By Mustapha Ogunsakin
That the video of hoodlums looting the Lagos High Court, Igbosere, went viral is no news. However, the video showed a man wearing a wig and a gown, clutching a file in his left armpit, and a machete in his other hand! Accompanying our lawyer or street judge, as the case may be, is another man carrying on his head what is probably a photocopy machine. Our street judge/lawyer looked so menacing as if he dares any other person to touch his loot, carried by his Registrar!
It is not an irony also, that the building burnt by the hoodlums carried the symbol of Lady of Justice, her eyes blindfolded, her scale on one hand, and a sword on another. The steps leading to the foyer of the destroyed court building has two statutes of the Lady of Justice, a reminder that she is impartial.
Drawing a comparison between the Lady of Justice and our man in the wig and gown with a machete at hand, the vivid contrast between both images is quite mind blowing and symbolic! In the day of the people’s rage against the failed justice system, both clashed and it is clear that the Lady of Justice lost, while the “street judge” won.
The burning and looting of the Lagos High Court by hoodlums in the aftermath of the shooting of #Endsars protesters at Lekki Tollgate last Tuesday, is actually a message and a symbol. A message through which the people seemed to say in anger, “We have lost confidence in the judiciary!” A symbol of what occurs when the people rage against injustice.
We’ve 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 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.
The only time the courts seemed to come under threat of attack was sometimes in 2005, when there was a bomb scare at the Ikeja High Court, the headquarters of the Lagos State Judiciary. It was during the trial of military junta leaders under the late military dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha. Lt Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi, Major Hamza El-Mustapha and others were tried for the murder of the late Kudirat Abiola, and the attempted murder of The Guardian Newspapers Publisher, 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.
The bomb scare turned out to be a hoax.
Despite that, the Lagos State Government under Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu set up a “Tribunal of Inquiry into The Bomb Scare and other incidents at the High Court Premises, Ikeja, Lagos”. The chairman of the tribunal was Justice Oludotun Adefope-Okojie, and yours sincerely was a member of the Tribunal. That tribunal eventually submitted its report to the governor and even advised on how to keep the High Court and other courts in the state secured. The government recognized the importance, sanctity, and sacredness of our courts and set up a tribunal to investigate what turned out to be a hoax!
However, in recent times, the people have been expressing their disaffection with our judicial system but nobody seemed to be listening. Judges have been accused, whether rightly or wrongly, of corruption but nothing seemed to have been done. The people watched as those who embezzled and committed fraud by stealing from the public got mere slaps on the wrists from the courts, while those who stole for survival got severely punished with long sentences in prisons. People turned it into songs that in Nigeria, there are two sets of laws; one for the rich, the other for the poor. We all joked about it.
Appointment of judges became a “paddy paddy” thing. Judges were anointed in palaces rather than in the hallowed chambers. The powers that be appointed their sons, wives, and cronies as judges. If you are a member of the ruling party, and loyal, your spouse can become a judge. Merit became laid back, loyalty and incompetence became the order of the day.
Every year, magistrates and judges are compensated for work not done with fat pay, new cars, new houses, and the primus inter pares, the Chief of judges joined the league of convoy using VIPs like his executive arm colleagues. And the people watched!
Meanwhile, Awaiting Trial Mates died needlessly in Correctional Centers as their cases are delayed endlessly. A simple criminal case of stealing that should not last more than six months takes more than three years to conclude. Frustrated and wrongfully accused mates lost hope of ever being vindicated by the system. An awaiting trial mate in 2018, frustrated, decided to end his own life by jumping from the third floor of the Samuel Ilori Chief Magistrate Court, Ogba, Agege, Lagos. Reports said that he was an electrician who failed to do a job. He was brought to court and remanded in prison. His trial never proceeded beyond mentioning and adjournment. After two years, he took the tragic leap and ended his own life.
What did we do? We all sighed and moved on with our lives. The “SARS” in the judiciary did not care. “Life goes on there”, we seem to say. Our judges are like robots that lack empathy. They even lack the language of care.
Granted, judges are not supposed to be heard except in their judgements. The lawyers under the umbrella of their association, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), that is supposed to act as a buffer for the people, fight for the rule of law, and declare the liberty and emancipation of their people took a French leave. Members and leadership of an association that was supposed to fight for both the judiciary and the people were busy fighting for power and money.
They joined the oppressors of the people, partying and making merry. In a land where lawyers like the irrepressible late Gani Fawehinmi, the late Alao Aka-Bashorun made a difference on the side of the people, the whole cafeteria of Nigerian lawyers turned their backs on the people and failed to protect them.
Is there any wonder then, that in the day of rage, the people also turned their back on the system that had oppressed them and burnt the symbol of justice, the court building down? The people in their rage spoke loud and clear, “If we are protesting #ENDSARS, the judiciary too cannot be left out. The burning of the Lagos court is therefore a signal to the Nigerian judiciary. Do justice without fear of favour, or be damned.
Whoever has ears, let him listen.