Monday, October 13, 2008

Justice dispensation under the Mango tree

THE situation whereby a High Court of Justice in Urualla, Ideato North Local Government Area of Imo State sits openly under a Mango tree is bizarre. The circumstances that necessitated the development are clearly unacceptable and should be promptly addressed. To condone such a situation amounts to making a mockery of the court and the judiciary as a whole.

Presided over by a female judge, Justice C. A. Ononeze-Madu, the High Court is reported to have resorted to sitting in the open following the deplorable state of facilities in the court building. Naturally, lawyers have expressed their embarrassment at the situation and called for action to reverse it. It is unconscionable that the authorities allowed the degeneration in the first place.

The picture of the court's setting was expressly contemptuous of a state organ that is supposed to embody law and order. At a recent session, lawyers and court clerks sat in the open at the premises while the judge took shelter at the garage of the dilapidated building. She reportedly used her official car as chambers and dressing room. Three mango trees and an umbrella tree provided shield for lawyers, litigants and court officials.

Again, it is no surprise that such a court could not make meaningful progress in dispensing justice, let alone accelerating it. In one day, seven cases on the cause list were called, but lawyers in the various cases could only hurriedly seek adjournment, in the light of the discomfort of the environment. The building housing the court - which was donated by the community - is so dilapidated as to constitute a death trap.

In addition, the building's roof has caved in, it is also leaking. Due to the neglect, reptiles are said to have turned the place into their lair. There is no electricity or toilet facilities even for the judge and court staff, and no functional furniture, as available desks and chairs are in bad shape.

Reportedly too, many judges and court staff who had been posted to the court considered their deployment to the court as a punishment and had consequently rejected the posting. This necessitated the transfer of cases meant for the court to the Orlu High Court. Apparently, entreaties made through letters to the authorities, including the two local governments close to the court building, were unsuccessful. The situation has remained unchanged.

It would appear that the court decided to sit in the open out of frustration, and perhaps in protest against the unpleasant situation in the court building. The development calls for serious questions as to the responsibility and commitment of the Imo State Government to the judiciary. Is the government aware of the deplorable condition? Is its inaction deliberate or negligent? Is the Urualla situation a misnomer or does it represent the standard picture of other courts in the state?

The public certainly needs an urgent explanation from the Imo State government, which has demonstrated a tendency to advertise what it has supposedly achieved in the past one-and-a-half years. If indeed the government has performed well, why is such performance not reflected in the judiciary?

As the third arm of government, the judiciary in Imo State, as in other states and at the federal level represents a check and balance institution between the executive and the legislature. Besides, it is the last hope of the common man in matters of law and governance. Such an organ of government deserves more respect and a much better treatment than that accorded the Urualla High Court.

The Imo State Government must demonstrate that it is not out to despise the judiciary or ridicule judicial officers. It can only do this by promptly addressing the problem in Urualla and other courts that may be suffering similar fate in the state.

In this regard, government should give assurances that it is not deliberately under-funding the courts. If there is a case of misappropriation, this should be properly established and investigated.

It is sad that while governments all over the country boast of spurious achievements to justify huge expenditure, the judiciary, a vital institution, has suffered accumulated neglect. The scenario in Urualla is not limited to Imo State. Other states are guilty, at varying degrees. Yet, incidents of this nature largely contribute to the low development index of Nigeria, in Africa and the world.

It is time for governments to have a change of heart. Nigeria needs genuine and sincere development efforts to be simultaneously replicated in all areas including the judiciary. There is currently unacceptable deterioration in education, health, transportation, housing, roads, electricity supply and the provision of other basic infrastructure.

Incidentally, this is a direct consequence of corruption and greed among top public officials. The country cannot experience real development as long as officials put themselves first, before the nation. Perhaps Imo State can take the lead by immediately rectifying the anomaly in Urualla and its judiciary.