In 2015 when the present government was seeking power from the electorate, it would have been suicidal to think of a situation whereby the Courts in Nigeria would be locked up indefinitely, for reason only that the executive arm of government is unwilling to respect the democratic concept of separation of powers, or to uphold the provisions of the Constitution which they swore to protect. We are now fully in the second month of the strike action embarked upon by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria, JUSUN, since April 6, 2021. When the courts are not functioning in a supposed democracy, what that translates into is simply that there will be no justice at all. It then means that all along, the country has been running upon the wheels of impunity, injustice, autocracy and general disorder. We have only been forcing those in authority to tag along by only rehearsing jingles of judicial power, whereas in point of fact, effective and efficient justice has not been the focus of governance. For good cause, the covenant of the ruling All Progressive Congress, APC, as expressed in its Manifesto for the 2015 general elections that brought it into power, is to achieve devolution of powers that will lead to fiscal federalism, and ultimately, independence for the judiciary, financially and statutorily. This has not happened however.
In the course of the week, Governors of the Southern States of Nigeria met and reeled out a number of resolutions, one of which is a national conference that will eventually lead to restructuring. This indeed, is the essence of the JUSUN strike action, whereby it is demanded that the judiciary should be freed to control its own vote from the federation account. In this concluding part of the paper presented at the Webinar of the Gwagwalada Branch of the NBA, I looked into other areas of judicial financial autonomy and then proffered solutions.
Infrastructure deficit as a clog
At the ceremony to mark the new legal year of the Federal High Court, the Chief Judge, the Honourable Justice John Tsoho, cried out aloud that the court had become overburdened with too many cases, such that judges could no longer cope. He said the volume of political cases filed in the Abuja division of the court alone is hindering effective dispensation of justice. Before now, we have always advocated for some drastic measures to address the problems of the courts. The case of the Federal High Court is particularly pathetic, especially the Lagos division of the court. You get to court and cannot find a single seat, not even space to stand. So, lawyers are crowded outside the courtrooms, struggling and peeping to know when their cases will be called. Litigants are forced to stay outside, not able to follow the proceedings of the court in a case which they filed and paid heavily for. In some of the courts, the distance between the presiding officer and the witness box is so close that at times you fear for the judge, when it is realized that some frustrated accused person or litigant can actually leap across the divide and take hold of the judge. It is that bad. And I cannot even mention the issue of parking space or public conveniences in the courts. And yet we expect robust legal submissions and the very best of judgments from the cage that the courts have become.
The consequences of lack of judicial financial autonomy
During the ceremony to mark the new legal year of the Supreme Court on September 23, 2019, the CJN spoke the minds of judges across the land. He stated categorically that the judiciary was under siege, particularly from the executive arm of government. Let us hear him.
“Be that as it may, when we assess the judiciary from the financial perspective, how free can we say we are? The annual budget of the Judiciary is still a far cry from what it ought to be. The figure is either stagnated for a long period or it goes on a progressive decline. The only thing I can do at this juncture is to plead with all concerned to let us enjoy our independence holistically. If you say that I am independent, but in a way, whether I like it or not, I have to go cap in hand, asking for funds to run my office, then I have completely lost my independence. It is like saying a cow is free to graze about in the meadow but at the same time, tying it firmly to a tree. Where is the freedom?”
That is the one-million-dollar question indeed: where is the freedom? Judicial independence in Nigeria is still a myth, the governors of the States still lord it over their judicial officers, various political office holders still carry on as if they own some judges and even traditional rulers go around boasting about their influences on judicial officers and the courts generally. The effect of this on our justice delivery system is very debilitating indeed, as when the neutrality of the court cannot be ascertained or guaranteed, then there is no need approaching that temple for any form of remedy. Like I say always, the organ of government that is muzzling the courts is the executive arm, whose actions and decisions are most often the subject matter of various court cases. There has to be a consciousness on the part of the executive to allow judges to function according to the dictates of their conscience and the appropriate statutes. If we ever get to the stage where the people have totally lost confidence in the judiciary, then we should all be ready to live in the Hobbesian state of anarchy, where life will become brutish and short. Let us listen to the CJN once more.
“The gross underfunding and neglect of the judiciary over the years have impacted negatively on the infrastructure and personnel within the system. It is to a large extent, affecting productivity, increasing frustration and deflating morale. That is certainly not a good omen at this stage of our nationhood. The Constitution provides for separation of powers and independence of the three arms of government. I am using this medium to appeal to governments at all levels to free the judiciary from the financial bondage it has been subjected to over the years. Let it not just be said to be independent but should, in words and actions, be seen to be truly independent. There should not be any strings attached. We would not like to negotiate our financial independence under any guise. Even as I speak now, some States Judiciaries are still having issues with their respective governments. A stitch in time will certainly save nine. Let the judiciary take its destiny in its hands.”
It is common knowledge that every Chief Judge who is unable to dance to the tunes dictated by his governor, will soon find his way out of office. Indeed, that is the general trend across the land, wherein the executive has successfully pocketed the judiciary in the States, in order to perpetuate their reign of terror, mis-governance and impunity, without any challenge. But why must this be so? Did we vote people into office to become civilian dictators? If the judge who is to adjudicate on a major dispute between a citizen and his governor has to go cap in hand to negotiate his financial survival from the same governor who is a party before him, what then is the fate of the hapless citizen?
Judicial financial autonomy and national stability
Right from the period of independence till now, the courts have been the stabilizing force of unity and survival of the nation. No one has ever been so drunk with power to dissolve the court system, even in the dark days of the military. And yet, we now have those who claim to be democrats breathing down upon the most vital arm of government. We cannot and must not allow it. We should all rise up to rescue the judges from the captivity of the executive arm of government. It is now time for Benchers, Senior Advocates, NBA officers and all other stakeholders to take over the cry of the judges, before it gets out of hand. Judges being unofficial members of the Bar Association, it is our duty to speak out for and protect them in times like this.
The way forward
There are said to be several dialogue sessions being undertaken by different authorities, all aimed at ending the JUSUN strike action, but not much disclosure has been made about the content and outcome of these talks.
- NBA, in conjunction with the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, BOSAN, should take the lead in partnering with JUSUN to get the governors to a round table, to extract a written commitment for judicial financial autonomy.
- The various judgments delivered by the Courts on this issue should be the basis of negotiation, by virtue of section 287 (3) of the Constitution.
- Beyond JUSUN strike, NBA should have a Committee to audit the state of the judiciary, comprising the NBA Branches of the States for that of State Courts and a selected Committee for the federal courts.
- Government should declare a state of emergency in the judicial sector, in order to undertake comprehensive reforms thereof.
- Judges should take up the battle for judicial autonomy through their various spheres of influences, as some have spouses and connections within the Presidency, State Houses, National Assembly, etc. They shouldn’t leave the battle for lawyers and JUSUN.
- Regular media engagements by the NBA to sensitize members and indeed the nation, on the strike action and what has been achieved so far.
- NBA National and indeed the branches should liaise with JUSUN leadership to offer legal services to checkmate likely witch-hunting and victimization of JUSUN members by the various State governments.
Everywhere seems choked up, from the Correctional Centres to the police stations and even the barracks, as suspects cannot get justice from Courts that are presently locked up. We should not allow this to fester, moreso that the governors are demanding restructuring. That fundamental agenda should begin from the doorsteps of their Excellencies, as charity is best pursued, when it starts at home.