By Joseph Onyekwere
The court is a quiet place where judgments are delivered when there are conflicts. Because of its importance in ensuring an orderly society, the chambers of the judges who man the courts are said to be hallowed and highly revered. In fact, a former judge of the Federal Capital Territory once noted that judges are next to God on earth. They decide whether a man would be alive or dead. They decide who wins a conflict between parties and when they do at the apex level, it is final.
But on Wednesday, October 21, 2020, the unthinkable happened. Some unknown persons ironically passed judgment on the courts in Lagos. And it was a nasty one. They invaded the temple of justice, desecrated it and left it in ruins. Regarded by many as hoodlums who for whatever reason wanted a pound of flesh from the courts and taking advantage of the riots that followed the shooting of peaceful EndSARS protesters in Lekki Toll Plaza the previous evening, they violated the serenity of the courts and set it ablaze.
It was indeed shocking! Shocking in the sense that such a thing has never happened before. There has been series of riots and unrest in the past across the country, but no one has ever invaded the temple of justice. Now times have changed. Coming in its trail an ominous sign of the dangers ahead, if left unchecked. What really happened? Who instigated or what instigated the hoodlums to remember the courts? It is imperative for the authorities to investigate this occurrence with a view to forestalling future recurrence of such defilement of the nation’s temple of justice.
The only time the courts seemed to come under threat of attack was sometime in 2005, when there was a bomb scare at the Ikeja High Court, the headquarters of the Lagos State Judiciary. It was at the military era, during the trial of Lt Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi, Major Hamza El-Mustapha and others accused of the murder of the late Kudirat Abiola and the attempted murder of the publisher of The Guardian Newspapers, the late Mr Alex Ibru.
The other very volatile case before the courts at that time was the trial of Chief Emmanuel Nwude, Martina Ananjemba and others regarding the fraud of $240 million on a Brazilian bank. Lagos State government set up a panel to investigate the incident. In the end, the bomb scare turned a hoax.
But this recent devastation has now left many tongues wagging. There are those who believe that politicians who have serious indefensible cases may have sponsored the invasion to destroy their files, while others say those who lost acrimonious land or chieftaincy tussles in the courts could have carried out the evil act, as a matter of revenge. But whatever the motive, it was a sacrilege.
Lagos lawyer, Stephen Azubuike is baffled by the development. He said: “We have had several protests and riots in Lagos and the whole country before. The courts have never been touched. All through the “Operation we tie” in Southwest Nigeria in the mid 60s, no courtroom was touched. In 1983, the Ondo State people massed around the Supreme Court in Lagos (The building that now serves as Court of Appeal), waiting for the decision of the court on the gubernatorial tussle between the late Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, and the late Chief Akin Omoboriowo.
“In their fierce wait, nobody thought to, much less decided to burn or loot the court. The protests that arose in the aftermath of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections lasted for several years. It was a very intense period in 1993 and 1994, with protests and riots lasting for several months. Yet, the people never for once headed to the courts to damage or loot it.”
Describing the incident as abomination, Azubuike said the authorities must not neglect the fact that there are many citizens of Nigeria and residents across the country that have burnt the courts in their hearts. This, he said, is due to the delay in the justice system and other anomalies associated with litigating cases and justice delivery.
According to him, people are increasingly losing hope in the system. “The courts are no longer seen as the last hope of the common man. Many suspects awaiting trial have had cause to serve their sentences in prisons even before being found guilty and properly sentenced by the court. In worst cases, after being held in prison for so long, some are eventually found innocent, and left to lick their wounds,” he declared.
He however, regretted that some of the hoodlums were seen putting on Judge’s wig and gown, in an unprecedented ridicule of the authority and power of the Court. “What these miscreants fail to understand is that the Judges are the living oracles of the law with the power of life and death. From the reports, many of the people suspected to be behind the arson around the city of Lagos have been apprehended.
“It is going to be a long day under the claws of the law. Anyone found wanting will be thoroughly and deeply pierced by the swords of the law. But we must not forget, what will deter future occurrence is not arrest and prosecution. Good governance will go a long way in changing the lives of the people,” he declared.
Also, Bar. Kayode Omosehin described the arson on the High Court building as condemnable. He said it was a great havoc with overreaching effects on justice administration in Lagos State. “As a lawyer, I have been affected and many other lawyers, litigants and of course judges would have been affected in varying degrees. Now some case files would have been destroyed and, certainly, judicial proceedings in some cases would either terminate or suffer long adjournment,” he pointed out.
According to Omosehin, while efforts are being made to remedy the damage, the sad event should serve as a lesson in many ways. “First, it showed clearly that the courts must be alive to the reality in the nation. Judges are members of the society and must therefore keep abreast of the economic and social developments in the society. The Supreme Court has emphasized this much, although in a different context. When judges adjourn pending cases indiscriminately and delay justice (with due respect to a good number of judges who are hardworking and exemplary for us all), the litigants who see the court as the last hope of the common man would be frustrated and this would send a negative impression across the society.
“Secondly, the ugly incident has taught us once again that we must evolve in our way of justice administration and adopt other approaches that can be aided by technology. With the razing of the High Court building, the filing room and physical storage of files and documents would have been destroyed with immeasurable loss and inconveniences to both the courts and litigants. This huge loss would have been minimized if the Court’s storage was digitalized and the filing system was not heavily dependent on papers and furniture.
