The administration of criminal justice in Nigeria, can neither be efficient nor effective where the actors in the ecosystem are not guaranteed their protection. Such actors include defendants in a criminal action, witnesses, judges, legal practitioners etc. The safety of witnesses who are responsible for oral testimony in the prosecution of crimes has hardly received statutory consideration. The overall effect of this lack of protection for witnesses has resulted in the unfortunate striking out of cases involving heinous crimes by the Courts, as witnesses often refuse to testify due to the absence of a system designed to cater for their protection by the State. Hence, witnesses and their relatives often lack the confidence to testify in proceedings. To achieve this purpose, President Muhammadu Buhari, on 23rd May 2022, signed the Witness Protection and Management Bill into Law, effectively changing its status to an Act of the National Assembly, the Witness Protection and Management Act, (“the Act”). The objectives of the Act include the establishment of a legal and institutional framework to protect witnesses and related persons, with responsibilities for carrying out all administrative duties relating to witnesses and related persons, including providing temporary protection and related services; ensuring that the relevant agency takes responsibility for agreeing with the witness on behalf of the State; regulating the procedure and determining how the provisions of the Act are to be carried out; ensuring adequate consideration is given to the rights of witnesses, as well as harmonizing the existing laws and policies on witness protection and management.
The Act does not apply to the investigation and prosecution of all criminal offences as it only applies to specific offences such as terrorism, money laundering prevention and prohibition, economic and financial crimes, corrupt practices and other related offences, drugs and narcotics and their trafficking.4 Importantly, the Act applies to all institutions and authorities in the justice sector such as courts, law enforcement and security agencies to ensure the protection of witnesses in the course of investigation, detection and prosecution of offences. With this, no institution whether it be the Nigerian Police Force, Nigeria Customs Service, Nigerian Immigration Service etc. is exempted from the application of the Act. It remains to be seen whether sometime in the nearest future, similar protections shall be extended to civil actions which have a more direct impact on individuals and businesses.