By Ahuraka Yusuf Isah |
In the speech he delivered at the 2015 All Nigeria Judges Conference, President Muhammadu Buhari urged the Judiciary leadership to carry out various reforms to position and portray the administration of justice system as humane and efficient, adding that, ‘’the Judiciary must go the extra mile to sanitize itself and improve its capacity to act independently, courageously and timeously’’.
‘’This administration is committed to the financial independence of the Nigerian judiciary in accordance with extant laws. We believe that the judiciary must be treated fairly and must be treated in much the same way as the executive and the legislature’’, President Buhari concluded.
On February 1, 2016 at far away in Addis-Ababa town hall meeting he held with some Nigerians living in Ethopia, President Buhari said as far his administration’s ongoing anti-corruption fight was concerned, the nation’s judiciary remained his major headache.
He said the fight against corruption in Nigeria could only be effectively tackled with the strong support of the judiciary. Again, he promised far-reaching reforms of the judiciary as a key priority for his administration
While also speaking on November 25, 2019 in Abuja at the opening ceremony of the 2019 biennial All Nigeria Judges Conference of Superior Courts, President Buhari demanded for ‘urgent’ judicial reform, seeks efficient ‘Special Crimes Courts’.
The president said he was not unaware of the challenges facing the judiciary, over which he has had discussions with the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad.
“The government has been committed to a number of justice sector reforms such as review of extant laws and enactment of new laws that will improve the lives of Nigerians.
“Additionally, we have worked closely with the Chief Justice of Nigeria to ensure that judicial budgetary allocations are enhanced in view of the needs of the judiciary. I have strongly supported the increase in number of judges at High Courts, Appeal Courts and the Supreme Court in order to reduce the burden of the work placed on judicial officers. I will continue to do so,” he said.
Let us take a cursory glance on how this lofty judiciary reform mantra have been marched with actions and inactions. Despite the outcry in the Judiciary over the declining budget share for the judiciary, Buhari’s first Appropriation Act was to reduce previous figure he met by allocating N70 billion budget for the entire nation’s Judiciary in the 2016 fiscal year. This is N3billion lower than the 73 billion appropriated for the Judiciary in 2015.
Indeed, the previous Appropriation Acts have shown that funding from the Federal Government has witnessed a steady decline since 2010, from N95 billion in that year to N85 billion in 2011, then N75 billion in 2012 and again in the 2013 budget to N67billion. In 2014 and 2015, former President Goodluck Jonathan, through his administration’s window budgeting principle threw N68 billion and N73 billion respectively to the Judiciary.
While President Buhari had allocated N100 billion in the budget estimates he submitted to the National Assembly for 2018 Appropriation Act, the federal legislature in its wisdom increased it to N110 billion, because it is the same N100 billion that was appropriated for the 2017 fiscal. Interestingly, the judiciary budgets for the 2019, 2020 and the current proposal for the 2021 fiscal years have remained at N110 billion.
Despite the autonomy, judiciary’s yearly appropriations are hardly released as when due. The sector remained swinging between the Federal Ministry of Finance for budget releases and cash backings.
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The proposed N110 billion budget for the Judiciary in 2021 (out of the N13.08 trillion total proposals) is 0.84%. In other words, the percentage figures of the nation’s budgeted shares to the Judiciary is less than one percent of the total. Little wonder that the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed had raised alarm during the 2015 All Nigeria Judges’ Conference noting that the waning budgets for the Judiciary not only impoverished the Third Arm of Government but made it less independent, contrary to the intent and provisions of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
‘’It is a source of great concern that in a country where an arm of Government is appropriated with less than one percent of the National Budget, it is difficult to refer to our Judiciary as being truly independent’’, CJN Mahmud Mohammed said.
STATIC JUDGES’ SALARIES
The last time nation’s judges’ salaries were reviewed was by an Act of the National Assembly, entitled, ’’Certain Political, Public and Judicial Office Holders (Salaries and Allowances, etc.) (Amendment) Act, 2008’’ which came into force on February 1, 2007.
By implication, since there is no senior, junior or probating judges within the same court of coordinate jurisdiction, a person who was appointed judge of a High Court in 2008 and yet to be elevated to the Court of Appeal would still be receiving the same amount of salary, month after month and year after the year till date
By virtue of the ‘’Certain Political, Public and Judicial Office Holders (Salaries and Allowances, etc.) (Amendment) Act, 2008’’, CJN’s annual basic salary is N3,353,972.50 (or N279,497.71 monthly), while other Justices of the Supreme Court and the President of the Court of Appeal receive N2,477,110.00 as basic annual salary or N206,425.83 monthly.
Justices of the Court of Appeal, Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Chief Judge of the FCT High Court and President of the Industrial High Court, Grand Khadi of State and FCT Sharia Court of Appeal, President FCT and State Customary Court of Appeal earn annual basic salary of N1, 995,430.18 each.
In addition, Judges of the Federal, State and FCT High Courts, National Industrial Court, Khadi Sharia Court of Appeal in FCT and State; and FCT and State Customary Courts also earn annual basic salary of N1,804,740 each.
