Courtrooms in Niger State are in deplorable condition, with infrastructure deteriorated over time. Our reporter takes a look at decades-long rot that is bringing that most-revered arm of government to its knees.
Gimba Ahmed’s eyes surveyed the full courtroom again as he has done countless time since Alhaji Ahmed Hameed Bima of the Chief Magistrate Court I commenced reading the judgment that fateful day in September.
Zainab Dauda was lucky that her case finds jurisdiction within the headquarters of the state’s high courts, where the roofs still held during a downpour at rainy season. Two months earlier, nature challenged the dignity and sanctity of Chief Magistrate Court III in Unguwan Daji and dared the resolve of its presiding magistrate, Hajiya Balkisu Gambo Yusuf, when a rainstorm yanked off part of the court’s asbestos roofing. Rain flooded through the gaping opening, forcing everyone to scamper for safety before the court staff could muster courage to evacuate her lordship.
It was midway into the judgment of a case of criminal intimidation, trespass and assault that had dragged on for two years. Her lordship had hoped to get the case out of her way that fateful day, while parties involved had prayed to end it all. But the court failed them all, because nature trumped justice in its own temple. The incident was a disaster waiting to happen and the court had given advance notice of the impending doom, which the administrators apparently chose to ignore. That a court session could hold at all in a near-collapsed structure beat the imagination of many who beheld it. Our Reporter learnt that the structure, which was inherited from the old Native Authority Administration, has not undergone rehabilitation since the 80s.
Part of the roof had succumbed to pressure a long time ago and that during the rainy season the court staffers go through the routine of having to shift to locations where it leaks less. Daily Trust observed that the July incident only helped prevent what could have been a major calamity. “The entire structure could collapse anytime now with some measure of pressure from external sources,” a building engineer warned.
Our reporter noticed that its foundation can barely hold. There were visible holes apparently made by rodents and reptiles around the ground edges. Two rodents playing hide-and-seek within the premises could be seen, and the ceiling has disappeared, even as the windows’ glass protectors have long given way. Her lordship’s car bay is a makeshift structure of corrugated tin sheets, close to a toilet facility which is a veritable eyesore. Only the mosque stands, owing to the fact that it is a recent addition to the facility. Development has since caught-up with the facility, as it now shares fence with residential buildings.
The July incident seems to have temporarily decided the court’s fate, as it moved to the gigantic high court complex like many others, compelled by rot and dilapidation to relocate. A public notice on its wall informed “All the litigants/accused suspects and general public that Chief Magistrate Court III Unguwan Daji has moved to High Court Complex Kpakungu,” within Minna metropolis. The Senior Magistrate Court on IBB Road has since relocated to the High Court Headquarters Complex for similar reasons, but the fate of the Ungwun Daji Court has drawn the ire of many legal experts because of its history. Daily Trust learnt that it served as the office of the first chief judge of the state, and the first high court in the land.
However, as unpalatable as the story of the Unguwan Daji Magistrate court may sound, a visit to courts outside the state capital revealed a more damming scenario of how low the integrity of the court has sunk. The dilapidation compels judges to stoop and in worse cases, crawl before they could access their courts, while in some places the facility only exists in name.
Three staff of a Chief Magistrate Court in Kuta, sitting on a long bench in front of the facility rose to their feet like military personnel who suddenly sighted a superior officer on inspection visit when our correspondent approached the premises. It was an involuntary movement of a people, who are unaccustomed to visitors. They were eager to please this rare visitor, whose focus is on the facility and its surroundings.
A question arose: Why would three court staff be sitting idle at noon, when a court should be in session? The reality become apparent when this reporter alighted from his vehicle and made to enter the facility, one of the party secretariats built by a former military president for the two contending political parties then, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republic Convention (NRC). The reception area and what served as the main courtroom is without a roof. The balcony, the entire stretch of offices on the left, also have no roof.
The roof of what they said was the judge’s chamber and the registrar’s office still held but one can glance at the sky through openings. Four wooden benches were crammed in front of what looked like the judge’s table, without a chair. Our reporter learnt that proceedings take place at that portion of the judge’s office, where parts of the roof barely holds. To the right of the judge’s ‘table’ is what looks like an old, worn-out filing cabinet still holding what remains of documents.
