Citing flagrant breach of its environmental sanitation and road traffic laws, the Lagos State government penultimate week rolled out mobile courts to expedite the dispensation of justice for those who violate the state’s environmental and traffic laws. Gboyega Akinsanmi writes

She never knew she would quit the stage of this world so quickly. Like other days, she went out to honour some appointments. If she had a premonition of what her next moment might be, Serah Fagbenro would have stayed indoors all through. But about six weeks ago, a commercial bus driver ran into her along Lekki-Ajah road. Serah, a 25-year-old British Nigerian graduate, died right at the spot.

As planned, Serah did not return alive. Her dream was suddenly cut short. Her aspiration turned colourless and pale. All her goals ended abruptly and prematurely due to the excess of a reckless commercial driver. Disturbed by this incident, the Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Funmilayo Atilade said Serah “is a victim of recklessness and lawlessness on Lagos roads.”
The Chief Judge thus said Serah’s fate “is undoubtedly one of death incidents occurring as a result of reckless driving and indiscipline on Lagos roads on daily basis. This must not be allowed to continue again. Let it be known to all that the era of recklessness and impunity on our public roads and highways in Lagos State is gone.”

Like Serah Fagbenro, a good number of people daily fall victim of reckless driving on Lagos roads. In different instances, many lost their lives outright; some suffered irreparable injuries and others became defaced and maimed, purely due to the excess of some road users, who failed to observe traffic laws.

But confronted with this rising incidence of environmental and traffic offences in its territory, the Lagos State Government, fortnight ago, brought in a new initiative into its system of justice dispensation. The initiative is simply christened the Special Offences (Mobile) Court, perhaps the first of its kind in Nigeria.

A number of rationales spurred the birth of mobile court in Lagos, which had in the last decade risen to the status of Africa’s model megacity. Despite its status, Lagos still largely suffers deepening crises of public order arising from flagrant contravention of environmental and traffic laws among others.

By implication, among others, outright disregard to laws regulating special offences has certainly undermined public order and safety in the state. It has also been a challenge for the enforcement of Lagos State Environmental Sanitation Law, which came into force in 2000. It has equally been an albatross to Lagos State Road Traffic Law, which precisely came into being on August 2, 2012.

Obviously, the prevalence of contravention to environmental and traffic laws indeed called for a new regime, which the Chief Judge said would check the excesses of those who chose to make life difficult for other people especially on Lagos roads. She thus warned the reckless drivers “to have a rethink. Every motorist, road user and resident will henceforth be held accountable for their deeds.”

True to Atilade’s statement, the mobile court had already started operating in different parts of the state with the sole purpose of discouraging environmental and traffic nuisance. Between February 5 and 18 after the court was formally inaugurated, about 496 environmental and traffic offenders had been prosecuted and awarded different penalties ranging from community service and fines among others.

On this ground, the Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr. Adeniji Kazeem provided insight into the birth of mobile court. The initiative did not start under the administration of Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, according to him. He said the mobile court actually took its roots on the bedrock of the Special Offences Court created in 1994 under military era to reverse the state’s environmental nuisance.

The Attorney-General explained that the special offences court was established in 1994 “to try essentially environmental offences. It has been vested with powers to sit in any convenient place close to the scene of commission of any offence triable by it. Though summary in nature, the proceedings before the mobile court will be operated in accordance with rules of natural justice and fair hearing.

“There will be lawyers from the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) for any defendant who so desires to be defended, while defendants can also appoint any lawyer of their choice to defend them,” Kazeem said. He thus argued that mobile court “is one of the ways Ambode plans to broaden the pathway that guarantee citizens’ access to justice and at the same time ensure the preservation of civility.”

The Attorney-General added that the mobile court was designed “to summarily deal with growing cases of traffic and environmental abuses in the state with the view of bringing sanity and civility in the conduct of residents. The court will be manned by highly-qualified magistrates of the State Judiciary. They will instantaneously try cases involving traffic and environmental offenders.”

He also explained the significance of the new initiative. He said the birth of the mobile court was an institutional reaction “to identified societal challenges, and that henceforth traffic offenders such as motorcyclists who drive against traffic and refused to obey traffic signs like zebra crossing and traffic light indication, will no longer find it easy to get away with the commission of such crimes in the state.

