On Tuesday, the 19th of February, 2010 Mrs. Abosede Elugbaju, a seamstress who suffered severe electrocution on September 26, 2002, when an electric cable fell off a pole and landed on her shop at No. 2 Church Street, Alapere Ketu in Lagos, eventually received, at the Federal High Court, Ikoyi-Lagos, a Zenith Bank’s Manager-Cheque of Eighteen Million Naira (=N= 18 Million) in satisfaction of the judgment sum awarded in her favour in the Suit, which she had instituted to claim compensation from the National Electric Power Authority ( now Power Holding Company of Nigeria-PHCN). She had instituted her law suit (Suit No. FHC/CS/1265/2002 Abosede Elugbaju & Anor Vs. NEPA) on 24th December, 2002.
On the day of the electrocution, Abosede Elugbaju was sitting in front of her shop, when the cable pulled off from a decayed wooden crossbar atop an electric pole, not too far from where she was, and descended on the burglary-proof iron rod encasement of her shop on which she was reclining. The impact of the electrocution made her to pass out, and she only woke up at the Lagos State Teaching Hospital a day after to discover that she was hanging onto life by a thread. She was ravaged by the electrocution. To save her life, she underwent many surgeries and physiotherapy. Her left leg was extensively burnt and became gangrenous and on the 8th of October, 2002 she had an above the knee amputation. The dead skins of her body were scrapped off and after she became stable in February, 2003, she had a skin grafting. At the time of her discharge on the 13th of June 2003, after spending 10 months in the Hospital, she had need for an artificial prosthetics , she had some deformities on her right fingers, her right wrists and the elbow joint, which restricted her movement and affected her gripping, a state that required another corrective surgeries to be carried out on her.
At the time of the incident, Abosede Elugbaju had a thriving trade and a thriving family life. She was 32 years old then and had three children. She had 8 tailoring machines and two shop assistants and apprentices. She was earning N40,000 monthly, on the average.
While yet at the hospital, Abosede Elugbaju’s family instructed our firm, Jiti Ogunye Chambers, to institute a legal action on her behalf. The action, claiming thirty-two million naira (=N=.32,000,000.00) damages, was filed in the Federal High Court on 24th December, 2002. The action first came up before Hon. Justice Regina Nwodo, (later of the Court of Appeal) and later before Justice R. Oyindamola Olomojobi (now retired) who painstakingly conducted trial and delivered Judgment on Wednesday 11th July, 2007, two days to her retirement on Friday, 13th July, 2007.
In recognition of the dilatory nature of civil litigation in Nigeria’s courts, while approaching the Court, the Chambers wrote letters of appeal to the Management of National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), the then Minister of Mines and Power, the President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, the First Lady, Mrs Stella Obasanjo, Titi Abubakar, the wife of the Vice-President, Atiku Abubakar, pleading for administrative redress and payment of adequate compensation. All the letters were not replied. It was only when the hearing of the case commenced that NEPA, through its lawyers, started making monetary offers in order to settle the case out of court. Two hundred thousand, five hundred thousand naira, one million naira, and two million naira (=N=200,000, =N=500,000, =N=1.Million and =N=2. Million) were offered at various stages while the trial of the case was in progress, but these were rejected by the Chambers, for being inadequate, based on instructions of Abosede Elugbaju and the husband.
During the trial, NEPA/PHCN put up a defence that it had diligently discharged the duty of care it owed to the public, including Abosede Elugbaju. NEPA/PHCN claimed that well before the incident, its inspectorate division had carried out an audit of its power infrastructure in the Ketu District and submitted a report on the rectification work that needed to be carried out. NEPA/PHCN tendered the Report in evidence and claimed that the recommended rectification works had been dutifully carried out. NEPA/PHCN, in the alternative, also put up a defence of contributory negligence, contending that not only was the shop of Abosede Elugbaju erected on the drainage, very close to the road and under a power-line, the cable that caused the havoc snapped because the stay-wire that held the pole, on which the cable rested, firmly to the ground, had been vandalized and stolen by residents in the area, a situation, which, allegedly, resulted in the tilt of the pole and consequential clap and severance of the cables.
In order to expose the lies of NEPA/PHCN, the Plaintiff’s Counsel applied to the trial court for a visit to the locus in quo ( the scene of the incident). The Court obliged. When the Court visited the scene, NEPA/PHCN’s misleading defence exploded. As the Court found out, not only was Abosede’s shop far removed from the street drainage (gutter), but also, the stay-wire, the alleged removal of which caused the accident, was yet to be replaced, five years after. Consequently, the Court inferred that it was not the alleged removal of the stay-wire that caused the incident; the Court rejected the defence of NEPA/PHCN and found it liable.
