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Go To Court!

By Dr Muiz Banire SAN

Today, I am discussing a topic that is very dear to my heart and which is the bedrock of my sustenance. This is simply the role and perception of the judiciary in our country. I am undertaking this excursion, so to say, having written so much on the subject over time, out of self-preservation. I have no other job than the practice of law.

I am not a contractor and I am a retired politician, the two ‘glorious’ trades that require no apprenticeship or training in Nigeria. And more often than not and in contemporary times they are more lucrative than any other trade. Today, as most of us must have noticed, any simple disagreement among Nigerians invites the reaction of the other party being advised to go to court. You are in a traffic snarl and a motorist violates the traffic laws, the moment you draw his attention to his misdemeanour, he says, “go to court”. Domestic disagreement is often now met with the same response of “go to court”. Religious disagreements warrant the same reaction of “go to court”. In fact, a statement of helplessness that God will determine an issue evokes the reaction of “go to court”. Any simple conflict in Nigeria now attracts the same response of “go to court”.

The cliché is now so prominent in the country due to the electoral disputes we are witnessing as the victors’ reaction in virtually all cases is simply “go to court”. It is a familiar rhythm in the country now. A visitor to Nigeria or a foreigner in the country, listening to this, would naturally form the impression that Nigerians must be substantially rule-of-law-compliant, arising from such routine statements. It will appear that every Nigerian will readily submit his dispute to the court rather than taking the law into his hands. This, ordinarily, is supposed to be the import of the statement in a rule-of-law society. Regrettably, however, and with a heavy heart, I say this is not the case in Nigeria. In virtually all of the instances you hear this in Nigeria, what the speaker is portraying is that you should go to the forum where your claim will be unventilated. In other words, what the speaker is saying is that your approach to the court is a dead end. This implies, go and box yourself into a corner. This is the derogatory sense in which it is usually said in the Nigerian context.

It will be recalled that I have contended in my several interventions in the past that where there is displacement of the rule of law in any society, the substitute is usually that of rule of man which, signals anarchy. The import of this is that the country automatically becomes a jungle where the strong will continue to devour the weak, the principles of the survival of the fittest acquire prominence and return us to the state of nature. Are we not really in this state in Nigeria now? Your guess is as good as mine. How we got here is the subject of my interrogation today! Judiciary is supposed, not only to be the bedrock of democracy and by extension, good governance but really the major conflict resolution body in the country. Hence, disputants, natural, corporate and state organs are expected, in line with the Constitution, to submit their disputes to the judiciary for resolution. Part of the expectations is that such conflicts would be expeditiously determined. This is part of the hallmark of justice and that explains why it is often said that justice delayed, is justice denied.

Without engaging in any unnecessary acrobatic legal analysis, the truth remains that in Nigeria today, justice is not speedily delivered. I have said it elsewhere and I repeat again, it is much easier accessing the Nigerian courts than exiting it. In most busy jurisdictions like Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja, the eastern States, a case commenced at the High Court will take an average of forty years conservatively to conclude at the Supreme Court. In these instances, the lawyers and parties, with an averagely old lawyer, would have since gone. This is the story of our justice system. This is one of the reasons why an average Nigerian will eagerly counsel the other party to approach the court for any grievance with him. The advisor confidently knows that it is not likely that in the life time of the parties, the dispute will be resolved by the court. This, therefore, serves as impetus to lawlessness and anarchy in the country today. Nigerians misconduct themselves knowingly recognizing the fact that justice has become utopian in our country. Trespassers jump on land and rush construction on the land believing justifiably that there will be no end to the ensuing litigation at the end of the day.

Workers are sacked arbitrarily believing that it takes decades for the victims to obtain justice. Contracts are violated with impunity for the same reason. We can continue to replicate these ad infinitum. Ordinarily, a layman will promptly appropriate the blame on the judges but alas, this is far from the truth and reality of our situation. Let me start from the premise that the courts in Nigeria, to the knowledge of all, lack the required infrastructure to speedily and efficiently determine disputes. Right from the physical court rooms, technology, human personnel to routine necessaries like papers, printers, staplers etc., all practically non-existent. In some States, judges share courts rooms while some court rooms are so dilapidated that during wet season, they are unusable.