The Act also dictates the allowances and fringe benefits payable to the judicial officers at the Federal and states which are even predicated on the annual basic salaries on percentage basis.
By the time the basic salary, allowances and fringe benefits are posted, the CJN and other Justices of the Supreme Court receives monthly salary alert of N480, 766.89 and N751, 000 in their bank accounts respectfully. The CJN’s net monthly salary is even lower than his brother Justices because of deductions made on account of other monetary and material provisions such as food items, which are provided to him by the Federal Government.
Since 2007, the Remuneration Act has not been reviewed, and that has rendered judges’ salaries and remunerations static for over 12 years running.
No wonder, Senator Micheal Opeyemi Bamidele (APC, Ekiti Central), was tempted to say on November 4, 2019 that only by dint of determined character, good conscience and principle would not sway judges into corruption in Nigeria by virtue of their salaries.
“As it is with the nation’s judiciary today, even if saints are appointed from heaven to serve as justices and judges, it is only strength of character that can prevent them from being corrupt and dispense justice as required”, he said.
Senator Bamidele said this in his closing remarks after confirmation hearing session of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, that screened Justice John Tsoho and Justice Benedict Bakwaoh Kanyip for appointment as Chief Judge of the Federal High Court and President of the National Industrial Court respectfully.
Minister of Justice and the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami (SAN) has earlier disclosed that the Federal Government had constituted a committee to review salaries and other benefits of the judicial officers in the country.
Malami stated this in the speech he delivered at the special session of the Supreme Court to mark the beginning of the new legal year and conferment of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria held on Monday September 23, 2019.
According to Malami, the setting up of the panel came after the meeting he had with the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad on the review of judicial salaries and conditions of service.
The committee, the AGF said would consult with the heads of courts and other stakeholders in order to come up with recommendations to ensure that the welfare of judicial officers reflect current realities. Although, he didn’t disclose membership of the committee, neither has the committee turned up with its report barely a year a
This is against the backdrop that Section 84 (1) of the 1999 Constitution mandates the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) to determine the salaries of all public officers in Nigeria including the judges. However, it failed to provide for interval of time for such review. In other words, salaries of the judges can only be reviewed by an Act of the parliament, and this time around could provide the interval of time such reviews would be held concomitantly.
INCREASING JUDICIARY WORKLOAD
In line with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)’s released Timetable and Schedule of Activities for the 2019 general elections, party primaries for the Presidential, Governorship, Federal and State Elections began on August 18 and ended on October 7, 2018. From August 2018 till February 2019 when general elections started, a flurry of pre-election and election petitions flooded the courts all over the country.
Because it is election year, the FCT High Court, Federal High Court and the Court of Appeal proposed an appointment of 15, 7 and 14 justices respectively. Two justices of the Supreme Court going on retirement for attaining retirement age of 70 years old were also to be replaced accordingly. These expanding mechanisms were to go with reductions in the budgets of the courts which is not healthy for the nation’s polity.
In the Constitution Fourth Alteration Bill President Buhari assented to in June 2018, grants financial autonomy to the State Houses of Assembly and the States’ Judiciary.
The then Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Sen. Ita Enang, had stressed the importance of the law saying that with the signing into law of the Constitution Alteration Bill the Judiciary in the states would also enjoy similar financial independence as their budgetary allocations would no longer go through the budgeting process of the executive arms at the state level, but would be transferred directly to the account of the judiciary.
“Therefore, upon this signature, the amount standing to the credit of the judiciary are now to be paid directly to the judiciary of that state, no more through the governor and no more from the governors’’.
But the law has been there except that state governors who are law onto themselves would rather observe it in breach, despite even a subsisting court orders mandating them to transfer what’s accruable to the state judiciary.
Back to the real judiciary challenges. In the Constitution (4th Alteration) Act, No. 21, Buhari assented to, amends Section 285 of the Constitution authorizing the court or tribunal to suspend Ruling on preliminary objection or interlocutory issue relating to jurisdiction and deliver same at the stage of final judgment. It inserts six new sub-sections that is (9) – (14).
While new Section 285 (10) states that ‘’A Court in every pre-election matter shall deliver its judgment in writing within 180 days from the date of filing of the suit; new Section 285 (12) says ‘’An appeal from a decision of a Court in a pre-election matter shall be heard and disposed of within 60 days from the date of filing of the appeal’’.
In other words, the Constitution Amendment No. 21 mandates the pre-election matters to now follow trajectory of election petitions for determination. The new law, which sets the timeframe for concluding before election any pre-election matters that might be taken to the courts, is a further amendment to Section 285 of the 1999 Constitution and the previous amendments through the Electoral Act of 2010.
Whereas the previous laws had dealt with anticipatory challenges to the election and setting the time frame for settling in court any post-election matters that may arise from an election, the new amendment seeks to address the disputes arising from pre-election exercises before actual election is conducted
Indeed, over time it had shown that the previous laws, which are the combined effects of Section 285(5) (6) and (7) as amended, and Section 134(2) and (3) of the Electoral Act 2010 did not anticipate certain political and electoral machinations in the course of the parties choosing their candidates for an election and which, of course, had usually led to bigger disputes and prolonged litigations after the election. The previous laws in Section 285(6) provided that “An election tribunal shall deliver its judgment in writing within 180 days from the date of the filing of the petition”.
