The recent unprecedented confrontation between the Supreme Court justices and the Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, over their poor conditions of service, could further tarnish the image of the third arm of government, if it is not carefully resolved, writes Alex Enumah.
All is not well in the justice system where the judges of the country’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Nigeria, are currently at loggerheads with the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, for poor service conditions. In a letter reportedly addressed to the CJN, magistrates who are concerned that their budget allocations have not been increased over the past four years, complained that poor social protection prevented them from fulfilling their their functions.
The aggrieved court officers said that while the relevant federal government agencies responsible for reviewing their salaries and allowances upwards kept them at the same salary for 14 years, the Supreme Court of Nigeria, under the direction of Justice Muhammad, aggravated their situation by depriving them of the social lump sum to which they are entitled, even when the lump sum has been captured by the court’s budgetary allocation.
The judges maintain that the work they do is very serious, sensitive and also requires that the competent authorities take good care of them. They said that unfortunately, they are currently being hampered by internal and external forces to such an extent that it is becoming virtually impossible for them to perform their sensitive duties to the nation.
The issues raised by the judges in their protest letter are the non-replacement of dilapidated vehicles; housing issues; lack of medicine at the Supreme Court clinic; supply of epileptic electricity to the Supreme Court; increase in electricity tariffs; no increase in quotas for diesel; and the lack of Internet services in residences and rooms.
Others are internal issues, including the failure to sign the Amended Rules of Court for almost three years; sudden cessation of two to three foreign workshops and training per year for magistrates; and no provision of qualified paralegals.
The Supreme Court has been receiving N110 billion a year since 2018 despite increasing in size and responsibilities. It was learned that its annual budget was not always regularly funded, resulting in the non-provision of essential services for judges.
For some time now, there have been laments and anger over the low salaries paid to Nigerian judges in the form of monthly fees.
Indeed, the salaries and allowances of judicial officers, judges and magistrates were last revised in 2008 by an Act of Parliament. At that time, the exchange rate of the naira against the US dollar was 117 naira against the current 600 naira, which depreciated their rights.
While civil servants in other branches of government such as the executive and the legislature earn huge and exceptional salaries, allowances and benefits, court judges are paid peanuts.
Sometimes, when these judges retire, their benefits and other entitlements go unpaid, giving those in service cause to worry about their future. This, according to many, makes many of them compromised or vulnerable to corruption in the process of judging and dispensing justice.
The judiciary is the guardian and protector of fundamental human rights as well as the arbiter of disputes between all levels of government. This is why many believe that the third arm of government, which is very important, should be independent in order to be free to exercise its functions without fear or favor. This is the main purpose of the separation of powers – to allow the three branches of government to be functionally independent of each other. But despite the constitutional provision, the judiciary still depends on the executive for its funding.
Recently, Justice Muhammad had lamented that although the Constitution provides for the separation of powers and the independence of the three branches of government, he continued to go head-in-hand begging for funds to run the judiciary, a situation , he said, had a negative impact on the administration of justice in the country. He said it was time for justice to take its destiny into its own hands, insisting that “you have to borrow a leaf from other climates where things are done well so as not to repeat the same mistake and hope to make progress in our administration of justice.
Also at the 2021 All Nigerian Judges Conference in Abuja, Justice Muhammad had shouted that it would be difficult for the judiciary to be impartial and objective in a democracy when it is not self-governing. He lamented that the third arm of government remains financially tied to the executive and called for more funding for the judiciary.
“Financial independence is not only desirable; enabling the judiciary to effectively discharge its mandates is crucial, vital, constitutional and imperative. The importance of this role is evident in the provision of Section 6 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which confers broad constitutional powers on the judiciary. Likewise, it imposes on judges the responsibility to exercise judicial powers fairly, justly, judiciously and impartially.
“Without appearing to contradict myself, I yield to the fact that it can be difficult for justice to be impartial and objective in a democracy where it remains financially linked to the executive. It is well established that the foundation of impartiality is independence.
