppose that decision to keep the number of judges to seven. I would like to point out something, when the commissioners of the ECOWAS Commission was nine, the court had only seven judges. When they put the number of commissioners to 15, the court remains with seven judges and now they want to bring the number of commissioners to nine, that doesn’t mean they have touched on the number of judges,” Diallo said.
He stated categorically that the growth of the court would come from the establishment of sub-registries in the member states for justice to be close to the citizens of the community, and “We have to device a means whereby they can stay at home and be filing their application before the court. That’s why this retreat has also looked at e-filing.”