Since the capital of Nigeria was moved from Lagos to Abuja, the first Federal Ministry of Justice in the country and the law library on the premises have been left to rot, Onozure Dania writes
Once a glamorous edifice, where lawyers and aspiring attorneys-at-law go to bury their heads in the books either for research or for studies, the law library in the first Federal Ministry of Justice when Lagos was the capital of Nigeria is now a shadow of itself after years of neglect by the Federal Government.
The state of the library, as well as the premises of the Justice Ministry itself, has been decried by lawyers, who visited the place. One of the lawyers, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Lawal Pedro, 60, whose affinity with the library dated back to when he was a toddler expressed regrets that the Federal Government was still managing the justice ministry despite leaving it to rot.
Judiciary Watch had visited the library located at No 20 Marina, Lagos last week only to meet an abandoned and dilapidated library. The library, in its glorious days, was said to have been a beehive of sorts. However, after the regime of the self-proclaimed military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, moved the Federal Capital Territory from Lagos to Abuja on December 12, 1991, federal ministries had relocated their headquarters from Lagos to the new capital city.
The justice ministry, which is the legal arm of the Federal Government of Nigeria, primarily concerned with bringing cases before the judiciary that are initiated or assumed by the government, is now headquartered at the Maitama district in Abuja. Since June 2019, the Attorney General is Abubakar Malami.
Different departments in the ministry are responsible for: Public prosecution; citizens’ rights; law reporting; finance and administration; planning, research and statistics; legal drafting; international and comparative law; civil litigation; solicitors, human resource management and procurement.
Three decades after the change in Nigeria’s FCT, a visit to the Federal Ministry of Justice, Lagos office and the law library penultimate Monday revealed total neglect, decay and rot. The ministry’s premises looked deserted, as you can only find two people manning the gate, who registered the name of the few visitors to the ministry in a notebook.
A walk around the premises revealed that the back of the building on the other side of Marina, where the Freedom Park is located, has so much decayed that one could see moss and algae on the walls of the building, making visitors wonder if they are not being noticed by the authorities responsible for the maintenance of the ministry.
The law library itself is in the doldrums; it was observed that most of the remaining books on its shelves are old, dusty and worn. Termites have also had a field day, destroying the books in the library. Also, the building is dilapidated and not study-friendly as it has not seen any renovation to bring it to look up to par with standard libraries in other climes.
Lawyers have also lamented that they are unable to make use of the library as the state of the library puts them off, adding that most times they are not able to get the informations they look for in the Library.
But the librarian, Mr Asimiyu Olagunju, who spoke with Judiciary Watch, said that the claims of Lawyers that they are unable to use the Library is false as they don’t even know how to use the Library.
According to him whenever lawyers comes to the library and you ask them what information they are looking for, they don’t even know it.
He said, “Some lawyers will send their juniors to come and get information and when you ask them what year they are looking for or the decree, they usually don’t know it so how can one help such a lawyer.
“We have a lot of Official Gazette and Decrees, the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, Commonwealth law, federal law reports, our books are very fragile and we are very careful with the way it is handled. So any lawyer who says they unable to use the library is because they don’t know what they are looking for in the library,” Olajunju said.
Mr Babatunde Awe, Founding Partner, Litigation Associates based in Lagos Island, said the last time he visited the law library at the Colonial building was 2005, adding that he got what he went there for but the place was not functional as it was very dusty.
He said, “It was just a certified true copy of a document. I was even surprised that I was able to get the certified true copy, the whole aura of the place lacked functionality. There were very few people but for us what we wanted was a result and we were able to get it without stress.
“It was really dull then; I don’t know whether there are more staff now because it didn’t really look like there was anything going on there then. They (Federal Government) can make a humongous amount of money from just tourism of that place, the whole documents there because this is where some of our greatest Attorney Generals use to sit, just the chair alone, like oh! The first attorney general of Nigeria sat in this chair. Just the typewriters alone. We don’t preserve anything we don’t honour our people and we say the labour of our hero’s past shall not be in vain.
“Documents need preservations, legal history is a very important thing; the whole of our legal system is built on history. Judicial precedents decisions are made based on what has been decided in court, so when we don’t preserve our history, what do we have, thank God for all these other law reports but law reporting is a totally different thing from preservation. My dad, the late Professor Harrison Awe, was secretary to (Chief Obafemi) Awolowo; some of Awolowo’s speeches that my father hand wrote, I still have those documents, I kept them. He used to be known as the youngest minister in Nigeria at one time.
“Preservation of history is one of the most important aspects of a country. The nation is founded on laws; if you go to TBS (Tafawa Balewa Square), you will see the old National Assembly, imagine the archives if you go to the National Assembly; they are supposed to be able to archive debates on certain issues, like how did this law come into being.”
Another lawyer, who visited the library recently, decried the fact that certain information cannot be retrieved. Pleading anonymity, the lawyer said that the “books have not been properly preserved and they are all ruined.”
She added, “Information that dates back to 1927 cannot be recovered. This library is supposed to preserve our history but the Federal Government has failed to pay any form of attention to it.
“It is heartbreaking to note that some of these books are 1st Editions and there are no copies or backups in the archives. The library also has an abysmal catalogue which makes its use of it complicated.
“The librarian I met didn’t even have an idea of the books present in the library and how to locate the books. I was in the library for about four hours and the only people I saw were the security men at the gate and the librarian.”
Meanwhile, Pedro, SAN, said he has known the justice ministry at Marina since he was a toddler and has also visited it as it is close to his village on the Island. He explained that as a boy on Lagos Island, he entered the Colonial Building several times while playing football on the streets with other children.
He noted that the justice ministry was no longer of the same standard as the one he knew then. He said, “It is a shadow of itself now because the Ministry of Justice has now been moved to Abuja, a whole complex is now a shadow of itself. The last time I entered that place was 1988 or 89. The Federal Ministry of Justice at Marina is not the only building that has decayed on that street, and that is why I am worried that the Federal Government is still holding on to that property; why have they not given it to the state government to make better use of? Go and look at it, they are an eyesore on that Marina and Broad street.
“Those buildings were Federal Government’s when Lagos was Federal Capital Territory. It is no longer Federal Capital Territory, we have moved, so all those junks, even the one we call the Tafawa Balewa Square, the whole structure should have been left for the Lagos State judiciary, let them modernise it and put it to proper use.
“How many staff do they really need in Lagos? The whole Federal Government is in Abuja, they should just have a liaison office here in Lagos. All those decay; you saw it and I see it also that’s the reason I won’t enter that place,” Pedro said.
However, efforts to reach the office of the AGF were abortive as several calls that were made to the mobile phone of the AGF’s spokesman, Mr Umar Gwandu, all rang out. He also didn’t respond to the text message that was sent to his phone. Judiciary Watch reports that the phone was later switched off.