A similar restriction was placed by subsection (7) that: “An appeal from a decision of the election tribunal or court shall be heard and disposed of within 60 days from the date of the delivery of judgment”. These provisions of the Constitution were also adopted verbatim by Section 134(2) and (3) of the Electoral Act 2010. An interpretation of these provisions merely concern itself with irregularities during an election, which are to be resolved in the courts afterwards.
The import of this amendment is the increase in constitutional duties devolved upon the judiciary. This is why the current attitude of the federal government in making inappropriate releases to the judiciary is in negligence of the duties or burden being heaped on the third arm of government.
What makes the ongoing maltreatment of the judiciary or paltry releases bizarre is that politicians have been trooping to file pre-election matters, ostensibly increasing the workload of the judicial officers. Indeed, it is with the same attention, devotion, deployment of judicial officers to contend with the demands of determining the election petitions that are required for the pre-election matters or appeals.
Former CJN Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar issued on November 15, 2013, the Supreme Court (Criminal Appeals) Practice Directions, 2013, enjoining all Criminal Appeals relating to the offences of Terrorism, Rape, Kidnapping, Corruption, Money Laundering and Human Trafficking to be heard and determined expeditiously.
When he hosted a delegation of the judicial arm of government led by the former CJN, Justice Onnoghen at the Presidential Villa, Abuja on October 6, 2017, President Buhari directed drastic and urgent action to decongest Nigerian prisons, saying they were overcrowded and constitute a national scandal.
He said the prisons were over crowded by up to 90 per cent, adding, “We need a new approach to prisons decongestion. Urgent new measures should be put in place to speedily decongest prisons, not only in the interest of justice, but to save cost for prisons maintenance and enhance the welfare of prisoners.”
While giving pictorial view of the situation, the Nigerian Prison Service (NPS) on December 15, 2017, put the total number of inmates in prisons in the country at 72,384 with 48,527 (67.04%) of these awaiting trial inmates, meaning only 23,857 have actually been convicted by the courts. The prisons are also congested because official capacity of prison system is 50 153; in other words our prisons are over-congested or having occupancy level of 125.9%. The Federal Government also expects the judiciary to reform criminal justice system in order to decongest the prisons in the country. For much is expected, much has to be given.
Of course, nation’s prisons are to be decongested by treating expeditiously all criminal matters by the same number of judges that must deliver on pre-election cases, election petition matters, and try over 2,306 corruption related cases across the country.
On June 9, 2019 when President Buhari formerly wrote to accept Justice Onnoghen’s resignation letter, the President also asked the then Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, to initiate the process of appointing four new justices of the Supreme Court.
The President’s decision was contained in a statement issued by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu.
The statement quoted Buhari’s letter thus, ‘‘Pursuant to the provisions of Section 230(2) A&B of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), I am pleased to request that you initiate in earnest the process of appointing additional four Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria to make the full complement of 21 Justices as provided by the aforementioned provisions of the Constitution.
‘‘This is in line with the government’s agenda of repositioning the Judiciary in general and Supreme Court in particular for greater efficiency, with a view to reducing the backlogs of appeals pending at the Supreme Court’’.
Consequently, the National Judicial Council had on October 24, 2019 recommended the appointment of Justices Adamu Jauro (North-East); Emmanuel A. Agim (South-South); C. Oseji (South-South); and Helen M. Ogunwumiju (South-West).The recommendations were sent to President Buhari who has the powers to appoint the justices after the senate confirmation.
The additional Supreme Court justices being appointed require spaces as their chamber, which must be equipped with books, equipment aside aides and logistics. With the increasing burden, judiciary budget has remained static at N110 billion.
SUPREME COURT WORKLOAD
On October 8, 2018, the former CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen announced that the Supreme Court diary was full with appeals set down for hearing from 2018 till year 2021.
This was just only appeals filed between 2006 and 2009 that have dates of hearing/determination from 2018 till the end of 2021. Whereas, appeals or cases brought to the Supreme Court from 2010 till 2018 (8 years running) were yet to get dates of hearing, but set to be assigned hearing dates from 2022 and beyond. Cases affected were civil in nature. By mere simple projection or extrapolation then, it was going to take up to 2028 to clear those 8 years cases.
JAILING OF EX-GOVERNORS
On May 30, 2018, Justice Adebukola Banjoko of the FCT High Court sitting in Gudu, Abuja sentenced former Taraba State governor, Rev Jolly Nyame to 14 years in prison, just as she ordered refund of monies diverted by him.
Justice Banjoko also on June 12, 2018 sentenced another former governor, Plateau State ex-Governor Joshua Dariye to 14 years in prison for diverting N1.162 billion state ecological funds while he was governor between 1999 and 2007.
Again, on December 5, 2019, Justice Mohammed Idris of the Federal High Court sitting in Lagos sentenced another serving senator and ex-governor of Abia State, Orji Kalu, to 12 years in prison for N7.65 billion fraud. Judiciary is still upbeat in the anti-corruption war despite the degrading budget appropriated for it.