The heat notwithstanding, the courtroom was filled to capacity and there was no power to work the rickety fans that hung loosely from the ceiling. The presiding judge had to make do with a locally made hand fan, which seemingly distracted him.
This was the scenario at one of the Upper Sharia Courts at Kofar Kudu in the heart of Kano City. Indeed many people troop in daily with various cases, criminal and civil; ranging from theft, divorce to inheritance.
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The Kofar Kudu judge, it was gathered, like many other judges, shuffles between two courts. He, unlike others, is lucky to have his other courtroom adjacent his main courtroom.
In late March, 2021, when Daily Trust visited another courtroom, the chairs were dusty and the floor was unkempt, an indication it had not been put to use over a long period.
The judge of the dusty courtroom, it was gathered, had proceeded on study leave; as such, the burden of the court had to be borne by another, who already had a congested docket.
The registrar of the dusty courtroom told Daily Trust that the court recorded an average of 20 cases on his list every day.
Justice Abdullateef Kamaldeen of the Kwara State Sharia Court of Appeal, in a paper presented at a workshop for Area/Sharia and Customary court judges, had explained that the Sharia Court Laws of the Northern States (Sharia Judicial System) conferred original jurisdiction in all civil and criminal matters in Sharia courts; so also is the jurisdiction to hear and determine civil matters and cases where all the parties are Muslims.
This position makes the Sharia court the place of destination for the common man in search of justice. Given the population and position of Kano as the commercial centre of Nigeria, it can only be imagined the number of cases with the potentiality of ending up at the Sharia courts for adjudication.
Findings by Daily Trust revealed that in the Gwagwarwa area of Brigade in Nassarawa Local Government Area (LGA), the Sharia court shares a dilapidated building with a Primary Healthcare Centre (PHC). The main building of the court, which is directly opposite the make-shift one, has been under construction for the past three years, and work has stopped.
The make-shift building looked abandoned, with most of the glasses on the windows broken. Similarly, dust was observed on all the furniture and files in the office and the courtroom, apparently because of the ongoing nationwide judiciary workers’ strike.
In Gwale LGA, the Sharia court in the Dorayi area occupies a rented apartment in one of the shopping complexes.
At a court at Kurmi market, while there was electric power and the ceiling fans were working when Daily Trust visited, it was observed that most parts of the ceiling, painted white, had turned brown due to water from the leaking roof.
The judge at the Kurmi market court, Abbas Magashi, told Daily Trust that he averaged 25 cases daily, and that delays in his court were mostly due to the role of some lawyers, adding that generally, congestion depended on a judge’s manner of handling cases.
Magashi acknowledged that the cases of judges having to shuffle between courts were not new, noting that this, to a large extent, and to the best of his knowledge, had been resolved in the metropolis with perhaps just a couple of cases outstanding.
However, Daily Trust discovered this not to be true as several sources, including the Kano State Sharia Court of Appeal – which controls all the Sharia courts in the state – said otherwise.
Judge unknowingly grants bail to murder suspect
A private legal practitioner in the state, Badiha Abdullahi Muaz, lamented that the judiciary in the state was in serious detriment which could lead to the collapse of the sector.
Barr Muaz said, “There are a lot of courts without judges. Some judges are overstretched as they oversee many courts. The judge who sits in Kurna oversees the courts of Bagwai and Dawakin Tofa, for instance.”
She said apart from their normal court activities, some judges were still saddled with manning mobile courts “or they would be attached to some government agencies like KAROTA and public complaints.”
She explained that the stress of the work had been taking its toll on several judges, citing an instance of a judge that reportedly granted bail to someone charged with murder only to deny ever granting the bail at the next sitting.
She said, “These judges are suffering in silence as they don’t have a specific salary as one can be paid any amount government decides to give him. So the judges are left with no choice but to go into debt. I know a judge who collected foodstuff from a shop in his neighbourhood and he was not able to pay until his brother came to his rescue and cleared the debt.”
Daily Trust gathered that a freshly employed judge for the Sharia court takes home less than N50,000 monthly as salary while the senior ones earn between N80,000 and N170,000 per month.
“There are a lot of judges who cannot afford to even fuel their cars. They ask lawyers to fuel their cars for them. Initially, I thought they were joking, but I realised that they really mean it. So imagine this type of judge if he is offered a bribe, won’t he collect?” she asked.
She further said most of the judges had confided in her that they were afraid of retirement not only because of the delay in the payment of their gratuity, but of what would happen to them when they were off the bench.
