The recent unprecedented confrontation between justices of the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad over their poor conditions of service could further dent the image of the all-important third arm of government if not carefully resolved, Alex Enumah writes
All is not well in the judiciary where the justices of the highest court in the country, the Supreme Court of Nigeria, are currently at loggerhead with the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice lbrahim Tanko Muhammad, over poor conditions of service. In a letter said to have been addressed to the CJN, the justices who are worried that their budgetary allocations have not been increased in the last four years, complained that poor welfare was hindering their the discharge of their jobs.
The aggrieved judicial officers said that while the relevant federal government agencies saddled with the responsibility of reviewing their salaries and allowances upward have kept them on the same salary for 14 years, the Supreme Court of Nigeria, under the leadership of Justice Muhammad, has worsened their situation by denying them the welfare package they are entitled to, even when the package was captured by the court’s budgetary allocation.
The justices are contending thar the work they do is very serious, sensitive, and also require the appropriate authorities to take good care of them. They said unfortunately, they were currently hampered by both internal and external forces to a point that it was becoming practically impossible for them to discharge their sensitive duties to the nation.
The issues raised by the justices in their protest letter are non-replacement of dilapidated vehicles; accommodation problems; lack of drugs at the Supreme Court clinic; epileptic electricity supply to the Supreme Court; increase in electricity tariffs; no increase in the allowances for diesel; and lack of internet services in residences and chambers.
Others are internal problems, including non-signing of amended Rules of Court for almost three years; sudden stoppage of two to three foreign workshops and training per annum for Justices; and no provision of qualified legal assistants.
The apex court has been receiving N110 billion yearly since 2018 despite the increase in its size and responsibilities. It was learnt that its annual budget was not always regularly cash-backed leading to non-provision of essential services for the justices.
For some time now, there have been lamentations and anger over the poor remuneration packages given to Nigerian judges and justices as monthly entitlements.
Indeed, salaries and allowances of judicial officers, judges and justices were last reviewed in 2008 through an Act of Parliament. At that time, the exchange rate of naira to a US dollar was N117 as against the current N600, and this has depreciated their entitlements.
While officials of other arms of government such as the executive and legislature earn humongous and bumper salaries, allowances and benefits, the judges of courts are paid peanuts.
Sometimes, when these judges retire from service, their benefits and other entitlements are not paid, thereby giving those in service cause to worry over their future. This, many believe, makes many of them compromise or be vulnerable to corruption in the process of adjudication and dispensation of justice.
The judiciary is the guardian and protector of fundamental human rights as well as the arbiter of disputes among all levels of government. This is why many feel that the all-important third arm of government ought to be independent to be free to perform its functions without fear or favour. This is the primary goal of separation of powers — to enable the three arms of government to be functionally independent of each other. But despite the constitutional provision, the judiciary is still dependent on the executive for its funding.
Recently, Justice Muhammad had lamented that although the Constitution provides for the separation of powers and independence of the three arms of government, he has continued to go cap – in -hand to beg for funds to run the judiciary, a situation, he said, has impacted negatively on the administration of justice in the country. He said it was time for the judiciary to take its destiny in its hand, insisting that “we need to borrow a leaf from other climes where things are done rightly so that we don’t keep repeating the same mistake and expect to make progress in our administration of justice.”
Also at the 2021 All Nigeria Judges’ Conference in Abuja, Justice Muhammad had cried out that it would be difficult for the judiciary to be impartial and objective in a democracy when it is not autonomous. 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 just desirable; it is crucial, vital, constitutional and imperative to allow the judiciary to effectively discharge its mandates. The importance of that role is evident in the provision of Section 6 of the 1999 Constitution, (as amended), which vests wide constitutional powers on the judiciary. It similarly thrusts on judges the responsibility to fairly, justly, judiciously and impartially exercise judicial powers.
“Without appearing to contradict me, I yield to the fact that it may be difficult for the judiciary to be impartial and objective in a democracy where it remains financially tied to the executive. It is trite 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 by the fact that only a few states have implemented the agreement relating to the funding of state judiciaries.
