Financial autonomy will aid judicial independence
For the past two weeks, judicial workers across the country have been on strike to protest the lack of financial autonomy for the critical arm of government. At a period when anarchy is almost set upon the land by the activities of criminal gangs, it bodes ill that the court system is also out of reach for the common man.
The issues in this controversy are clear. The 1999 constitution (as amended) grants financial autonomy to the federal and state judiciaries. To compel compliance by governors, a former Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) president, Olisa Agbakoba, SAN and the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) filed separate actions in courts. The refusal by the governors to comply with the various judgments affirming financial autonomy to state judiciaries has further proved that even if a country has the best constitution in the world, its efficacy will still depend largely on those whose duty is it to implement its provisions.
Last year, President Muhammadu Buhari – who is not a model when it comes to obeying court judgements–affirmed the decisions of the courts by issuing Executive Order 10 of 2020, in exercise of his powers under Section 5 of the Constitution. But apparently irked by this presidential intervention, the governors have largely ignored the executive order which they consider non-binding. That is what has led to the strike by judicial workers.
In Nigeria, the principle of separation of powers has to an extent been effective at the federal level. But the reverse has been the case in the 36 states. Hadly does any state government lose a case they institute or instituted against them in the various high courts. It is believed that a major cause of this is lack of financial autonomy. If judges have no reason to draw their funds from the state governments, they can then begin to uphold the dictates of their conscience by dispensing justice without fear or favour.
However, judges themselves are partly to blame for the manner in which they are treated by the governors. In September 2020, Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu presented 51 Sports Utility Vehicles (SUV) and eight houses to judges in Lagos State. At about the same period, Governor Nyesom Wike also bought SUVs for judges in Rivers State. Recently, Governor Aminu Tambuwal bought SUVs for judges in Sokoto State. Both Wike and Tambuwal are lawyers. It is the same in practically all the states where governors treat the judicial arm almost the same way they treat their legislature.
Rather than allow judges to decide for themselves and budget for the vehicles, governors now buy vehicles for them. Yet by accepting ‘gifts’ from governors, even when these vehicles were purchased with public money, the judges have unwittingly compromised their offices and made themselves very vulnerable. It will be difficult for a judge to rule against a major benefactor.
Addressing the issue when he was Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed said: “It is now clear that, in the interests of the administration of justice, our learned colleagues, the Attorneys-General, should have impartially counselled their principals on the need to adhere strictly to the judgment of the Court.” The then CJN went further to highlight options for the governors and we share his position: “Indeed there were two choices left to the Attorneys General – either to file an appeal against the judgment, or to render an opinion to the state governors requesting that they obey the order of the court as stipulated by the constitution. The Law is not a pick and mix bag.”