Even though the CJN commended President Muhammadu Buhari for granting financial autonomy to the judiciary, he said he was saddened that only a few states have implemented the agreement on funding state judiciaries.
“The majority of heads of courts still go head in hand to governors to beg what is constitutionally due to them. As such, I urge Governors to emulate the Federal Government in ensuring that Section 121(3) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) is fully respected and implemented.
“I also advise governors to remember that the judiciary can only be considered independent if it can adequately meet its needs without kowtowing to them for funds.”
Worried about the stagnation of salaries and allowances of judicial officers, an outgoing judge of the Supreme Court, Judge Ejembi Eko, during a farewell session held recently in his honor, challenged the National Council of the Judiciary (CNJ ), the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), and the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) to “synergize and introspect and tell the world why the dropout since 2007” by paying them their enhanced entitlements.
Justice Eko said that there had been several calls for a review of magistrates’ salaries and nothing had been done to address them and that the fate of retired magistrates from various states of the High Court, the Sharia Court of Appeal and Customary Court of Appeal was embarrassing. to justice.
He added that the constitution provides that the magistrates of the superior courts of law receive such salaries and allowances as may be prescribed by the National Assembly, “but not exceeding the amount which shall be determined by the RMAFC”.
It is in this context that a constitutional lawyer, Chief Sebastien Hon (SAN), recently dragged the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), the National Judicial Council (CNJ), the National Assembly and the RMAFC before the National Labor Court to challenge them. on the low salaries of judicial officers in the country.
Hon, in his lawsuit, begs the court to compel the defendants, alongside the RMAFC, to increase the salaries and allowances of the country’s judges.
In an affidavit in support of the original subpoena, the lead attorney, who testified in his capacity as a relevant lawyer in Nigeria, said that as a lawyer, “who has practiced at all levels of courts in Nigeria, I know that the low remuneration of bailiffs severely affects the quality of judgments and decisions that these officers render and the performance of other duties associated with their duties.
The Complainant argued that the current economic reality in the country demands that judges’ salaries and allowances be increased urgently. He noted that the highest paid judicial officer in the country – the CJN – currently earns about 3.4 million naira a year, well below what their counterparts in other countries earn.
Hon noted that it has been around 14 years now since judges’ salaries and allowances were last revised upwards in 2008, despite the naira losing value against other global currencies such as the US dollar, British pound and European Union (EU) Euro, etc.
“In November 2008, when the amended law was in force, the exchange rate between the naira and the US dollar was 117.74 naira for 1 dollar. The naira has lost its value considerably over time; but bailiffs in Nigeria have been placed on the same pay scale for 12 years i.e. since 2008. Even foreigners who have been hired from time to time to coach Nigeria national football teams earn more than bailiffs Nigerian justice system,” he said.
Speaking at the public launch of Nigeria’s first law book on construction law last week, former CJN Justice Walter Onnoghen warned that unless Nigeria’s Supreme Court is funded from adequately, the Supreme Court may soon, at best, become a glorified High Court. . He lamented that Supreme Court justices have been suffering in silence since 2008, when their salaries and emoluments were last reviewed by the government.
Onnoghen revealed that some Supreme Court justices are still living in rented accommodation in unsuitable neighborhoods in Abuja.
Besides the problem of poor accommodation, the former CJN explained that the chambers of the Supreme Court justices were not suited to their status and called for the court to be properly funded to allow the justices to function optimally in a conducive atmosphere.
He recalled that when he was in office as CJN, he led a team including the Attorney General of the Federation as well as the Solicitor General of the Federation who prepared a new welfare plan by order of the federal government and lamented that since its release, the Welfare Scheme report that would have improved the condition of service for judges had been jettisoned.
He therefore pleaded for the funding of the judiciary to be immediately reviewed with a view to improving it due to the essential role of the judiciary in nation building.
“The judiciary is not Nigeria’s problem, but bad leadership. We need to rethink issues affecting the judiciary, because without a strong legal profession, we cannot speak of the rule of law,” he said.