Thirty-nine-year-old American, Edward Joseph Snowden, a former computer intelligence consultant, who leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency in 2013, when he was an employee and subcontractor said: “There can be no faith in government if our highest offices are excused from scrutiny — they should be setting the example of transparency.”
Similarly, the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, co-recipient of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize, and deceased Ghanaian diplomat, Kofi Atta Annan also said that: “If corruption is a disease, transparency is a central part of its treatment.”
By their training, orientation, and calling, jurists and indeed privileged ones like Supreme Court justices are not frivolous, loquacious, or cantankerous people. Rather, they are stoic, firm, courageous, blameless, patient, open-minded, understanding, and compassionate among other qualities.
Because of the sensitive nature of their assignments, judges in all climes are to be seen and not heard. In other words, they are expected to be taciturn and reserved. But recently, matters got to choking limits, and 14 Supreme Court justices had to spill the beans.
Not only did their action of revealing the alleged misconducts perpetrated by the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Tanko Muhammad, and by extension, the parlous state of affairs in the apex court align with Snowden’s call for scrutinising high offices, the resignation of the accused, and the subsequent swearing-in of an acting CJN, kick-started the process of healing the wounds.
Indeed, the acting CJN, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, has promised to ensure transparency, which Anan described as “a central part” of the treatment called corruption.
In a first-of-its-kind protest letter in the 58-year history of the apex court, the 14 justices chronicled the operational challenges that have almost crippled the efficient adjudication of cases.
Worried stakeholders in the legal profession are already of the view that the development could have dire consequences for effective adjudication of cases in the court and by extension the entire justice delivery system.
Without mincing words, the justices reiterated that in as much as they serve the country diligently, and to the best of their abilities, they deserve the best, just as they rejected the treatment meted to them by Muhammad.
In the leaked letter, the justices accused the former CJN of gallivanting with his “spouse, children and personal staff,” while not allowing them to travel with an assistant on foreign trips, adding that they even lack access to legal research assistants, despite the magnitude of cases that are being adjudicated.
“We are responsible citizens of this country. It would be a tragedy if the Nigerian public were to know that we are unable to resolve our problems internally without going public. The decision to write to you formally must be seen by your lordship as an effort on our part to preserve the dignity of the judiciary and the respect accorded to us by governments and the people of Nigeria. God forbid the day that our internal issues become a matter of national discourse. It would be a catastrophe better imagined,” they wrote.
The justices recalled that at an earlier meeting with the CJN, they tabled and discussed their demands on justices’ accommodation, operational vehicles, electricity tariff, diesel, supply of Internet services to judges’ residences and chambers, as well as epileptic electricity supply to the court.
“We also raised the issue of the failure of the Honourable Chief Justice to carry the justices along in managing the affairs of the court, the deteriorating condition of services generally, and the state of the litigations department.
“At the meeting, Your Lordship agreed that a welfare committee is constituted to compile and forward our demands. On March 24, 2022, the welfare committee submitted to Your Lordship, a request for the review of electricity allowance because of the increase in electricity tariffs nationwide. The welfare committee also submitted our request for diesel allowance, because of the epileptic electricity supply, the astronomical hike in the price of diesel, and the fact that justices require electricity to work at home. The committee also requested the restoration of our monthly Internet allowance, because we require uninterrupted Internet service to have access to materials online to write our judgments. Your Lordship received and ignored these demands since March 24, 2022,” they complained.
Justices who signed the letter include, Ariwoola Adamu Jauro, Tijjani Abubakar, Kudirat Motonmori O. Kekere-Ekun, Chima Centus Nweze, Musa Dattijo Mohammed, and John Inyang Okoro.
Others are Amina Adamu Augie, Uwani Musa Abba-Aji, Mohammed Lawal, Helen Moronkeji Ogunwumiju, Abdu Aboki, Ibrahim Saulawa, and Emmanuel Agim.
But in his response, Muhammad, who noted that the Supreme Court is also affected by the prevailing economic and socio-political climate, stressing that it was doing all within available resources to keep the court afloat.
Responding to some of the specific allegations, the CJN said: “The high cost of electricity tariff and diesel are national problems. The Chief Registrar might have budgeted for N300 per litre, but diesel is now selling for over N700 per litre and therefore has to find a way around it, without even bringing it to the attention of the CJN. But there is no way that the generator would be put off if the court is sitting.
“The amendment of court rules is in the process; it has to be critically reviewed to avoid conflict with the constitution and other extant laws. Not all the CJNs have reviewed the rules in the past…
“The Internet services have been restored to justices’ residences and chambers, just as some allowances have been paid to them. The CJN held a meeting with his brother justices last Thursday, and another one is due to hold this week,” parts of the statement read.
