Frequent power outages in both the federal and state high courts in Lagos have become an embarrassment for the judiciary.
Inside a dark court room at the Lagos State High Court, Ikeja, Justice Adeniyi Onigbanjo focused the beam from his torchlight on his notes. Protracted power cuts had stalled proceedings in his court for most of the last week of February and the case files had continued to pile up.
Opposite the judge, dozens of lawyers, their wigs removed and their faces clouded with perspiration, squinted into their case files with lights from their mobile phones.
Fifteen minutes later, and with no sign of restoration of electricity, the judge rose from his seat.
Moments later, lawyers crowded before the court registrar’s desk to decide new dates for their cases.
Frequent power outages in both the federal and state high courts in Lagos have become an embarrassment for the judiciary, several lawyers told PREMIUM TIMES on Friday.
In some cases, the outage lasts for days shutting down judicial activities in the courts and leaving lawyers scrambling for excuses to angry clients why their cases have stalled.
“The regular power outage in our courts is assuming a dangerous dimension,” said Victor Opara, a Lagos based legal practitioner.
Last month, the trial of Francis Atuche, a former Managing Director of the defunct Bank PHB, at the state high court in Ikeja was stalled due to poor power supply.
Mr. Atuche and his wife, Elizabeth, are facing trial for allegedly stealing N25.7 billion belonging to the bank.
In the same week, the epileptic power supply forced the adjournment of the trial of Wale Babalakin, the billionaire lawyer and chairman of Bi-Courtney Limited, accused of N4.7 billion fraud.
“Just last week, we were in court, the light went off and the judge said he was not sitting again,” said Jamilu Bashir, another Lagos based lawyer.
“It is getting worse in the Lagos Division. Once there is no light, some judges will say they cannot sit in this kind of condition. It is a very serious problem and something has to be done about it,” Mr. Bashir added.
But the frequent power outages is not peculiar to the state high courts, in fact, it appears worse at the federal high courts with their tiny court rooms.
Unlike the relatively spacious courtrooms at the Lagos State high courts, a typical courtroom at the Federal High Court accommodates about 20 lawyers, a couple of court registrars, and the judge. Parties involved in suits, journalists, and other lawyers squeeze against one another at the door of courtrooms as they strain their necks to get a glimpse of the activities within.
During the criminal trial of Adeyemi Ikuforiji, in November last year, before Justice Ibrahim Buba of the Federal High Court; there was a power outage in the 42-seater court room which has only two functional ceiling fans and a non-functional split unit air-conditioner.
Minutes later, the temperature in the crowded courtroom had risen to an unbearable level.
“I suggest we come back when the atmosphere is more conducive,” Godwin Obla, the prosecution counsel, pleaded with the judge.
Without hesitation, the judge, who was sweating profusely in the poorly ventilated courtroom, granted the counsel’s request.
“There is no light and the court is unbearable,” said the judge as he adjourned proceedings to a later date.
Sitting on the floor above Justice Buba and defying the odds, Justice Mohammed Idris was peering into his written judgment with the aid of a torchlight, to the appreciation of the lawyers present.
Robert Igbinedion, a human rights lawyer, said that the frequent power cuts have added to the long list of reasons why the court has failed to sit.
“Most times we hear that the judge is attending seminar, judges’ training, illness, official assignments and several other reasons. This is also another added one,” Mr. Igbinedion said.
“It is very bad and it is causing a lot of embarrassment to lawyers,” he added.
Last week, Justice James Tsoho of the Federal High Court, Lagos, had issued a preservatory order restraining the Financial Reporting Council of Nigeria from continuing investigations against Lamido Sanusi, the suspended Central Bank Governor, pending the determination of the suit.
The judge had adjourned till April 11.
However, on Friday, the next adjourned date, the courtroom was in semi-darkness due to absence of electricity, forcing the judge to adjourn to April 17.
The court complex, situated in highbrow Ikoyi, is powered by about seven giant generators, due to the abysmally poor supply of electricity from the Eko Electricity Distribution Company, the private successor to the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN, in the area.
None of the generators were able to supply electricity on Friday.
At least, four judges conducted proceedings in near-dark rooms with no air conditioning units as counsels were permitted to remove their wigs if they wished – several lawyers improvised their court papers into hand fans in the unbearably hot court rooms.
Other judges who sat without electricity include Mohammed Idris, Mohammed Yunusa and Okon Abang.
Monday Ubani, Chairman of the Ikeja Chapter of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, said that the frequent outages have contributed in the delay of the judicial system.
“Something is fundamentally wrong if we allow things as common at light to delay our judicial system,” said Mr. Ubani.
On Friday’s power outage at the Federal High Court in Lagos which stalled the suit involving Mr. Sanusi and the Nigerian government, Mr. Ubani stated that it was politically motivated.
“It is a politically-induced power outage. It is not ordinary for seven generators to fail to work in one day,” he added.
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