Nigeria’s ‘temple of justice’ in eye of the storm

Justice Mohammed
Justice Mohammed

THE third arm of government, the Nigeria Judiciary, is well set out and defined in Chapter V11, from Sections 230 to 296, beginning with the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Its essence, caliber of personnel, recruitment, qualification and functions are well laid within this Chapter to the extent of establishing the fact that the Nigerian project only exist under the direct watch and management of the judiciary. Anything in the contrary is invitation to anarchy and chaos, and no society can survive under this condition.

This is the belief of a retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, Jide Olatawura, which was contained in the lecture he delivered at the Banquet Hall, Kwara Hotel, Ilorin, in September, 2006, during the inauguration of Justice Mustapha Akanbi Foundation. Responding to the theme ‘Awakening hope in Nigeria Project: “The role of the Judiciary in the Nigerian project”, he said: “Judiciary is the third arm of Government.

The Nation believes that with a very strong Judiciary the mistakes of the other two arms of Government i.e. the Legislature and the Executive can be spotlighted and corrected. Judiciary cannot afford to make a slip more so where the liberty of the subject is at stake. There is that strong belief that the Nigeria Judiciary will curb the excesses of the other two arms of Government. Judiciary should not allow the people’s trust to be misplaced. Once a Nation has an independent Judiciary, there is the hope that any wrongdoing will be corrected”.

When President Shehu Shagari was elected in 1979 he sought and met with members of the Press, the Nigerian Bar Association and the Judiciary after his inauguration as the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. In his address to members of the Judiciary represented by the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Justices of the Supreme Court, he said: “The Judiciary, in particular, being the watch dog of 
peoples rights and liberty, should not hesitate to call to 
order anybody, institution or groups of people, however 
influential that threaten to destroy, disfigure or otherwise 
undermine the corporate existence of this great nation.

“The faith of the people in our judicial system must remain 
unshaken. For my part, I will do everything possible within 
my power to honour and protect the acknowledged 
independence of the Nigerian Judiciary thereby enhancing 
the dignity and impartiality of the judges and helping to
 maintain the high esteem in which the generality of the 
Nigeria Judges are held by all our people. The path of 
an impartial and honest duty may be strewn with thorns
 but I have no doubt that you have the courage, the
 probity, the learning and tradition to face all odds and 
continue to hold the banner of justice aloft and above all stains”.

This was Alhaji Shehu Shagari in 1979, a democratic President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, who understood the role of the judiciary and accorded it its rights of place with proper funding for this all important arm of government to perform its duties.

Going further to establish the relevance of the Judiciary in the Nigerian society, one must flip through the paper presented in 1978 by Imo State Judiciary during the All Nigeria Judges Conference which probed the role of the ‘Judiciary within a Presidential System of Government’ in Nigeria.

It reads in part: “The Independence of the Judiciary postulates not only that Judicial Officers are in the actual process of decision taking free from external direction by political and administrative functionaries of government, but also that the actual working of the machinery for the administration of justice is also free from and independent of those functionaries. It is a calamity to have Judiciary that is subservient to Executive or Political pressures and influences, a judiciary that yields and defers to the sirens of power or that unjustly accommodates the demands of the rich and the privileged.

The Rule of Law presupposes an independent, honest, courageous and competent Bench as well as an able, fearless and responsible Bar. The stability and, in fact, the very measure of a democratic constitution (that is to say how democratic it is) can easily be determined by the degree of importance it attaches to its Judiciary and the powers it gives to its Judiciary”.

There is nothing to add to this epistle as this postulation has established the importance of the judiciary in a democracy.
But the question now is how has the judiciary faired in its role as the watchdog of the society and the last hope of the common man? How independent is it over the years with poor budgetary funding coming from the executive and the legislature and the attendant influences either through interference, criticisms or outright condemnations of its actions and activities.

The respect which the Judiciary used to earn from the executive in the years of Shagari seems to be waning with the present administration as the government appears to be critical of the judiciary for some reasons known to it. For instance, it is on record that the present Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), was quoted recently that he was going to ‘jail judges who are found to be corrupt’. His boss, President Mohammadu Buhari in far away Ethiopia, declared that ‘Nigeria Judiciary is his biggest headache in the fight against corruption’ in the country.

malamiWith the recent election judgments delivered by the Supreme Court in which it returned all the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) states to its strongholds and the apex court’s judgment directing the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki to return to the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), to face his trial over his alleged false declaration of assets, the judiciary in trying to establish its independence has wittingly or unwittingly stepped on the ‘lion tail’.

The question stakeholders are asking is, if the judiciary maintains this position throughout the lifespan of Buhari’s administration, can it earn the respect it deserves and the proper funding it needs very urgently from the executive and the legislature? If it unbuckles, will it still maintain its integrity and retain the confidence reposed in it by the people?
The signs seem ominous as the comments coming from officials of the government portray.

For instance, the head of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption, Professor Itse Sagay (SAN) was quoted in the Nation Newspaper of Sunday February 14, 2016, while appraising the recent judgments of the Supreme Court raised concern over the judgments.

According to him, ‘the judgments are very perverse, particularly relating to Akwa Ibom and Rivers States. Everybody knows that there were no elections in those two states. Everybody knows that people like Wike climbed into the governorship seat over dead bodies and over blood of human beings. There were no elections, they wrote the results, the evidence is there”.

So what the Supreme Court has done is to set the clock of electoral excellence and fairness and credibility back 1,000 years, but certainly it is taking us back to where we were before Jega came in and sanitized the system”.

To worsen the matter for the judiciary, this year’s budget for the sector is just N70billion, the least it has got in six years. In 2010, it got N95 billion, N85 billion in 2011, N75billion in 2012 and in 2013 budget it got 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.

The Judiciary, in particular, being the watch dog of peoples rights and liberty, should not hesitate to call to order anybody, institution or groups of people, however influential that threaten to destroy, disfigure or otherwise undermine the corporate existence of this great nation. The faith of the people in our judicial system must remain unshaken. For my part, I will do everything possible within my power to honour and protect the acknowledged independence of the Nigerian Judiciary thereby enhancing the dignity and impartiality of the judges and helping to maintain the high esteem in which the generality of the Nigeria Judges are held by all our people. The path of an impartial and honest duty may be strewn with thorns but I have no doubt that you have the courage, the probity, the learning and tradition to face all odds and continue to hold the banner of justice aloft and above all stains”. (Former President Shehu Shagari, 1979)

A cursory glance again at budget figures in the reference period shows that while the country’s budget witnessed a geometric incremental pattern annually, the third arm of government saw a slow but steady paralysis, brought about by a downward trend in its yearly allocation.

With the declining budgetary allocation to the judiciary and the major reforms required to turn around the sector, it is no longer clear whether these laudable projects will be achievable under the circumstance.

Perhaps, this was the reason the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed lamented during the 2015 All Nigeria Judges Conference, in Abuja in a speech he delivered at the occasion: He said: “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”.

But despite this lamentation from the CJN and the acknowledgement of its challenges, President Buhari at that same conference enjoined the judiciary to remain resolute and continue to perform its role while carrying out major reforms.
His words: ‘’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”.
As good as the President’s speech appeared, it demands action, as a better, functional and independent judiciary, no doubt, requires the support of both the Executive and Legislature in very practical sense that will guarantee judiciary independence.

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