Even though Muhammad threw in the towel, the Senate, last month resolved to probe the allegations leveled against the ex-CJN and the crisis presently rocking the judiciary.
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) also stressed the compelling need for fundamental reforms of the administration and governance of the country’s judiciary.
President of the association, Olumide Akpata, in a statement, noted that the situation has not only affected the judicial responsibilities of the justices but also impacted the justice administration process.
“The judiciary must entrench the principles of accountability and probity in the manner in which it expends allocated resources. While the fight for increased budgetary allocations for the judiciary continues, it is important that available resources be used for the welfare and wellbeing of our judicial officers, as well as for the improvement of infrastructure and facilities required by our judges and justices to effectively discharge their duties,” the statement said.
It added: “There is a clear need for mechanisms to be put in place to ensure that the judiciary (with the Supreme Court leading the charge) is providing the necessary template to other arms of government on transparent procurement and budgeting. This will reduce the perception in some quarters that the judiciary is not accountable to anyone and is also not self-regulating.”
For a cross-section of stakeholders in the judiciary, this arm of government is beset by major ethical problems, including nepotism in judges’ appointment and elevation to the higher judicial benches, even as cases of corruption and perversion of justice are still being talked about.
As all these pans out, some stakeholders maintain that if the judiciary is bedeviled with a groundswell of challenges, important national issues, including the determination of election petitions, and the trial of key government officials for corrupt practices would one way or the other be affected negatively.
However, in recent times, numerous steps have been taken to address some of the challenges plaguing the judiciary, particularly judges’ welfare.
One of such steps was the dragging of the National Assembly (NASS), the Revenue Mobilisation fiscal Allocation Commission (RMFAC), and other parties before the National Industrial Court (NIC) over the low remuneration of judges.
Chief Sebastian Hon, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) approached the NIC seeking an order of mandatory injunction for the National Judicial Council (NJC), NASS, RMFAC and Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), and Minister of Justice to set in motion, legal machinery to immediately review upwards, the salaries and emoluments of judicial officers.
Commenting on the protest by the jurists, an associate Professor of Law at the Department of Public Law, Faculty of Law, University of Ilorin, Dr. Abdulfatai Sambo, stated that the Supreme Court justices’ protest was not unconnected with the poor and improper running of the court, which he described as a known issue in the country.
He alleged that issues raised by the justices have been on the ground long before now, and previous leadership of the court managed them well, only for leadership and communication gaps occasioned partly by the health condition of the immediate past CJN to blow them open.
He said: “This calls to question, the issue of leadership and resources at the helm of affairs of the apex court. From a calm analysis of the recent situation at the court, one can say that all the complaints threaten justice delivery and independence of the judiciary.”
Taking a general look at the judiciary, Sambo said that issues plaguing the Bench were different from those troubling the Bar, stressing that the practice of law is seen as a private engagement. Consequently, lawyers are forced to be ingenious to attract patronage and serve the interest of justice.
He noted that the rush to make money by some legal practitioners has had a serious effect on the prestige and integrity accorded to the profession.
“While the scale of charges is seen as outdated, lawyers have been seen undercharging clients, a development, which affects the practice of other lawyers, and ultimately affects their welfare. This issue has been presented to the national body of the NBA, but it seems there is little that can be done to implement the various suggestions that are aimed at addressing lawyers’ welfare through legal mechanisms that can be championed by NBA.”
“This unpalatable event has had a negative effect on the performance of lawyers and has also led to lawyers compromising cases, unprofessional solicitation for clients, and usurpation of clients’ money among others.
This is glaringly a threat to justice,” Sambo stated.
He, therefore, called for robust dialogue and proactive measures aimed at combating the numerous challenges affecting both the Bar and the Bench to safeguard the integrity of the profession.
For the Director, Lawyers Alert Nigeria, a civil society organisation (CSO) Bamidele A. Jacobs, “members of the bench occupy very critical positions in the society. Therefore, a judge that works in an atmosphere of epileptic power supply and poor working conditions will not be able to conduct the much-needed research to enrich his judgment.
“How then are we not making justice available only to the highest bidder by our neglect of members of the bench? He asked.
Jacobs continued: “What a typical lawyer passes through is only comparable to what an average Nigerian passes through daily. All of such do affect effective delivery of justice.”
An Abuja-based lawyer, Job Okebe stated that the state of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, and indeed the entire judicial system cannot be examined in isolation from other systems in the country.
