The declaration last week by the senate that corruption thrives in the nation’s judiciary on account of paucity of funds crippling its operations in the dispensation of justice once again raises the issue as to whether the Nigerian judiciary can be pragmatically independent without financial autonomy.
The senate’s position corroborates that of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, to the effect that the Nigerian judiciary might be independent in conducting the cases brought before it, but the independence had been lost to lack of financial freedom.
The senate claimed the judiciary cannot be salvaged even by saints from heaven if special intervention fund was not made available for the arm of government to function effectively and efficiently.
The damning verdicts were made on behalf of other lawmakers by chairman, Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, Michael Opeyemi Bamidele, in his closing remarks after confirmation hearing session the committee had with Justice John Tsoho and Justice Benedict Bakwaoh Kanyip.
Justice Tsoho’s nomination as Chief Judge, Federal High Court, and Justice Kanyip nomination as President, National Industrial Court of Nigeria, were forwarded to the senate for confirmation by President Muhammadu Buhari last week.
Bamidele in his remarks, which dwelled on submissions made by the justices during the confirmation hearing session, said the judiciary based on realities on ground as regards paucity of funds was vulnerable for compromise.
According to him, no democracy could grow or survive with a compromised judiciary, the reason, Nigeria judiciary needed urgent special intervention fund. “The problem at hand is that judiciary is corrupt and it is time for Nigeria and Nigerians to rise up in rescuing it with adequate funding.
“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 added that the issues were both moral and sociological which, according to him, required extra-budgetary provisions therapy. Bamidele who made the submissions in the presence of the two nominees and other justices like Binta Nyako, Okon Abang, etc, however, commended President Buhari for increasing the budgetary provisions for the judiciary on yearly basis .
“Within the last four years, budgetary provisions for the judiciary has been experiencing marginal increases under the present administration but it is not yet Uhuru, the special intervention fund must come first before consistent increase on annual basis,” he declared.
Admitting the rot in the judiciary, Executive Secretary of the National Judicial Council (NJC), Ahned Gambo Saleh, in an interview with journalists after the session said: “The welfare package for judicial officers in this country is nothing to write home about. Judges’ salaries were last reviewed in 2007.”
He, however, added that if the so-called corruption in the judiciary was weighed against what is obtained in other systems., Nigeria was better.
Lending his voice to the raging debate over the independence of the judiciary, following criticism that trailed the process of the removal of his predecessor, Justice Walter Onnoghen, from office earlier this year, the CJN likened the state of the Nigerian judiciary’s independence to a cow that is asked to graze freely but remains tied firmly to a tree.
He said, “If you say that I am independent, but in a way, whether I like it or not, I have to go cap in hand, asking for funds to run my office, then I have completely lost my independence. It is like saying a cow is free to graze about in the meadow but at the same time, tying it firmly to a tree. Where is the freedom?”
He said at the Supreme Court, which he described as “the busiest and most hardworking” apex court in the world, was “totally independent in the way we conduct our affairs, especially in our judgments”.
He added, “We don’t pander to anybody’s whims and caprices. If there is any deity to be feared, it is the Almighty God. We will never be subservient to anybody, no matter his position in the society.”
He, however, said the third arm of government remained in a financial bondage. “Be that as it may, when we assess the judiciary from the financial perspective, how free can we say we are?
“The annual budget of the judiciary is still a far cry from what it ought to be. The figure is either stagnated for a long period or it goes on a progressive decline.”
Appealing to the federal and state governments, the CJN said, “I am using this medium to appeal to government at all levels to free the judiciary from the financial bondage it has been subjected over the years.”
On the backdrop of this sordid state of the nation’s judiciary, we call on the National Assembly to initiate the process of granting financial autonomy to the third arm of government in order to enable it to efficiently play its role as the temple of justice and an unbiased arbiter.
In fact, the role of the judiciary in governance architecture is so critical that its presence is a necessity in all forms of government, thus, reinforcing the need for its holistic independence.