“Majority of the Heads of Courts still go cap- in- hand to the governors to beg for what is constitutionally due to them. As such, I urge the governors to emulate the federal government by ensuring that Section 121 (3) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) is fully adhered to and implemented.
“I also counsel the governors to remember that the judiciary cannot be regarded as being independent unless it can adequately meet its needs without kowtowing to them for funds.”
Worried by the stagnation in the salaries and allowances of judicial officers, a retiring Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Ejembi Eko, at a valedictory session held in his honour recently, called on the National Judicial Council (NJC), the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) and the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) to “synergise and introspect and tell the world why the dereliction since 2007” by paying them their improved entitlements.
Justice Eko said there have been several calls for the review of salaries of judicial officers and nothing has been done to remedy it and that the plight of retired judicial officers from various state High Court, Sharia Court of Appeal and Customary Court of Appeal is an embarrassment to the judiciary.
He added that the constitution provides that judicial officers of the superior courts of law shall be paid salaries and allowances as may be prescribed by the National Assembly, “but not exceeding the amount as shall have been determined by the RMAFC.”
It is against this background that a constitutional lawyer, Chief Sebastien Hon (SAN), recently dragged the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), National Judicial Council (NJC), National Assembly and the RMAFC before the National Industrial Court to challenge them over the poor salaries of judicial officers in the country.
Hon, in his suit, is praying the court to compel the defendants, alongside the RMAFC to increase the salaries and allowances of judges in the country.
In a supporting affidavit to the originating summons, the senior lawyer, who filed in his capacity as a concerned legal practitioner in Nigeria, stated that, as a legal practitioner, “who has practised in all the levels of courts in Nigeria, I know that poor pay for judicial officers is seriously affecting the quality of judgments and rulings those officers are delivering and the discharge of other functions associated with their offices.”
The plaintiff argued that the current economic reality in the country requires that the salaries and allowances of judges be urgently reviewed upwards. He noted that the highest-paid judicial officer in the country – the CJN – currently earns about N3.4 million per annum, far below what is earned by his counterparts in other countries.
Hon noted that it is about 14 years now since the salaries and allowances of judges were last reviewed upward in 2008 despite the loss of value of the naira vis-à-vis other global currencies like the US dollars, and the British pound sterling and the European Union (EU) euro, etc.
“As of November 2008 when the amended Act was in force, the exchange rate between the naira and the US dollar was N117.74 to $1. The naira has considerably lost its value over time; but judicial officers in Nigeria have been placed on the same salary scale for up to 12 years, namely since 2008. Even foreigners who have been hired from time to time to coach Nigeria’s national football teams earn higher than Nigeria’s judicial officers,” he said.
Speaking at the public presentation of Nigeria’s first law book on Construction Law last week, the immediate past CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, warned that unless the Supreme Court of Nigeria is adequately funded, the apex Court may soon at best ends up a glorified High Court. He lamented that Justices of the apex court are suffering in silence since 2008 when their salaries and emoluments were last reviewed by government.
Onnoghen revealed that some justices of the apex court still live in rented accommodations in unsuitable areas in Abuja.
Besides poor residential accommodation issue, the former CJN explained that chambers of the Supreme Court Justices are unbefitting of their status and appealed that the court be properly funded to enable the justices perform optimally in conducive atmosphere.
He recalled that while in office as CJN, he headed a team comprising Attorney General of the Federation as well as Solicitor General of the Federation which prepared a new welfare scheme on the order of the federal government and lamented that since his exit, the Welfare Scheme Report which would have enhanced the condition of service of the justices had been jettisoned.
He, therefore, pleaded that funding of judiciary should be immediately looked into with a view to improving on it because of the critical role of the judiciary in nation building.
“The judiciary is not Nigeria’s problem but bad leadership. There must be a rethink on issues affecting judiciary, because without a strong legal profession, you cannot talk of the rule of law,” he said.