By Dr. Muiz Banire SAN
Permit me to commence this discussion with a congratulatory message to the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, the Honourable Justice Olukayode Ariwooola. My Lord, I must wish Your Lordship well as this heavy burden of leadership descends on Your Lordship. Kindly pardon me for, rather than setting out an agenda for Your Lordship, engaging in a postmortem or autopsy of the events leading to Your Lordship’s emergence as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria. A few days ago, precisely, on Monday, the 27th day of June, 2022, Nigerians woke up to the news of the resignation of the then Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), the Honourable Chief Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad.
Prior to this sudden development, there had been devastating news around the state of affairs in the apex court, purportedly triggered by the internal memorandum written by the other 14 Justices of the court and personally delivered to the then CJN, complaining about certain irregularities and improprieties in the affairs of the court. The said internal memorandum, as it implied, was not meant to be in the public domain as it was meant to be a confidential document between the then head of the apex court and the other Justices of the court. Mischievously, however, the internal memorandum was leaked to the public, allegedly by the handlers of the then CJN. The essence of the leakage would appear to me, as could be gathered from the content of the press release by the spokesman for the then CJN, to be essentially targeted at castigating and chastising the other Justices for expressing concerns about the deplorable state of affairs in the apex court. Certainly, the content of the internal memorandum went beyond the issues of welfare, which is not a crime, to the root of the administration of justice in the court. For instance, part of the allegations or complaints, so to speak, was that the reviewed rules of court meant to enhance the administration and delivery of justice were not signed by the immediate past CJN.
As for me, it has taken too long for the Justices to speak out, as the structure has almost collapsed. Thank God for eventual wisdom. My digest of the leaked memorandum was not in any way a castigation of the then Chief Justice per se, except for some snippets of indiscretion allegedly wrongly exhibited by His Lordship but essentially about the degeneration of affairs in the apex court. Thus, let the internal memorandum not be misconstrued as a petition, so to say, against the then CJN. Anyway, you can’t be petitioning the defendant to your petition and expect him to equally be the arbiter. This implies, therefore, that what the internal memorandum set out for, and sought to do, was to seek remediation of the lapses in the system, administrative and financial. At best, the memorandum should be seen as complaints against the dereliction of duty by the then head of the apex court.
This clarification is necessary against the background of several misleading write-ups I have read on the subject suggesting unreservedly that the internal memorandum was laced with acrimony and purely aggressive against the immediate past CJN. Far from it. The importance of this clarification lies in the various statements I have read from various quarters stating the need for, and commencement of probe into the allegations of the other Justices against the immediate past CJN. For those clamouring for such probe, if I may ask, where were these entities and individuals before? Are they pretending not to know or be aware of most of the issues raised in the internal memorandum prior to the release of the internal memorandum, particularly the National Assembly? Where was the National Assembly in the last 14 years that judicial officers have been suffering, particularly in terms of their renumeration? Which positive steps has the National Assembly taken?
Is it not even when court action is now being taken to remedy the situation that the National Assembly is out again to frustrate the improvement of the welfare of the judges? What kind of oversight function do the members of the National Assembly want to carry out through the probe other than to further exploit the system? I know, as a matter of fact, that the best the National Assembly can claim to be interested in is the probe of the expenses of the apex court. Where was the National Assembly before now in the yearly appropriation to the judiciary? Have the legislators not been checking the books? Have the legislators not been carrying out routine oversight on this institution? Is the National Assembly just becoming aware of the aberrations? Please, come off it and embark on other productive activities. There are myriads of challenges the judiciary is plagued with.
How many of those has the National Assembly addressed successfully? Practically none. The infrastructures of all the courts are down, the remunerations of judges and judicial staff are nothing to write home about. The last review of salaries of judges was carried out 14 whole years ago. But for the various sponsored capacity development training by other agencies, which intervention have the legislators made in this regard? How many of the uncompleted structures have they ensured completion? Federal High Court, Lagos, is a good example of a structure under construction for over a decade and still counting. I am aware that calls have been out for the monitoring of expenditure of the judiciary from several quarters, including but not limited to the Attorney-General of the Federation and some judicial officers, the most recent being that of the Honourable Justice Ejembi Eko (rtd.) during His Lordship’s valedictory speech. The National Assembly has been blind to all these calls for reasons best known to the legislators, but certainly not in order to protect public interest.
Having served in the National Judicial Council (NJC) for four years, I can attest to the fact that the subvention to the judiciary is still a far cry from the ideal. This is not to suggest that there are no wastages or leakages in the system. Even with any eventual blockage of such leakages, the allocation will still be a far cry from what is required to give us a dignified and efficient judiciary. The judiciary continues to be treated as an agency of the executive, not so different from an agency or parastatal, whereas the Constitution recognizes it as an arm of government. I think it is crucial, going forward, that the three arms of government always meet before and during the preparation of budget in line with the principles of separation of powers and allocation of resources. A situation where the executive dictates resources to the judiciary merely subordinates the institution to the whims and caprices of the executive.
The National Assembly, being the ultimate appropriation agency, knows how best to fend for itself. “Ti won ba fun were loko, a ro’ko si odo ara re,” is the Yoruba adage. It is certain that even a lunatic, once given the opportunity, would fend for his own interest first. “Tani o m’ogbon ki a fi eran s’enu, k’a wa ti?” Who is stupid enough not to know the mischief of a glutton? Only God will judge the National Assembly and the executive in this regard. Beyond dangling this power of allocation to torture and pressure the judiciary, the overbearing nature of the legislature and the executive is now being felt across all the operations of the judiciary, be it in judgments, appointments and elevations. Except one wants to pretend now, appointment and elevation of judges are largely becoming political processes in the hands of the executive and the legislature. Let us, therefore, not complain about the state of the limping judiciary, which is one of the institutions in the country on the verge of destruction by politicians.
There is hardly anything remaining. As Fela put it, E don finish. All institutions have collapsed. That explains the incessant agitations all over the different sectors. It is a validation of the Yoruba adage, “Egbinrin ote, bi ase n pa’kan, ni ikan n ru.” It is a case of a hydra-headed monster that rejuvenates upon every decapitation.
Now, returning to the issue of resignation of the then CJN. Arising from the internal memo is the allegation of nonchalant attitude of Justice Tanko Muhammad towards the needs of the other justices. Let me state that this neglect is not peculiar to the apex court. It is a disease affecting largely most of the courts at all levels. It seems to me that the heads of courts, probably due to some measure of comfort enjoyed by them upon ascendancy to those positions, often forget their root as an ordinary judicial officer.