The Court found, on the strength of preponderance of evidence, that the 11 KVA power line that caused Abosede Elugbaju the injury snapped because it was attached to and rested on a rotten or decayed wooden crossbar, to which the attention of NEPA/PHCN had been called by the Community, prior to the accident, to no avail. It was only after the occurrence of the accident that NEPA/PHCN replaced the wooden crossbar with an iron (chalice ) crossbar
Unfortunately, the public approval that greeted the judgment, including editorials in the print media, did not persuade NEPA to see reason. It filed an appeal against the judgment, complaining, mainly, about excessiveness of award of damages. It also filed an application to stay the execution of the judgment.
In his Ruling, dated 1st of April, 2009, Honourable Justice Charles Efanga Archibong refused the application for an Order for a Stay of Execution of the Judgment.
NEPA/PHCN,the Judgment Debtor did not file any appeal against the said ruling refusing the stay of execution of the Judgment. But did not pay the judgment debt either.
Certainly, NEPA/PHCN and its lawyers were not bothered by the firm pronouncement of Justice Archibong in his ruling, deprecating NEPA/PHCN’srefusal to pay the judgment sum. Justice Archibong had held:
manifest health reason, I will not grant stay of execution of this Judgment. I will not speculate on the prospects of the Appeal. But it does appear it will take time to prosecute while the health of the Judgment Creditor continue to deteriorate. Should she die and still win on appeal, that would be an awful irony indeed. Even were the Judgment Debtor/Applicant to win the Appeal, it would be a moral victory which would do them no harm at all while the Judgment awarded and possibly executed will not cripple this Federal Government Agency, which is only putatively a commercial concern. Stay refused”
Having waited for NEPA/PHCN to voluntarily obey the Judgment of Court to no avail, the Chambers applied to the Court on 4th November 2009 praying for an order of Garnishee [Order Nisi] against NEPA/PHCN, the Judgment Debtor and the other Garnishees (First Bank of Nigeria Plc, United Bank of Africa, Plc, Skye Bank Plc, and Zenith Bank Plc), directing them to attach the Judgment Sum in any Bank Accounts NEPA/PHCN might be operating in their Banks in Lagos State.
The Order was granted by the Court on 2nd of December, 2009, and the return date was fixed for January 11, 2010, and subsequently adjourned to 1st February 2010. On that day, the Order Nisi earlier granted was made an Order Absolute. The listed Banks filed affidavits to show cause, disclosing that they had attached and set apart various sums of money in NEPA/PHCN accounts, across Lagos State. The Court then ordered Zenith Bank to issue a manager’s cheque in the judgment sum and deliver it to Abosede Elugbaju, while discharging the other listed banks and de-freezing the various sums they had respectively attached.
The travails of Abosede, the legal action that was filed and prosecuted for eight years to secure justice for her, and the conduct of NEPA/PHCN raise a number of salient issues on the rights of the citizens under the law, the conduct of public institutions and administration of justice.
The first of these issues is the urgent need to rehabilitate power lines all over the Country so that they do not endanger further the lives of our citizens
NEPA/PHCNhas been a major headache to the Nigerian people. Nigeria is facing a very excruciating energy crisis. Lack of electricity has arrested our national growth and development. But when this unacceptable situation is now compounded by the endangerment of lives and property by the decrepit infrastructure of electric power generation, distribution and supply, it becomes clearer that our people are being subjected to double jeopardy. From Lagos to Port-Harcourt, Abuja to Kano, power lines crisscross our urban centres in a very dangerous and unacceptable fashion. Sparking power-bearing cables are common sights to behold in our urban neighbourhoods, while exploding transformers are common occurrences. When this happens, the people in the communities, under the aegis of the landlords-associations and community development associations, are milked by NEPA/PHCN officials to contribute money to buy new transformers, lest they stay in darkness for months. All over the country, this is the ugly experience our people face. In resolving the energy crisis in Nigeria, therefore, government must pay sufficient attention to the electricity distribution networks of NEPA/PHCN, as it does to power generation and transmission. Otherwise, more generated and transmitted electricity will surely result in more sparks, cable severance and explosions in our urban neighbourhoods and homes, leading to avoidable deaths and disasters.
