The last hope (2)

Ogunsakin Mustapha
12 Min Read
Ebun Olu Adegboruwa SAN

Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN

As an active player in the courtroom close to three decades running, I can boldly say that judges have kept this nation going, they have saved the common citizens from arbitrariness, they have restored hope to the oppressed, the persecuted and the downtrodden, to widows, to retirees and even to the mighty, from the hands of those mightier than them.

Can you imagine what judges in the various States go through in the hands of their governors? Or why do you think some litigants prefer to always file their cases before the Federal High Courts in the States and in Abuja? I strongly believe in the justice system, even with all its imperfections and I believe in our judges, even with all their shortcomings. If you have your facts well marshalled, if you can just do your legal research deeply and diligently and show some courage in very polite ways, you will get your way through the courts, as the last hope of the common man. The exceptions are few and far between. The truth is that hard-working, God-fearing and honest judges exist across the land and we must celebrate them.

I had joined in solidarity with the residents of Lekki and Eti-Osa areas of Lagos State to oppose the collection of toll fees on the Lekki-Epe Expressway and the matter eventually found its way to the Court. We were on that course when Lagos State Government embarked upon the laudable project of the Lekki-Ikoyi Link Bridge. The argument of the government for tolling the Lekki-Epe expressway was that the project was executed upon a concessionary agreement with Lekki Concession Company. On the other hand, the Lekki-Ikoyi Link Bridge was wholly funded by Lagos State, through the resources of the people. My reasoning then was that it would not be proper for a landlord to pay rent in the same house that he built with his own money.

The impression that the government had was that those who live in Lekki are super rich, with big mansions and posh cars, so they should be taxed to their bones. It would mean that two major roads would be subject to tolling in one local government; it just did not make any sense at all. So I approached the court, citing examples of good roads built by the same government in Ikoyi, Ikorodu, Agege and other parts of the State which were not subject to tolling. And in any case, the bridge was built across a federal navigable inland waterway, over which Lagos State had no jurisdiction to tax citizens. Good enough the government admitted in court that it had obtained a permit from the federal government through the contractor, Julius Berger Plc, thus admitting the fact that it had no jurisdiction over the inland waterway.

I did not know that judge and I truly don’t have to know him. We canvassed arguments on both sides, cited decided cases and placed the relevant laws before the Court, at the end of which the tolling was declared illegal by the Court. It was common logic that if Lagos State had to secure a permit from the federal government to build the bridge across a federal navigable waterway, it lacked the requisite jurisdiction to tax the users of the bridge. The appeal filed by Lagos State against the judgment has since been struck out and gone with it is also the order staying its execution, which is why no toll can be lawfully collected on that bridge.

I still appear in various courts before judges that I do not know and don’t have to know. I win some cases and lose some others, based upon factors such as proper presentation of the facts of cases by lawyers, correct or inaccurate appreciation of the state of the law by the judges, etc. But I will not credit my victory or loss to corruption, corrupt influence or partisanship. Do I mean that they don’t exist? No. I mean their influence on the majority of cases being decided is minimal and should thus not be the focal point of reference anytime we have to weigh the relevance and functionality of the courts. It is thus wrong to give the common man the erroneous impression that the courts do not work, or are toothless.

The alternative is best left to our imaginations. Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN devoted his life to the practice of law and the democratization of law. So that from the time he worked as a clerk in the Court, to the period of his studies in England and his call to the Nigerian Bar, he dug into law, law and law alone. Through his many struggles, his rich publications and the practice of law, he built a formidable empire, which would scare even the most corrupt judge. The point I make therefore is that the corrupt judge, wherever he may be, is in the minority and he should be isolated as such. He should not be the benchmark to assess the judiciary in Nigeria because of upright judges who are in the majority.

I was a member of the EndSARS Judicial Panel. We had two different sessions for the regular human rights abuses and the special Lekki Toll Gate incident. For cases related to police brutality, the Lagos State Government committed funds for immediate compensation to the victims whose petitions succeeded at the Panel. For cases where fatality occurred as a result of police brutality, it was customary for the Panel to award the minimum sum of Ten Million Naira to the family of the deceased.

We heard a particular petition which was adjudged to be meritorious and Ten Million Naira was awarded to the family. We subsequently noticed however that the petitioners kept attending proceedings of the Panel even after the award had been made and hearing had been concluded on the petition. The Chairperson of the Panel then reasoned that we should call the petitioners to find out what they wanted from the Panel. Sitting with the petitioners in our Conference Room, I was shell-shocked to learn that the petitioners had been deprived of the sum of money awarded by the Panel on account of their principled refusal to cooperate to share the money allegedly with members of the Panel.

They were told that members of the Panel would be paid part of the money, at the end of which only about Three Million Naira out of the Ten Million Naira awarded would be left for the family, which they rejected and because of that, the money was not released to them. I was told that a particular sum of money had been set aside for me as my own share of the booty! When I was actually serving in the Panel pro bono and had turned down the monthly allowance offered by the government.

The Panel invited the Nigerian Bar Association and other stakeholders for a crucial meeting so that they could witness the whole drama. It was only these petitioners that had the courage to resist this ignoble act of corruption that the Panel met, meaning that other petitioners may have been cheated and robbed of their awards allegedly as kickback for Panel members.

This is the same way some people go around asking litigants in the regular courts to pay huge sums of money as bribes for judges, when the innocent judges know next to nothing about the whole plot. Win or lose, the judge in such circumstances becomes a victim for life. Let us keep our law reports busy with endless research, let us comb the statutes to discover hidden errors and thereafter flood the courts with our cases and leave the rest to the judge. The negative profiling of corruption of the judiciary is counter-productive, if it leads citizens to believe that there is no hope in the system. That way, we inadvertently embolden the oppressor to continue with the reign of impunity and lawlessness, unchecked.

The Nigerian Bar Association has a process of sanctioning lawyers through petitions sent to the association. I was involved in very many sensitive cases at a time and they were very contentious. Unknown to me, a litigant in one of the cases had written a petition to the NBA which eventually got to the Panel. The Panel met, reviewed the petition against the state of the law and decided that it was unmeritorious. I was not aware of this fact at all as I was not copied with the petition.

The Panel members, more like judges in their own right, took their decisions based on their conscience, the facts of the case and the state of the law, notwithstanding that the petitioner was a prominent and an influential citizen. I only stumbled on their decisions many years thereafter. This happens in many cases brought before our courts and we cannot because of isolated cases of a few judges paint the judiciary as corrupt. I believe in the judiciary of this country, I will keep filing cases in our courts, I will keep telling Nigerians that they should have the courage to challenge any and all illegal actions and that this is so, because the judiciary is their last hope.

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