Most judges still write in long hands to the extent that where they escape being bedridden while in active service, they end up being useless to themselves and their families after office. By then they would have succeeded in abusing their bodies so badly in the course of discharging this duty. Secondly, the welfare of adjudicators is nothing to write home about, a fact known to Nigerians also. To a large extent, I reckon that Nigerian judges are probably the worst paid in the world. Their emoluments have remained static since 2008 despite the devaluation of the country’s currency, naira, hyperinflation and dwindling gross domestic product. An average High Court judge earns about five hundred thousand naira per month.

In terms of capacity building, but for the unacceptable intervention of some specialized agencies of the executive organizing training for them, the capacity building package by the most relevant authorities is nothing to write home about. Lawyers have largely deprecated training packages provided by government agencies as, in their view, this tends to compromise the independence of the judiciary. My view is that such training votes across such agencies be collapsed into the training purse of the National Judicial Institute. This minimizes, if not eliminates, such suspicion. I am of the very strong view that notwithstanding the constitutional provisions on the independence and financial autonomy of the judiciary, the executive, consciously and deliberately, is still sapping the judiciary of its entitlements. There is a deliberate policy of starving the judiciary of the desirable funds so as to continue enjoying and upholding the principle of he who pays the piper, dictates the tune. It is never in the interest of the executive that the judiciary be comfortable.

The judiciary must still be going cap in hand to them. Unfortunately, this is a myopic approach to governance. The operators often forget that they are back in the same society after office where they will become the subject of the same ‘efficient judiciary’ they have bequeathed while in office. Again, they forget that the huge sums expended in routine trips abroad to woo foreign investors would always come to naught once the rule of law, as typified by the judiciary, has taken flight from the country.

No investor, local or foreign, will invest in an economy where the rule of law is stagnated. The earlier this reality dawns on the executive, the better for the country. Besides, most of my colleagues, legal practitioners take penchant in frustrating expeditious trial of cases through various antics. Multiple frivolous applications are incessantly filed while baseless appeals are filed to frustrate hearing of cases; request for frequent adjournments on unreasonable grounds and so on and so forth. The latest antic is to be petitioning judges so as to frustrate proceedings.

In all of the above, let me not be misconstrued as to suggest absolving the judges of any contribution to the malady . Of course, just as we have Judas in every 12 disciples, so also, we have some contaminated judges, some of who are also inefficient. Some of them are corrupt and some of them are ignorant or, if you like, incompetent. Overall, however, I make bold to say that a comfortable majority of our judges are not only competent, efficient and men of integrity but also willing and desirous of striving to attain justice, if given the conducive atmosphere to discharge their duties. The worst aspect is the cost of pursuing justice in Nigeria, right from the professional fees of lawyers to the cost of filings and compilation.

All these factors further conspire to militate against accessing justice in Nigeria. It is another contributory factor to the conviction that an average Nigerian cannot pursue justice to its logical conclusion in the country. How many citizens can sustain litigation spanning over an average of forty years? Remember that most Nigerians are still struggling to survive and live as most of them are merely existing in the territorial space called Nigeria. Stemming from the above, it is of utmost urgency and importance that we all rally round any effort at rejuvenating the judiciary in our individual and collective interests. We need to ensure that the cliché “go to court” assumes its real meaning of engendering in Nigerians the much-needed confidence in our courts. It is important for Nigerians to see the judiciary as truly the last hope of the common man. If it is politicians that are throwing the banters, I would not have cared much but for the deeper import of it as reflective of the state of our judiciary, I now get worried.

Certainly, the innuendo contained in the statement needs to be addressed and corrected. The citizens cannot and must not be allowed to continue having this kind of impression of this most critical arm of government. We need to urgently earn the confidence of the populace in the judiciary. All hands need to be on deck to achieve this. All stakeholders must rise in unison to deal with the degeneration. By way of conclusion, let me once again ‘beg’ or appeal to the outgoing President to promptly approve the new renumeration package for the judiciary submitted by the Body of Benchers since, so as to insulate the implementation from any controversy if left to the incoming administration. Mr. President, we beg o!

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