Our shackled judiciary

It must have been the most embarrassing public duty Mr Justice Ibrahim Muhammad has performed so far as the Chief Justice of Nigeria.  He did it with courage. Still, it must have been pretty painful for him to publicly admit what we have always known but voiced in the relative safety of bar chats, to wit, the Nigerian judiciary is not independent. It is held on a short leash by the paymaster, the executive branch of government.

Muhammad told a special session of the Supreme Court held to formally mark the commencement of the 2019/2020 legal year on September 23, that he goes cap in hand to beg for funds to run the third arm of the government which, warts and all, is the citadel of justice and the refuge of the marginalised, the cheated, the poor and the oppressed. The sight of the honourable chief justice doing what beggars do to survive must be pretty unsettling for those who heard him at the event attended by the crème de la crème of the bar and the bench in particular and the rest of us in general. The CJN’s confession and the indictment of the Nigerian system that cripples the dispensation of justice could not have really come to the bar and the bench as such a big shock after all. These men and women have been contending with the anomaly of independence sans freedom and the consequences thereof.

It is worth quoting the CJN at some length because he laid bare the state of the Nigerian judiciary like nobody had done before. None of us should be proud of what is happening to the third arm in our form of government. I do not know much about the judiciary in other developing countries, but its situation could not be this bad. Indeed, the CJN said “we should 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.”

Let us hear out the CJN. He said “…when we assess the judiciary from 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 progressive decline. 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.

“The issue of the salaries of judicial officers is still occupying the front burner of national discourse. It is one of the many issues yet to be addressed by the government. I make bold to say that the salaries of judicial officers in Nigeria are still very far from an ideal package to take home.

“The gross underfunding and neglect of the judiciary over the years have impacted negatively on the infrastructure and personnel within the system. It is to a large extent, affecting productivity, increasing frustration and deflating morale.

“The constitution provides for separation of powers and independence of the three arms of government. I am using this medium to appeal to governments at all levels to free the judiciary from the financial bondage it has been subjected to over the years.”

The CJN deserves commendation for the courage to speak up when he sees things going so badly wrong with the judiciary. It is the mark of good leadership. The affliction of the judiciary is not new but those who sat on the top seat before Muhammad, decided to say nothing about it because unlike him, they were probably afraid of deities other than the almighty God. It is difficult to imagine that our judiciary is this shackled because of money. That our judiciary is passing through these mind-wrenching difficulties is a collective national shame. It is a pointer to the sometimes strange judgements that make first year law students wince. It is now clear that our judiciary cannot fully serve the ends of justice because we choose to shackle it by underfunding it, poorly equipping it, paying the judges less than a living wage  and cynically denying the institution the financial independence it richly deserves as the third and vital arm in our system of government.

We knew things were bad in the judiciary, but we did not know they were this bad. Corruption in the temple of justice is rampant and hardly conducted under the table. Now, we know why this became inevitable. The surprise really, is that given the situation that judges face, corruption in the judiciary is not much worse than it is. We are lucky to have men and women on the bench whose commitment to the dispensation of justice trumps the need for their present and future personal comfort. Muhammad said that in the Supreme Court, “We don’t pander to anybody’s whims and caprices” and that “if there is any deity to be feared, it is the almighty God.”

The problem, however, is that some of the judges worship the deity called money in the Naira shrine and are driven to deliver judgements that are strange to jurisprudence because they serve the immediate objective of personal and political interests rather than the ends of justice. When money talks, nonsense walks.

The expose on the problems of the judiciary is not an indictment of the Buhari administration, lest his aides rush to defend the president. It predates him. It is a historical problem that has dogged the footsteps of the judiciary since independence. It was a problem not solved; it is a problem ignored and it is a problem now holding the dispensation of justice hostage.

This is not the time to bemoan the situation. This is the time to right the wrong to grant the judiciary the financial independence it richly deserves. Debate on the financial independence of the judiciary has been on since the Murtala/Obasanjo transition to civil rule programme and has featured in every attempt by the generals to give us a new constitution. One of the most sensible suggestions pushed for during the Babangida transition to civil rule programme was to pay the judiciary from the consolidated fund of the federation to keep presidents and governors from tampering with its allocation. It did not pan out.

The proponents of financial independence for the judiciary always lost out; not because anyone needed to be convinced that the financial independence of the judiciary is fundamental to the true independence of the judiciary but because its relegation serves the interests of our political leaders. When the chief justice and the chief judges go cap in hand looking for funds from the executive arm of government, they are humiliated and become vulnerable to the whims and caprices of our political leaders. Beggars do not act on principles; or rather, they act on the principles of survival and are willing to pay the price.

Would our political leaders let things continue as they are and deny the judiciary financial independence and keep it shackled? Or would they wake up to the commonsensical fact that a crippled third arm in our form of government has critical implications for our democracy, the rule of law and the dispensation of untainted justice?

The ball is in Buhari’s court. He took the anti-corruption fight to the judiciary in his efforts to make it a respectable institution. I am afraid the fight would not achieve his objective if the judiciary continues to wallow in avoidable neglect and its personnel are treated in a manner that opens them to corruption. He should listen to the CJN’s plea and take immediate steps “to free the judiciary from the financial bondage it has been subjected to over the years.”

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