According to him, the court system is a major stakeholder in poverty alleviation, checking impunity of the executive and restoring law and order. By a judicial pronouncement, poverty (and impunity), he said, can be alleviated or entrenched, depending where the scale tilts. Noting that the #EndSARS protest was birthed as a result of police brutality in Nigeria, which cannot be entirely divorced from a weak judicial system and failure of the court to check impunity of the police officers, the lawyer noted that a discerning mind would have known that the court system in Nigeria would not be spared in the looming revolution.
He said: “The Chief Judge of the National Industrial Court, Justice Benedict Kanyip rightly noted during a recent webinar on justice administration that God forbid that the huge population of the aggrieved employees who have lost their jobs or suffered other losses in Nigeria should feel hopeless in the court system. God forbid that such a day should come. My lord added, that none of us (referring to judges but I think that includes lawyers) would feel safe. We must therefore rise to the occasion and act in unison against executive impunity or lawlessness as well as striving to alleviate poverty or illiteracy in the country.”
For Clement Odalumeh, also a lawyer, the heated protests that brought the country to its knees have stopped, but the dust raised from the carnage and destruction is yet to fully settle and the debris yet to be totally removed from public spaces.
“As a people, we are just coming out of the shock from the unprecedented and colossal destruction that was visited on some public and private assets. It is not the desire of any sane citizen to see such destruction on any asset whatsoever but the torching and destruction of the Igbosere complex of the High Court of Lagos State “a sanctuary of justice” left a very sour taste in my mouth,” he said.
Also reacting to the issue, senior lawyer, Dr. Abiodun Layonu (SAN) described the destruction as a most traumatic sight and, indeed a tragedy of immense proportion. “I literally burst into tears seeing a criminal donning a Judge’s robe and a full bottom ceremonial wig with a huge machete raised high in his right hand arrogantly strutting as if he was coming from a sacred and solemn legal ceremony. What inglorious desecration of justice? It was as if he was on his way to raping, vi et armis (by force), Justitia (goddess of justice), the blindfolded Lady (symbol) of Justice.
“I could not resist muttering a curse under my breath and wishing that he would be pierced swiftly and fatally by the sword held by Justitia. May God forgive me for that thought! It was a live presentation of what anarchy truly means and I pray that Nigeria would never go down that path,” he prayed.
Dr. Layonu stressed that it would be good to catch that particular individual and put him on trial in the very atmosphere of the destruction and rubble caused by him and others of his ilk so as to appease Justitia and serve justice on him.
For Warri based legal practitioner, Chief Albert Akpomudje (SAN), it was a misplaced aggression. “This is a very dangerous precedent on the judiciary by protesters against the government or police. It is a misplaced aggression on the institution that has protected the common man for decades in Nigeria. It is sad and very sad indeed,” he fumed.
Viewing the issue from a conspiracy perspective, Lagos based lawyer, Dr. Jerome Okoro said there is a conjecture attributing the looting and arson to long-standing grievances against the courts for delay, pervasion, and denial of justice by the courts, for which some people seized the opportunity of EndSARS to vent their bottled-up anger on the courts.
His words: ‘If this theory is correct, the questions then are: who do the wrongs for which people are angry with the courts and who are the end-losers from the destruction of court property and indeed other public property? Judges, lawyers, and even litigants share the guilt on the wrongs of justice that get people aggrieved.”
He pointed out that when a judge or a lawyer errs, there is a disciplinary body and a channel to remedy that, not by vandalising and looting court property. According to him, the people’s tax built and equipped the courts. It is also the people’s tax, he said that would be used to replace what has been destroyed. Dr. Okoro explained that in the end, it is the people, not judges or lawyers that the arsonists are punishing with their vandalism.
“The implication of this incident is that now the courts will not sit until rebuilt. Those who seek expedited justice will suffer. The innocent in detention will remain there. Even those arrested for the arson and looting will now be deprived of the entire rights incidental to presumption of innocence because the courts vandalized are not sitting. So, even the uninformed should think deep before burning and looting public property.
“This also presents a wake-up call on the court systems to digitalize their processes to mitigate the effects of this sort of incident. Court records and exhibits already tendered have been lost. I commend the High Court of Lagos State for its E-filing innovation. But that should be taken a step further by electronic storage and security of all documents and exhibits filed or tendered in court. Virtual sitting of the courts should also be popularized to make the courts mobile and itinerant,” he advised.
Seeing the destruction wrought at the courts as one of deep sadness, Bar. Robert Emukpoeruo, stated that the extent of the loss cannot be quantified. He however, said the destruction also presents a unique opportunity for the full deployment of technology in Nigerian system of administering justice.
“A system that transcends the physical buildings that were gutted and destroyed; a system that transcends physical papers, files, etcetera. I think the stars are fully aligned for this transition. Delivery of Justice through the courts virtually or otherwise is indestructible and eternal. The judiciary must remain undaunted by this tragedy but see in it an opportunity to develop and grow the system of administering Justice,” he counseled.
No doubt, the sacrilegious incident is a wake-up call and eye opener for all stakeholders. While it warns that no institution is safe when it loses the confidence of the people, it also points to the fact that now is time to fix the justice system in Nigeria, so as to gain the protection of citizens instead of an attack.