At the registrar’s office, part of wall is on the verge of collapse. The lone chair in office has lost a leg. The court is existing in name and has not treated a case for a very long time. “Police prosecutors prefer much more decent courts to charge their suspects,” a member of staff remarked.
Unlike the Magistrate Court, a kilometre away, the Upper Sharia Court in the town was filled to the brim when our reporter visited. A divorce case was being heard and relatives of both parties turned the premises into a market of sorts. The ceiling of the open court has however given way, as that of the judge’s chamber and the registrar’s office. Some kilometres away, a newly-built high court facility was under lock-and-key, awaiting official commissioning by the authorities. Daily Trust learnt that it has been like that for months, while rain stalls proceedings in the two other courts.
In Kwakuti, Paikoro local government area of the state, an Upper Sharia Court inherited a public viewing centre, which also served as a town hall, built when the area was in Kuta council. The community prefers a court to relaxing after a day’s hard work, and the government granted its need. But as a viewing centre, the builder created several openings within the wall at different points to allow other viewers who could not access its interior due to its small size. The openings were also intended for ventilation for those within but it is also the court’s albatross when the rainy season sets in with the attendant storms.
The two-room mud house close to the courtroom – which serves as the judge and registrar’s offices – hardly provides shelter from rain, as it also gets flooded. An adult of average build would have trouble squeezing through the tiny doors.
But it is habitable, compared to the situation in Jebba, where the court building and its entire surroundings are perpetually submerged during the wet season. Built on marshy surroundings, the mango trees planted around now threaten its existence. In Kaffin-Koro in Paikoro LGA, Lefu in Gurara LGA; Izom in the same council area; Gauraka in Tafa LGA; Madalla in Suleja LGA; Maukunkele in Bosso LGA and Kataeregi in Katcha LGA, it is all the same tale of rot.
Our reporter learnt that Sharia and Magistrate courts are the worst-hit, and even among the two, out of the 97 Sharia courts, none is in good shape. Out of this number, about 56 are rented buildings, and even those are not any better, with rent hardly paid. Investigation also showed that even the state headquarters complex, where most indigent courts find abode, is hardly a safe haven. The complex’s gigantic conference hall still remains uncompleted years on and a notice on its door urges staff not to urinate or defecate therein.
Stakeholders agreed that the rot is enormous and has been allowed to fester over time, but little is done to correct it. Especially that capital budgets for the judiciary keep appearing every year. In a system which conservative traditions, the decay thrives amid silence from within, with the exception of an occasional squirm from the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in November 18, 2009 and January 13, 2010. The body urged the council to look into the over 20-year tenure of a sitting chief judge then, but nothing came out of the effort. They averred in the publication that the state judiciary is in clear abject condition of neglect and that infrastructure for delivering justice services has deteriorated.
The Judicial Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSN) went a notch higher, as the state branch – alongside others across the country – kept its members out of courts and got a judgment affirming their independence from executive interference.
Both unions agreed that the state of courts reflect justice in the society, and that the dignity of the court should exude the integrity it represents. “When you go into some courts you will symphatise with the judges themselves working under that particular condition,” NBA Chairman, Barrister Umar Adam Aliyu, noted.
They are also unanimous that financial autonomy for the judiciary is the way out of the rot. JUSUN chairman, Barrister Mahmud Mohammed Ameen Muye decried a situation when the judiciary had to go cap-in-hand to the executive for funds. “Section 121 gives us the right to our own finances, that is financial autonomy and that is what we fought for in court, and won. It is now the duty of the state government to obey that court ruling,” he noted.
However, Daily Trust learnt that the war over financial autonomy for the judiciary had raged for long and that the ruling over the matter is but a temporary reprieve.
As its implementation drags, courts in rented apartments in the state are closing shop due to nonpayment of rent, Muye said, adding that most of the courts are without electricity due to mounting power bills. “With the situation, cases drag endlessly in courts and justice is hardly ever served,” NBA chairman noted.