The second issue is the imprudent and prodigal attitude of our public institutions to court litigations
The failure of NEPA/PHCN to resolve administratively the Abosede Elugbaju case before litigation commenced is condemnable. If an acceptable settlement had been reached, litigation and the attendant payment of fees to lawyers from the meegre public purse would not have been necessary. It is too common to see public officials, who are put in position of trust, preferring, owing to ego and selfish interests, to engage in endless and fruitless litigation, at the expense of tax payers, rather than enter into reasonable compromises, when there are glaring cases of abuse or violation of the rights of persons who have indicated their intention to litigate. The beneficiaries are bureaucrats in the legal departments of these public institutions, who connive with external attorneys to fleece the public institutions, in the name of paying very outrageous retainers and legal fees. Only recently, University of Ilorin litigated for nine years and pursued a wrong-headed appeal to the Supreme Court to justify the sack of over fifty university dons, accumulating in the process, backlog of salaries for work not done and occasioning a waste of specialized human capital. It is not a must that public bodies exercise, in civil cases, their so-called constitutional right of appeal to upturn an unfavourable decision.
The new trend in the search for justice underscores a shift from acrimonious litigation to the Alternative Dispute Resolution mode of resolving conflicts. This makes it imperative for public institutions to imbibe the culture of fair administrative resolutions of matters rather than wait for litigation and dare people to go to court. This is the only way to justify the employment of internal legal advisers in legal departments of these institutions
The third issue is the need for law reforms and enforcement to safeguard consumer protection rights.
Twelve years after the return of democratic governance to Nigeria, many of the provisions of our laws are yet to be re-thought. For instance Section 27 of the old NEPA Act, Cap 256 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990 provided that NEPA shall not be responsible for safety of consumers wires or for any damage or loss arising out of use or misuse of consumers wires, fittings, appliances and apparatus. Thus, if there is a power surge from a NEPA/PHCN power-line or transformer resulting in the total wreck of consumers’ electrical appliances, NEPA/PHCN could avoid liability, relying on the inevitable fact that the consumers’ internal wire conveyed the currents resulting in the damage, to the damaged appliances. Provisions like this, which strengthen official arrogance, irresponsiveness, and promote lack of accountability, ought to be deleted from our statute books as we improve on the quality of our democratic process.
The fourth issue is the commendable thirst of the victim, Abosede Elugbaju for justice. This is instructive in a country where seekers of judicial justice are dissuaded from approaching the portals of justice because of delay in the determination of cases
The fifth issue is Abosede’s perseverance. The resilience and courage of Abosede, the litigant, must be praised. It is instructive that in this clime where not too many people want to stand up and fight for the enforcement of their rights when they are faced with such a situation, Abosede weathered the storm and refused to be tempted by the offer of pittances by NEPA/PHCN, even when she was reportedly told that even if she won, the case could last for ten more years on appeal. Our Country is in dire need of people of principle, character, and courage.
The sixth issue is the need for lawyers to embrace more, pro bono work and public interest litigation. Without any attempt to engage in self-adulation, the public spiritedness of Jiti Ogunye Chambers in this matter cannot be over-looked. Handling such a novel case, on a contingency-fee payment arrangement, while using its professional and other resources, without any guarantee that the case would be won not to talk of reaping any recompense, marks the Chambers out as a beacon of selfless commitment to the expansion of the frontiers of the rule of law.
The seventh issue is the court being true to its name as a court of justice. Without the positive disposition of the Court in this matter, justice might have eluded Abosede Elugbaju. The industry, the bent for substantial justice, and the assertiveness of the judicial officers who handled the Abosede Elugbaju’s case ought to be commended. Without this judicial conduct in a justice administration process that is infamous for its technicalities, justice could eluded Abosede Elugbaju. This is one case that has proven that the Judiciary is the last hope of the common woman
Can we close this review without mentioning the roles of Dr. Leke Pitan, the former commissioner for health of the Lagos State Government and the role of the media? No, we cannot.
While NEPA/PHCN andthe Federal Governmentdidnot care a hoot about the welfare of Abosede Elugbaju, the Lagos State Ministry of Health, that was in no way responsible for her condition, came to her aid in 2003 by providing her a three hundred and fifty thousand naira ( =N=350,000.00) prosthetics, being an amputee. It was Abosede’s first.
And the media was wonderful. The broadcast media-Galaxy Television, MITV, and at the tail end, TVC- gave the Abosede Elugbaju’s odyssey a robust coverage. On the part of the print media, Vanguard Newspaper, The Guardian, The Punch, This Day, Tribune, Champion, Sun, Next and others did extensive reports on the Abosede Elugbaju’s case. Indeed, “it took a village” of efforts to secure justice for her.
This article was written in 2011.
Mrs. Abosede Elugbaju died in the early hours of Friday, July 3rd, 2020. May her soul rest in peace, and may her memory inspire more heroic fights against injustice, by the cheated, injured, oppressed, exploited and marginalized.
- Comfort Idika-Ogunye, BA ( Unilorin), LLB ( Unijos), BL, LLM ( Unilag), a certified mediator is a senior lawyer in Jiti Ogunye Chambers.