A Tone-Deaf Judiciary and its Waning Legitimacy – By Aderemi Oguntoye Esq.

In the last quarter of 2020, at the height of the nationwide violent revolt that trailed the appalling and wholly unnecessary shooting of #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, the Lagos State Judiciary buildings and facilities were attacked and burned. Shocking images of arson and looting of both courtrooms and the hallowed chambers of Judges would subsequently emerge, the most infamous being that of a man donning the customary wig and gown of the legal profession whilst wielding a sizeable matchet.

That attack on the Judiciary was, and remains, roundly condemned and every person who partook in that ignoble misadventure ought to be fished out and fully punished according to law.

There is, however, the unquestionable (even if sensitive) matter of the waning legitimacy of the Judiciary which many know but few are courageous to speak of publicly. Consciously or inadvertently, Nigerian courts and the jurists that preside over them, through the practices and processes that they allow, frequently raise more questions than answers about what the notion of justice really means to the Judiciary. The current predicament of Chief Ralph Obioha of NADECO fame illustrates once again the frustrations of the common man with the Judiciary that is meant to be his last hope.

On 15 July 2021, in Suit No. LD/10436LMW/2021, a Judge of the High Court of Lagos State, Honourable Justice Oyekan-Abdullahi, based on the ex parte application of a Mr Yomi Tokosi who is the claimant in the suit, granted an order of interim injunction restraining Chief Ralph Obioha and his family from “further entering” or “coming into” their own home in which they have been living for several years. For context, the Latin term “ex parte” means that the Judge did not hear from Chief Ralph Obioha or his lawyers before making the bizarre order that effectively locked out a septuagenarian and his family from their own home. Rather, his Lordship relied solely on the affidavit of Mr Tokosi which apparently claimed ownership of Chief Obioha’s home – a claim that Chief Obioha has always vehemently rejected.

The dispute between Chief Obioha and Mr Tokosi over the ownership of the property at Ikoyi which includes the respective maisonettes in which Chief Obioha and Mr Tokosi live has been in the public domain since at least January of this year, having been reported by national dailies. This, in and of itself, puts a question mark on the extreme urgency and risk of irreparable damage that could possibly have persuaded the Lagos High Court to injunct Chief Obioha out of his home without giving him an opportunity to be heard. This aside, that Mr Tokosi and his lawyers led by Mr Adeniji Kazeem, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, knew but failed to disclose to the High Court the fact that Chief Obioha is living in the very property that they requested that he and his folks be barred from entering speaks volumes about how low the integrity and values of the legal profession have fallen. It remains to be seen if the Judiciary would show any genuine interest in penalising those who appear to have deceived it into making yet another embarrassing ex parte order despite the hue and cry, including by appellate courts, against such indiscriminate orders that are based on one-sided narratives.

In the meantime, it is simply depressing to learn that the ex parte order has still not been revisited by the Lagos High Court as of the time of writing this piece despite Chief Obioha’s lawyers filing an application to discharge the order on 28 July 2021. The affidavit of urgency filed along with the application to discharge the order tells a heart-wrenching story of how the ex parte order which was issued on 15 July 2021 was only shown to Chief Obioha’s daughter on 26 July 2021 when she returned from work (with Chief Obioha having travelled to the East) and used as an excuse for hired hands who are not court bailiffs to forcefully deprive her of access into the home that she has always lived in. Further, the affidavit discloses that the two pet dogs in Chief Obioha’s home have been left at the risk of potentially starving to death because their owners are not available to feed them, having been forcefully deprived access to their home.

One would have thought that these facts are compelling enough for the High Court, which was willing to issue an order behind the back of a party, to convene immediately to review the order. But the Nigerian Judiciary, as many a common man has bitterly experienced, apparently cannot be rushed into anything regardless of how dire the situation it created has become. It is understood that the Judge who gave the ex parte order has travelled on official assignment and is unavailable to review that order. Chief Obioha’s lawyers have written to the Chief Judge of the Lagos High Court to assign the matter to another Judge in the interest of justice but that passionate appeal to the leadership of the High Court has achieved nothing as of today. In the event, Chief Obioha and his family apparently remain condemned to find shelter, source for food and clothing, and generally perch and squat where they can until (at least) the next court date in the matter, which is 3 August 2021. Knowing the Judiciary, there is neither a guarantee that the Court would in fact convene on that day (as another intervening engagement could easily make His Lordship unavailable again) nor a history of the High Court awarding realistic or substantial damages to compensate victims of unjustified orders.

In the end, one finds oneself reflecting on the image of that court looter who donned the apparel of the legal profession but kept the matchet of the street fighter and the symbolism that he might have unintendedly portrayed. Could it be that the “unlearned” public now sees the Judiciary as an institution that is dressed in the garb of justice but is prone to lend its processes to vicious and oppressive use like a matchet in a street fight? Or could there be an emerging opinion that the Judiciary is not effective enough to deliver real and efficient justice, and so one must combine making a claim in court with some measure of self-help such as the one used to prevent Chief Obioha’s daughter from going into her home after a long day at work?

The Judiciary cannot pretend not to notice that on account of such disappointing moves as an ex parte order to quit a man and his family from their home without giving them an opportunity to be heard, it is losing the respect and reverence that it used to enjoy. If the Judiciary would continue to be tone-deaf to the need to act with utmost urgency to redress situations such as the one that Chief Obioha and his household are facing now, then it must be at peace with the rapidity at which its legitimacy in the eyes of those who once looked upon it with awe and deference is slipping away.

Mr. Oguntoye is a Lawyer and a member of the NBA Public Interest Litigation Committee


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