An official of one of the Sharia courts in the metropolis who preferred anonymity, blamed the pressure on judges on the decision of the state government to put the appointment of new judges on hold.
The official said, “For about four years now the government has not recruited judges. Some have already retired and some are going for retirement very soon, but the government is yet to recruit new ones to replace them. And these judges are left with so much work on their necks. A single judge is handling three courts and each court has at least 15 cases to attend to every day. As a human being, he cannot attend the three courts daily. So the unattended cases will accumulate.”
Litigants at receiving end
Investigation by Daily Trust revealed that the situation at the Sharia courts in the state has put litigants in a dilemma as they are the ones at the receiving end.
Malam Abdullahi Hassan, a litigant, told Daily Trust that for about six months his case was yet to be heard.
Hassan said, “My case is civil in nature, but I have spent like six months now coming to the court without it being mentioned. I come to court many times without my case being mentioned. Sometimes I come to the court and I am told that the court is not in session. This is how the case is being postponed every day.”
Another litigant who does not want his name in print told Daily Trust on Sunday that lack of paper to draft court proceedings stalled a court sitting when he went for his matter.
He said, “I was in court for my case and the judge was in the court, but unfortunately the court did not hold as the judge explained to us that there was no paper to draft the proceedings. The judge added that he had to tell us the truth that the government did not provide paper and that he was not supposed to provide it himself. He just apologised and went back to his chamber. The cases were adjourned till further notice. I can tell you that court did not hold for some days.”
Sharia Court of Appeal speaks
Reacting to Daily Trust inquiries, the spokesman of the Kano State Sharia Court of Appeal, Isah Muhammad Kankarofi, said, “The management is trying most of the time to fill these vacancies, and by God’s grace, soon you will be fully briefed about it.
“First of all, we have 50 judges in Kano State, big and small in Sharia courts and Upper Sharia courts. We also have 90 courts in Kano now and there are about 18 of them that do not have permanent judges. It is the shortage of judges that makes some of them preside over two, and sometimes three courts.
“Also, we receive an average of 77,327 cases every year, out of which we try to complete about 58,103. The same applies to criminal cases; we use to get about 10,494 and we try to complete 9,021.”
Financial autonomy for judiciary the only solution – NBA
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Kano branch, said it was worried about the issue of dilapidated court structures, welfare and working condition of judges in the state, adding that the problem went beyond the Sharia court in the state and extended to the entire judiciary arm of government.
“That is why the NBA as a stakeholder is 100 per cent in support of the strike embarked upon by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) to press home the call for financial autonomy. Had it been the judiciary is financially independent all these issues will not even be there because they will be catering for themselves, particularly in the area of capital projects,” Aminu Gandanya, Chairman of NBA, Kano, said.
He added that the only solution to the issue that was seriously affecting the judges was to get financial autonomy, “and as a stakeholder in the administration of justice, we will continue to press on until this is achieved.”
Other stakeholders speak
The Chairman of the Kano State Council of Ulamas, Sheikh Ibrahim Khaleel, agreed that the challenges would definitely negatively impact justice delivery.
“This will make a judge deliver a wrong judgment, or he would end up collecting bribe from the clients,” he said.
He added that it was not just the judges that were wronged by the inadequacies observed in the system, but that the common people who were the bulk of clients of Sharia courts, would also be at the receiving end.
“This will make people lose hope in getting justice as cases would be adjourned all the time. The people would start to take the law into their hands as they think they may not get justice at the right time. Justice delayed is justice denied. This will also increase crime,” he added.
“A judge is a highly respected person. During the era of Caliphate Umar Bn Khattab, anything that was given to a judge was always higher than that of a governor. For instance, if they were given a ram to share, the judge took half while a governor got one third and the remaining part was shared among the people,” he said.
Also commenting, the Commander General of Hisbah, Dr Harun Ibn Sina, said even though his board never experienced any delay in its forwarded cases to Sharia courts, it remained worried by the challenges facing the courts in the state.
Dr Sina, therefore, called on the government to look after the welfare of judges so that they could deliver on their roles.
He said, “We know the Kano State Government is doing its best for the Sharia courts in terms of recruiting more judges and their welfare, but there is need for government to redouble it. We want the government to establish more courts as the number of people is increasing every day, as well as that of societal issues.”
The Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice in the state, Barr Musa Lawan, did not respond to calls and a text message requesting his comments on these findings.