“Our judicial system is a reflection of our country where nothing seems to be working. I can confidently tell you that all is not well with our judicial system right from the least court to the Supreme Court. States’ high courts are not any better; not to talk of the magistrates/customary courts.”
He explained that everything that can go wrong has indeed gone wrong with our judiciary. In Nigeria, unlike some western countries, we have only one Supreme Court that sits in Abuja, but hears and determines disputes from the 36 states and the FCT, yet the welfare of the justices has become a thing for public ridicule. How low can this country sink? The once-revered institution has now become a laughing stock.
“Aside from the fact that the burden of work is too much for the number of justices that we have at the apex court, the working tools to enable them to put in less energy are not being provided. How then do we expect the best from them? It is cabbage in, cabbage out.”
He continued: “However, it is very important to ask, what happened to funds meant for the welfare of the justices? Were the funds not released? Were the funds misappropriated? What is happening at the Supreme Court is a child’s play compared to what is happening in various states of the federation, and I see such a ‘coup’ from other courts in no distant time because the letter from the justices would have emboldened others to follow suit.
“I can tell you that a lot of judges of the various high courts have no official quarters; some have no official vehicles, and if they do, some of the vehicles are worn out. All these breed corruption as we cannot possibly expect a man who has difficulties in taking adequate care of his family to give his best to the job.
“The result of all these is that justice is denied to millions of Nigerians, and cases linger in court for years because the judges have no incentives to give their best. Some of them are doing the job only for survival, and that is why it is very common for you to go to court only to be told that the judge is not sitting for that day,” he said.
The lawyer lamented that people were resorting to self-help and abandoning the courts for police stations where they feel that their grievances may be attended to timeously, even with all the rot in the Nigerian Police.
He further alleged that a lot of lawyers were not faring better than unskilled labourers, with the only thing distinguishing them being their worn-out suits.
Hear him: “There are lawyers in big cities like Abuja, and Port Harcourt who are still receiving salaries of less than N40, 000 per month. The exploitation at the Bar is worse than in any other sector that you can imagine. Most junior lawyers cannot afford befitting accommodations; they work for the benefit of their principals, all in the name of learning the ropes.”
Even when it appears that the days when the court was deemed as the last hope of the common man are far gone, the legal practitioner said that it was not too late for the country to retrace its steps, “and this must start with the recruitment process for the Bench. Until the recruitment and elevation of judicial officers are based on merit, and not on who you know, or where you come from, attaining justice in our system will remain a mirage.”
Douglas Ogbankwa, the Convener, Vanguard for the Independence of the Judiciary, in his submission said that the Supreme Court of Nigeria is presently at its lowest ebb in terms of administrative stability.
According to him, the conduct of the immediate past Chief Justice of the Federation left much to be desired.
Quoting Lord Denning in UAC v Macfoy (1964) A.C who stated that you cannot put something on nothing and expect it to stand, the lawyer argued that the foundation of the immediate past CJN was built on a slippery slope, as he presented himself for the appointment without recommendation by the NJC, which was against the extant rules.
Ogbankwa, who is the Director of Strategic Communication of the African Bar Association said that the National Judicial Council (NJC) has become more of a problem than a solution when it comes to the handling of judges’ misconduct, as they have allegedly departed from their rules on the issue, and opening up the floodgates of illegalities, including forum shopping that brought about conflicting decisions in courts.
He opined that there should be rules guiding expenditure in the judiciary, and heads of courts should be compelled to follow the rules.
“The Chief Justice of Nigeria is primus inter pares to all his other brother justices, so the situation at the Supreme Court presently is completely unacceptable. A situation where management staff of the court travel three times yearly for training, while Supreme Court justices that need the training to churn out judgments that are in tune with our ever-changing world are excluded is, at best, an anathema.
The lawyer insisted that it smacks of complete mismanagement of resources and a system devoid of probity and accountability, for Supreme Court justices to grapple with issues like diesel and Internet that ordinarily should be taken for granted with a budget of N118b for this year.
He added that since state governors are desperate in keeping the judiciary under their armpits, “we need desperate measures to liberate our judiciary from the clutches of such state executives. We need to have a total boycott of courts; shut down our courts just to drive home our point.
“A situation where the appointment of judges is influenced by politicians that have interests in matters in court only succeeds in making the judiciary an extension of the political class. But this can be addressed by appointing as judges, persons that are diligent in their duties; intelligent; ethical in conduct, punctual in court attendance, and those who dress appropriately. Only an ethical lawyer can make an ethical judge because the apple does not fall far from the tree.”