The remarks by Nyesom Wike, governor of Rivers State, when he hosted the National Association of Rivers State Students of Nigerian Law School (NARSSNLS) at the Government House, Port Harcourt, in May that his administration was compelled to make necessary investments in courts under the Federal Government because they were left to rot is a testament of the deplorable condition of most federal courts across Nigeria.
The governor said his government invested in federal judiciary’s infrastructure because the owners had “turned a blind eye to their responsibilities to the people of Rivers State”.
“After Lagos State, the next state with the highest number of litigation is Rivers State. Yet the Federal High Court (FHC) in Port Harcourt was dilapidated, the National Industrial Court (NIC) was nonexistent and the Court of Appeal (CoA) has been in a sorry state,” Wike lamented.
The new FHC complex with six modern courtrooms and state-of-the-art facilities which, according to him, was to ensure that Rivers people have quick access to justice, was commissioned in May this year.
The Wike administration is also constructing the NIC complex and rehabilitating the CoA building, both in Port Harcourt, as part of measures to ensure that litigants no longer travel to Yenagoa, Bayelsa State capital, for their cases.
Similarly, Godswill Akpabio, as governor of Akwa Ibom State, came to the rescue of the FG when in September 2012 he commissioned the FHC complex in Uyo, the state capital, about 12 years after the judiciary authority in the state made its first request for the establishment of the edifice.
The two South-South governors appeared to have followed the footsteps of Babatunde Raji Fashola, now minister of power, works and housing, who, as governor of Lagos State in September 2009, came to the rescue of the Federal Government by commissioning the Ikeja Division of the Federal High Court to reduce the burden on the overstretched Ikoyi division of the same court.
Recalling his request to the governor for a modest temporary accommodation at the commissioning ceremony, Justice Akanbi Mustapha, who was chief judge of the FHC at the time, while thanking Fashola for the gesture, noted that the edifice would reduce pressure on its Ikoyi counterpart.
Northern states like Katsina, Nasarawa and Niger, who had new permanent Federal High Court complexes commissioned by former President Goodluck Jonathan, may be the only ones whose governors may not be having sleepless nights over the dilapidating condition of federal courts in their domain. Residents of these states had had to travel to Benue and Plateau States in search for justice in the pre-Jonathan era.
The Jonathan administration was also responsible for the building of the Federal High Court in Asaba, Delta State capital, in 2014. Before then, litigants domiciled in the state had had to travel to Benin City, Edo State capital, for cases that fell within the jurisdiction of the high court. The Benin FHC is also a source of deep concern for judges and litigants.
The erstwhile president had said at the time that the FG was providing Federal High Court complexes across the country in order to bring justice closer to the people and in turn reduce cost and inconveniences on the part of litigants. But findings show that the President Muhammadu Buhari administration is not continuing in that direction.
Lack of fund stalls project
Meanwhile, while litigants, lawyers and judges jostle for space at the Ikoyi FHC, coupled with other inconveniences associated with holding legal proceedings there, a 9-storey building purposed to be its permanent edifice, which ought to have been completed by now, is in a state of near abandonment.
Although skeletal work was ongoing inside the massive modern courthouse with bulletproof prison section at Bourdillon when our reporter visited for inspection, it was, however, obvious that the project is not being taken seriously by those in charge. A total of eight men were seen working.
BDSUNDAY gathered that the project, which began in 2012 and is being handled by Telisol Limited, a civil engineering construction firm, was initially billed to be delivered for use in 2016 and fully completed in 2017.
It was learnt that the building project is not under the supervision of the Federal Ministry of Works but is rather being directly supervised by the National Judicial Council (NJC), and that poor funding is responsible for its non-completion.
“The work is being delayed because of fund. At a time throughout election period work was completely stopped. We were supposed to deliver this work last year. But as you can see, we will still be here for God-knows-how-long, unless something is done very fast by the government. This is a government facility that people are badly in need of,” said a worker who did not want his name is print for fear of being fired.
Budget not seen
Efforts to ascertain what the building project has gulped since 2012 when it began did not yield any meaningful result, as the budget proposal, approval and implementation document was neither on the NJC website or that of the Ministry of Budget and National Planning as at the time of this report.
A Supreme Court response to a Freedom of Information request by BudgIT, a Lagos-based civic tech organization, which was seen by BDSUNDAY, only highlighted the 2016 spending of the apex court without reference to the Bourdillon High Court project.
Oluseun Onigbinde, co-founder, BudgIT, confessed in an interview with BDSUNDAY that getting the budget proposal, approval and implementation document of the NJC is not an easy task, saying it is also kept in secrecy like that of the National Assembly.
“I only have 2016 budget of the Supreme Court. You know the NJC is part of what they call ‘statutory transfer’, the same way the National Assembly budget is impeded, until recently we have to do the ‘Open NASS’, that is when we were able to see those stuffs,” he said.
Judiciary’s financial challenges
In a conference themed ‘The Judiciary as a Veritable Instrument for Nurturing Democracy in Nigeria’ organized for judges of superior courts by the National Judicial Institute (NJI) in Abuja, Mahmud Mohammed, then Chief Justice of the Federation, highlighted the financial challenges of the judiciary.
He lamented that in a country where an arm of government is appropriated with less than 1 percent of the national budget, it was a big joke to refer to the judiciary as being truly independent.
Sections 121 (3) and 162 (9) of the 1999 Constitution guarantees fiscal independence for the judiciary and mandates the federal and some state governments to pay the judiciary its budgetary allocations as and when due.
Mohammed seized the occasion to tell Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who represented President Buhari, Senate President Bukola Saraki, Speaker Yakubu Dogara, and other guests at the event that the NJC would prepare the judiciary’s budget as charged upon the Consolidated Revenue and submit it to the Accountant-General of the Federation to transfer to NJC a consequential order restraining the executive and the legislature from appropriating the funds for the judiciary in the Annual Appropriation Act.
“The present practice of judiciary funding by the defendants (executive and legislature), which makes the judiciary dependent on the executive arm in budgeting and release of funds, violates Sections 81 (2) (3) (c) and 84 (2) (7) of the Constitution. It is, therefore, unconstitutional, null and void,” he told the bewildered members of the executive and legislature.
He then ordered NJC to henceforth be sending its budget directly to the NASS for appropriation, while insisting that the dependence of the judiciary on the executive arm for its budgeting and funding by warrants was directly responsible for the underfunding of the judiciary.
“This is also responsible for the poor and inadequate judicial infrastructure, low morale among judicial personnel, alleged corruption in the judiciary, delays in administration of justice and judicial services,” he said.
Godswill Akpabio, Senate Minority Leader, also in January this year called for the upward review of budgetary allocations to the judiciary to ensure quick dispensation of justice, and noted that as vice chairman of Senate Committee on Judiciary, he had information on the challenges confronting the judiciary, which includes a judge having not less than 7,000 cases.