At a sitting on March 12, Sylvester Oriji, a judge in the Apo division of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT)High Court, Abuja, asked lawyers to remove their wigs and gowns amid sweltering heat in the courtroom.
The hearing was on a child-custody case between a former Minister of Aviation, Femi Fani-Kayode, and his estranged wife, Precious Chikwendu.
As the judge, lawyers and others, including Ms Chikwendu, were trying to adjust to the unpleasant situation, a power cut occurred, causing a wave of frustration to sweep through the courtroom.
Sweating like a marathon runner, Mr Oriji quickly heard the case and ended the day’s business.
Speaking of a similar scenario he had witnessed at another courtroom, Clement Chukwuemeka, the immediate-past chairman of the Bwari branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), said, “A judge was using his gown to wipe sweat.”
Mr Chukwuemeka said toilets and lawyers’ dressing rooms are in deplorable conditions across courts in Abuja. “If a lawyer is pressed and there is no place to ease himself, he would be forced to seek an adjournment.”
He recalled that the immediate-past Chief Judge of the FCT High Court, Ishaq Bello, who retired in January, had to inspect the court’s division at Apo following lawyers’ persistent complaints about smelly toilets and general infrastructural decay.
The situation, according to Mr Chukwumeka, improved after the inspection but has gone bad again.
Mr Chukwuemeka’s Bwari branch of the NBA had to take up the responsibility of fixing light bulbs, fans, and air-conditioning systems at a court in Kubwa, a satellite town of the FCT.
Mr Oriji, the second most senior judge of the FCT High Court, now sits over cases at the court’s headquarters in Maitama with better facilities.
But his colleagues like Angela Otaluka, whom he left behind at Apo, remain at the mercy of deplorable infrastructure.
Clouds of rain gathered in the sky as Mrs Otaluka was about delivering judgment in the bribery trial of a former federal lawmaker, Farouk Lawan, on June 12.
As judges, lawyers and litigants are accustomed to at Apo division, the lights went off again, compelling Mrs Otaluka to ask for a lamp from her police orderly.
With the lamp, the judge was able to continue the proceedings.
However, a few minutes later, came the downpour that swept through the courtroom, with lawyers switching seats to avoid water splashing from the windows and leaking roofs.
The ugly development forced the judge to stand down the case.
Thereafter, cleaners rushed into the courtroom to scoop water from the floor and mop the drenched pews. Mrs Otaluka later resumed sitting and delivered the much-awaited judgment that sent Mr Lawan to prison.
“It is appalling and annoying to have cases stood down or adjourned due to inadequate facilities in our courts,” a lawyer told our reporter.
Another lawyer, who also did not want his name mentioned due to fear of being victimised, said his client who was languishing in police custody had his case adjourned because a rain drowned the judge’s and lawyers’ voices.
“Had there been microphones and other communication gadgets in our courtrooms to amplify lawyers’ submissions as well as the judge’s questions, cases wouldn’t have been adjourned because of mere rain,” the lawyer said.
Rotten toilets, rusty taps and lack of recording devices
Daniel Bwala, a lawyer, also said the absence of a functional electronic case management system has slowed down the adjudication of suits in Nigeria.
“Apart from the Federal High Court that has recording facilities, 99 per cent of Nigerian courts do not have them,” Mr Bwala, a member of the Lincoln’s Inn, a large association of lawyers in London, said.
He attributed the menace of conflicting court orders in Nigeria to the lack of electronic filing of cases that could help detect cases with similar facts.
Another Abuja-based lawyer, Frank Tietie, said non-availability of record facilities to speed up the court’s justice delivery process is a source of concern.
Stench from toilets
Approaching the second floor courtrooms of Mr Oriji and Mrs Otaluka at Apo, one is greeted by a pungent stench from the toilet that overlooks the court lobby.
“There is no running water in the toilet, and that is why the stench has spread all over the place,” a court clerk told this reporter.
“Several efforts to draw the court’s Chief Registrar’s attention to the problem of facilities here proved abortive,” the clerk, who asked not to be named for fear of victimisation, told this reporter.
Another lawyer practising in Abuja, Michael Ejeh, said, “The absence of key court facilities portends danger for judges and court users.”
“Even at the FCT High Court headquarters, basic amenities like toilets are a problem,” Mr Ejeh said.
He queried the non-functionality of the court’s electronic filing process that has occasioned “a congested registry.”
“One of the biggest concerns is the processes unit of the FCT High Court. It is always congested,” he said.
Mr Ejeh, who is a member of the Abuja NBA COVID-19 committee, suggested that the e-filing system of the court could be improved upon like that of the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) to limit physical contacts.
The incumbent chairman of the NBA, Bwari branch, Abuja, Monday Adjeh, said “the twin problems of lack of functional recording devices and small sizes of courtrooms are major impediments that delay dispensation of justice.”
He also lamented that “most of the toilets within the courts are in terrible conditions.”