Kazeem similarly cited the instance of commercial bus drivers operating on Lagos roads with their doors open. He said such practice indeed endangered the lives of passengers and other road users. He therefore said the mobile court was initiated “to prosecute this category of offenders while anyone crossing the highway where pedestrian bridges are provided, will equally face trial.”

He mentioned the infraction of dedicated lanes for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) operations. He said driving on the BRT lanes of non-designated vehicles by commercial drivers and soldiers “will henceforth attract prosecution before the mobile court. People should desist from parking at undesignated places, noise pollution and street trading among others. Such offences will be handled by the court.

“These special offences appear to be so simple, but the reduction of its commission is a major yardstick in determining how much we have progressed as a civilised society. It may seem simple, but its significance and expected impact to the society is a lot more profound,” the Attorney-General said.

He therefore described the launch of the mobile court as even more momentous because it “is a symbolic indication of some of the most important policies of Ambode’s administration on law and order which rest on the premise that no society will thrive in an atmosphere of lawlessness and disorder.

He acknowledged the primacy of law and order in state-building. He noted that Ambode’s administration “has recognised that law and order are critical pillars for sustaining democratic life.” Africa’s fastest growing megacity, the Attorney-General said Lagos “must be built on the strong foundation of law and order.

“The state government has dedicated an enormous amount of manpower and financial resources in seeking better living standard for its residents. So much has been allocated to provide roads, drainages and transportation system to mention, but a few. It has equally enacted traffic and environmental laws to ensure the state remains environmentally friendly and free from gridlocks all the time.

“However, some have chosen or deliberately refused to obey these laws. This is not entirely surprising. The history of mankind shows that obedience to societal laws has never been entirely voluntary. On this ground, prompt and fair adjudication as well as the certainty of enforcement and penalties constitute the necessary inducement for respect and obedience of laws.

“For most people, where justice is delayed or denied, the victim is bound to feel some frustration, outrage or even further disrespect to law and order. If the same trend is allowed to continue unabated, the very basis of an orderly society wears out gradually and steadily,” the Attorney-General explained.

Already, the operation of mobile court has earned approval of senior lawyers and lawmakers in the state. A human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana noted that the launch of the mobile court was a progressive one, which he said, would enforce discipline and sanity on Lagos roads as well as the environment.

Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), said he had advised the Attorney-General “not to allow the police and the traffic officials to detain people illegally again. But I have been assured that the penalty for most of the traffic offences shall be community service which I think is a very progressive development. That is going to enforce discipline on our roads and sanity to the system.”

Likewise, another Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Dr. Joseph Nwobike commended the Ambode administration and the state judiciary “for coming up with the bold initiative. The mobile court will discourage people from violating traffic and environmental laws in the state. This is the best time for it when there are so many cases of unmitigated infraction of environmental laws and traffic regulations in Lagos.

“What the state government and the judiciary have done is to provide a platform that will, by way of trial and punishment, discourage people from engaging in abuse of environmental laws and disobedience of traffic rules. There should be a synergy between the traffic management agency in Lagos and the police in ensuring that this initiative becomes effective and then allow it to work.”
Nwobike therefore charged the state government to see the possibility of engaging environmental and traffic volunteers “to provide useful information to the appropriate authorities such as the Nigeria Police, Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA) and Lagos State Environmental and Special Offences (Enforcement) Unit so as to boost tracking and the punishment processes.”
For the Chairman of Lagos State House of Assembly Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Public Petition, Hon. Adefunmilayo Tejuosho, the launch of the mobile court is a welcome development. She pointed out that the initiative would positively impact on the drive of government to decongest the prisons.

She said Lagos State “is definitely the centre of excellence. We put things on motion and other states follow. We have to appreciate the government, the Ministry of Justice, the Judiciary and also the House of Assembly for cooperation because to move the state forward, we have to work together as a unit.

“It is good that at the point of the incidence when somebody commits traffic offence, it can be handled immediately. A lot of people awaiting trials are in the prisons. We are trying to decongest those areas. This is a good way of doing that and getting justice at the same time. Justice delayed is justice denied.

“We are trying to do everything quickly so that whoever commits an offence will not have an excuse to say that he is being detained unjustly and so on. The establishment of the mobile court will make the people to be more careful and obey the laws of the land. So, it will deter people from committing offences when they know there is a mobile court that will actually dispense justice quickly. People will be more careful. Nigeria, especially Lagos, will be a safer place for us all.”