Appeal Court President, Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem, in a rare public outburst recently, called on the federal government to review upward the salaries of judicial officers. This may not be the first time a principal judicial officer is bringing attention to bear on the seeming neglect of this all-important government functionaries, but it revealed the sad truth that salaries of judicial officers had been stagnant for the past 10 years. Even more importantly, it underscores the need to address the challenges hampering the effective performance of the judiciary as a whole.
According to her, the Chief Justice of Nigeria earns a net pay of N279, 497 monthly, while other justices on the Supreme Court bench earn N206, 425 monthly. “As President of Court of Appeal, I receive N206, 425, while other justices on the bench of the Court of Appeal go home with N166, 285 every month. I implore the government of the federation and states to urgently review the salaries and allowances of judicial officers and staff.”
Coming from the president of the second highest court in the land, the authenticity of this information cannot be questioned and that is why this newspaper considers the situation very appalling. Even more so when it is considered that judicial officers in Nigeria, with a salary structure that ranks poorest when compared to that of their counterparts in other African and Commonwealth countries, are so overworked to the point of drudgery.
The issue of abject remuneration of the judicial officers, members of the third arm of government, becomes more heart-rending when placed side by side with those of the executive and legislature. The request by the appellate court president is coming on the heels of similar requests by different stakeholders for an improved funding of the judiciary, an organ of government that is being arm- twisted through deliberate under-funding.
A careful analysis of the federal government’s budgetary allocation to the judiciary in the last four years, for instance, shows clearly that the much talked-about determination to have a functional judiciary is a ruse after all.
From 2018 to date, the budget of the judiciary has remained a constant with the sector receiving a paltry N110 billion annually as its allocation. It received the same amount in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 while the budgets for the executive and legislative arms have been increasing exponentially within the same period.
We find it hard to explain the rationale behind government’s failure or delay in reviewing judges’ salaries and or pensions even as it fails to adequately appropriate funds for this critical sector. Like most Nigerians, this newspaper is tempted to conclude that the poor salaries of the judges and other judicial officers is part of the overall plan to deprive the judiciary the much-deserved financial autonomy.
If that is the case, it will, in our considered opinion, have a devastating effect on democracy if left unchecked because any nation that puts the judiciary at the short end of the stick should be ready for the implication.
It is a given that the Nigerian judiciary is desirous of reforms. Nigerians need a judiciary that can reposition the administration of justice system and act independently, courageously and timeously.
However, this cannot be achieved under an atmosphere of under-funding as exemplified by poor judges’ salaries and low budgetary allocation. For so long as this worrisome trend continues, for so long will the dream of having an independent judiciary that is insulated from corruption be a mirage.
For an administration that vowed to confront corruption headlong, there is the need to remind the government that anti-graft war cannot be executed without the strong support of a truly independent judiciary.
We recall that in apparent disregard for the provision of the 1999 constitution as amended, some state governors refused to grant autonomy to the judiciary even in the face of a subsisting court order and industrial action by the Judicial Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN).
Although some states have grudgingly acceded to the demand for the financial autonomy, poor pay for judges as an issue, if not quickly addressed, will make a mess of the so- called financial autonomy. Fundamentally, in our view, the roles performed by judges are of utmost importance and hence the least the government can do is to accord topmost priority to their welfare.
Nigerians will continue to be denied access to justice for so long as judges are underpaid and the judiciary is deliberately starved of urgently needed funds. There is, therefore, a pressing need for the Revenue Mobilization, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) to ensure upward review of the remuneration, allowance and conditions of service for Nigerian judges. It is a matter that will please the court.