Apart from the lack of these basic facilities, there is also absence of facilities that give people with disabilities equal access to the Abuja courts like most of the other parts of the country.
Abuja’s poor court infrastructure
The situation at Apo is replicated at the Kwali and Zuba divisions.
During a visit to the court premises at Kwali, one of the federal capital’s remote towns, this reporter was greeted at the entrance with a sight of broken ceilings from which rainwater was dripping to the floor.
At Zuba, another FCT town that borders Suleja in the neighbouring Niger State, a heap of refuse inside the court compound signals the rotten infrastructure bedevilling the justice delivery system of the FCT High Court.
While the courtroom itself was well lit with an air-conditioning system, the toilet for lawyers and litigants was an eyesore.
With a broken tank lying by, a court official said lack of running water has stopped people from using the toilet.
“You can see for yourself that the device that carries water for the toilet to be flushed after use is broken,” the official said, pointing towards the stenchy convenience.
Poor power supply
At Gwagwalada, the courtroom suffers from inadequate power supply.
“Without public power supply, the courtroom remains dark, as you can see,” a court clerk said, adding that the court is unable to conduct proceedings under such conditions.
In Bwari, an Abuja satellite town, the court grapples with a lack of water and leaking roofs, a development that negatively impacts proceedings, an official said.
While the FCT High Court at Abaji Local Council Area that borders Kogi State appears conducive for court businesses, the road leading to the facility is in a bad shape.
At Wuse Zone 2, the two small-sized courtrooms there are poorly ventilated. The courtrooms are usually stuffy on a typical day when the judges are faced with long lists of cases to deal with.
Congested court dockets
Inadequacy of court facilities is a major contributory factor to the delay cases suffer in the FCT High Court.
Then Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Aloma Mukhtar, attested to this during her commissioning of the permanent site of the Ibadan, Oyo State Division of the Court of Appeal, in May 2013, when she said well-equipped courtrooms are necessary tools for the judiciary to be effective.
“The need for courtrooms to be well equipped cannot be overemphasised. This is a necessary tool for the judiciary to enable it to perform its expected constitutional role with all sense of adequacy,” she said.
The FCT High Court, with only about 37 judges, carries over an average of 14,000 cases every year, according to a former chief judge of the court, Ishaq Bello.
“This is an indication of our ever-increasing caseload,” Mr Bello said while declaring the legal year open in 2019.
“From the statistics available, on the average, a court has about 850 cases in its docket and about 387 cases decided per judge.”
Mr Bwala said this is in sharp contrast to what obtains in the United Kingdom where he had practised as a lawyer. “A judge does not hear more than five cases in a day,” he said.
Also, Monday Adjeh, the incumbent chairman of the Bwari branch of the NBA, said the congested court dockets of the FCT High Court constitute a health risk to the judges.
Apart from contributing to the congestion of court dockets, adequacy or otherwise of court facilities goes to the root of judiciary’s importance and dignity, said, the National Centre for State Courts (NCSC), a United States (U.S.)-based organisation engaged by the Nigerian judiciary, through the National Judicial Council (NJC), for its information technology projects.
“Court facilities should reflect the independence, dignity, and importance of our judicial system in their design,” NCSC says on its courthouse planning-dedicated webpage.
Such a sense of importance and dignity is a scarce commodity at many FCT courthouses which are so under-resourced to the point of lacking in facilities as basic as toilets, running water, microphones, and recording systems.
Only 30 per cent of courtrooms conducive
NCSC has been NJC’s consultant on information technology projects since 2013, and has hosted Nigerian judges who travelled to the U.S. for exposure to digitalised court operations.
Established in March 1971, at a national judiciary conference presided by then U.S. Chief Justice, Warren Burger, and attended by then President Richard Nixon, NCSC has been in the business of seeking judiciary reforms in the U.S. and providing consultancy services to foreign judiciaries for 50 years.
Nigerian courts remain far behind, judging by the standards the NCSC holds U.S. courts to in terms of technology, accessibility, financing, among others.
Findings from our reporter’s tour of courtrooms of the FCT showed that only about 30.2 per cent of the 53 courtrooms have the facilities to conduct smooth court operations.
A breakdown of the courtrooms in the various locations reveals that the Maitama division which is the headquarters of the court has 11 courtrooms, Wuse Zone (2) has two and Jabi has eight.
Others are Gudu with two, Apo has 11, Kwali has two, Abaji has one, Kubwa has two, Bwari has two, Zuba has one, Gwagwalada has one, Nyanya has two, Kuje has one and Lugbe has one.
The Maitama court complex paints a different picture compared to the decay in the satellite divisions. The cosy atmosphere of the complex which houses the office of the chief judge gives a first-time visitor an impression of a 21st-century court system.
Though judges there still take court proceedings in longhand, the largely comfortable office and court environment is enticing for anyone aspiring to be a lawyer.
Unlike the divisions located in the suburbs, the Maitama division has running water with relatively clean toilet facilities, although a few of them have leaking pipes.
It also has a ticketed multi-level car park, which also generates revenue.
With a functional elevator routinely running to-and-fro the basement to the fourth storey, where the chief judge’s chambers and office are located, the headquarters of the court stands in stark contrast to the rest of the FCT court buildings.
Similarly, the Nyanya courts have basic functional facilities, which are quite unusual considering its location as a remote and densely populated low-class suburb.
The two courtrooms at Kubwa division are in relatively good conditions, except for their small sizes which often lead to congestion when there are many cases to be heard in a day.
The toilets and lighting system of the court are fairly in order.
In summary, only Maitama, Nyanya and Kubwa divisions (16 courtrooms) representing 30.2 per cent of the FCT High Court’s 53 courtrooms are in considerably good condition to adjudicate on cases with a considerable level of comfort.
As highlighted earlier, other courtrooms or the buildings housing them are in a dilapidated state, and afflicted with at least one of the following: absence of basic facilities like running water, microphones, or functional toilets.
An abandoned sprawling building in the neighbourhood of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) national secretariat, at the heart of Wuse Zone 5, Abuja, is symbolic of the FCT judiciary.
An old signpost of the FCT High Court lay on the ground during our reporter’s recent visit to the site. A one-storey annexe on the premises is being used by the Administration of Criminal Justice Monitoring Committee (ACJMC).
This reporter found that the construction project at the site was conceived some years ago to be a multi-storey court building fitted with state-of-the-art information technology facilities, as well as other tools and equipment to enhance court operations.
Barely developed beyond the foundation stage, the project, at present, is the site of wrecked dreams.
The rusty rods and the darkened columns which sprout from the weathered concrete ground floor bear witness to years of abandonment.
The construction site appears not to be the only abandoned building project of the FCT High Court.
Also, our correspondent observed that the court’s location at Adzata, a suburb along the Nyanya-Jikwoyi-Karshi Road, comprising four courtrooms, has been abandoned.
Since erecting the facility, which is close to Loyola Jesuit College, the FCT management has not put it to use, thereby turning it into a home for the destitute.
While the court building remains abandoned, the tarred access road that links the property has started failing, due to the shoddy job by the contractor.
Lack of public accountability on capital project votes
The court’s management declined to respond to PREMIUM TIMES enquiries on the parlous state of the court despite receiving capital project votes every year.
The only noticeable project that the court appears to have undertaken in the last few years is the retrofitting of a Maitama courtroom as part of the pilot projects under the information technology policy of the NJC.
Even at that, its costs are never made public.
Our reporter paid numerous visits to the office of Muhammad Adamu, the court’s Chief Registrar, but could not see him. At some point, officials at his office referred our reporter to the Director of Administration of the court.
But the director was also not available for comment.
“If you are not on appointment, the director would not let you in,” an official at his office said during one of this reporter’s visits.
Our reporter filled out a form on September 2 for an appointment. But it was not honoured.
After futile efforts to speak to the management, PREMIUM TIMES sent a letter requesting details of the budgets and other financial records of the court including those related to its ongoing projects.
The letter anchored on the Freedom of Information Act was addressed to the Acting Chief Judge of the court, Hussein Baba-Yusuf.
Although unsurprisingly, instead of proving to be the bastion of accountability that the judiciary ought to be, the court management, in its reply, referred this newspaper to other bodies, including the National Judicial Council (NJC), which is as well notorious for its secretive financial records.
“You may wish to source the required information from any of the following institutions, such as the National Judicial Council, Office of the Auditor General of the Federation or the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation as more appropriate custodians of such data,” the reply dated August 30, and signed on behalf of the Chief Registrar by one Abubakar Karafi, read in part.
Year in, year out, funds are voted for the FCT High Court’s capital projects, but the impact is not seen on the deplorable state of the courthouses’ facilities.
The NJC, the body that coordinates the budgets of the entire federal judiciary, never makes the breakdown of its budgets or those of other courts and institutions like the FCT High Court public.
Meanwhile, the thick cloud of secrecy around its finances continues to fuel the belief that funds voted for repairs and expansion of court infrastructure are being drained.
For instance, Mr Tietie, a human rights lawyer and advocate for public accountability, quoted earlier, said funds had been sunk into procuring recording equipment for the FCT High Court without positive results.
“Over five years ago, so much money was spent on the purchase of recording equipment, but none of them worked,” he said.
Judiciary under obligation to declare details of its budget
However, lawyers have argued that the heads of courts are under obligation to disclose details of their expenditure.
Sam Amadi, an associate professor of law at Baze University in Abuja, said neither the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) nor the Chief Judges of any court is permitted to hide their spending from the public.
“The judiciary, like any other arm of government, is under obligation of the law to disclose its expenditure,” Mr Amadi argued.
For Monday Ubani, former 1st Vice President of the NBA and the incumbent chair of the association’s Section on Public Interest and Development Law (SPIDEL), the judiciary must account for its budgets.
“We must know the budgeting process of the judicial sector; it is part of the government’s transparency requirement,” he said.
Culled: Premium Times