When I read the letter recently written by 14 justices of Nigeria’s Supreme Court, my mind raced to contemplate how the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), might feel about it. I imagine him beaming with pride and thanking his stars for the final confirmation of his belief that the Nigerian judiciary is corrupt and has hampered his anti-corruption war.
Recall the unprecedented midnight raid on the homes of seven judicial officers, two of whom were justices of the Supreme Court in October 2016, and the message it was meant to pass. Buhari, I imagine, must see the ongoing unease in the apex court as evidence of the judiciary mismanaging its resources and finally exposing itself. He, alongside many Nigerians, I suspect, must see the initial letter and the response of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Tanko Abdullahi, as the shame of the judiciary.
But we would all be grossly mistaken. The shame of the judiciary, especially when it comes from the very pinnacle of that institution, is the disgrace of the country that harbours such an institution.
There may be some legitimacy in scoffing at the judiciary for this civil war that has become public knowledge. The judiciary is, after all, an independent arm of the with its own budgetary allocation and governance structure. It is also made up of men who would have been in the legal profession for decades and, in the process, acquired copious experience and respect. Why then should we not hold them to the standards with which we hold everyone?
And that would be a valid question. But in asking that, we must consider how those justices get to sit on the Supreme Court bench and the volume of budgetary allocation to the Court. Attempting to answer both questions will show that the Nigerian judiciary, including the Supreme Court, is still not free from the limitations that politics impose. In a recent article titled, Supreme Court Justices deserve more, Chief Mike Ozekhome, suggested that budgetary allocation to the Court has remained N110bn since 2018. Some say it is N120bn.
Ozekhome wrote, “This means that every year, despite the hyper inflationary trend, which has become geometrical and not merely arithmetical, the allocation to the apex court remains static. It also means that since the time when the exchange rate was about N180 to N250 to a dollar, which is today about N612 to a dollar, the apex court’s allocation has not changed. It also means that the justices’ quality of life has thereby been receding, rather than appreciating.”
A natural reaction to this would be that the judiciary is independent and should manage its business effectively. However, the judiciary is a unique national institution created to ensure a balance of power and remain an instrument of nation-building to the pride of all citizens.
The Supreme Court is in an even more strategic position. That is a court that was created by the constitution as a check on the other arms of It is the court that can tell the president that his actions are unconstitutional and tell the national assembly, which is created to make laws, that it has acted ultra vires and contrary to the constitution. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over agencies of the Federal Government and state , the police, armed forces, even lower courts, and everyone who conducts business under the laws of Nigeria, no matter their origin. If all these parties are regarded as players in a game of football, the Supreme Court can be regarded as the referee, who moderates and sees that the players don’t step out of bounds. Anything that rubs mud on such an institution, therefore, diminishes the country and should worry every Nigerian. To glory in the desecration of the court, regardless of what opinion we hold of it, is to cut our faces to spite our noses.
There are at least three reasons why the exchange between our esteemed justices and the CJN should not have happened. Because of its strategic place in the affairs of the country, justices of the Supreme Court are usually men of modest temperament, sagacity and outstanding intellect. All over the world, those who sit on the bench of supreme courts have an unequalled capacity to rise beyond societal issues and remain in the background, hardly to be seen or heard except through their judgments. When such people, who should resolve all our national contestations, protest poor leadership and welfare, they send signals that speak loudly to the underlining crisis submerging the country. And such outbursts, if not properly handled, can do more harm to the country.
For instance, it can erode public confidence in the capacity of the courts to dispense justice. When allegations of mismanagement, nepotism and poor welfare in the Supreme Court become public knowledge, litigants lose respect for the court and the justices.
Criminals can also capitalise on the now apparent poor welfare of these justices and bring irresistible temptation before them. Again, this would be to the nation’s loss as justice will now be for the highest bidder. This possible commercialisation of the common man’s hope would be the worst evil that can be inflicted on Nigerians at this time when life is at its most unpredictable.
Worst of all is that no one would now want to do business in an environment where justice can be purchased and the rule of law panders to the desires of a powerful few. People, especially foreigners, would invest in a stable society, where the law is supreme and justice is seen to be done. Therefore, it is in the interest of the country that the judiciary undergoes urgent and extensive reform.
First, the country must see to the remuneration of its judicial officers, who are mostly overworked and underpaid. They work under very strenuous conditions, handle multiple cases, sit for hours on end, write manually and retire without so much as a voice to be heard. A retired judge of the Lagos State High Court, Justice Candide-Johnson, is currently in court demanding his pension and gratuity from the Lagos State Government. Anyone who has invested three decades of their lives in public service should not be denied their entitlements. Therefore, contrary to ethics, many judicial officials have become contractors and consultants, something which is sure to detract from the quality of their judgments. The country must be deliberate about making life easier for judges, who literally hold the power of life and death.
Also, the method of appointing judicial officers must be reconsidered urgently. Many Nigerians have fond memories of the days when the Supreme Court radiated intellectual sophistication; when justices of the court shaped the law and made pronouncements that reverberated all over the country. Neither the initial petition nor the response of the CJN shows much of the quality and elegance of that bench in the days of Olawale Elias, Kayode Eso, Chukwudifu Oputa, Ayo Irikefe, Augustine Nnamani, Mohammed Bello, Adolphus Karibi-Whyte, Ephraim Akpata and others. In addition to its lacklustre flavour, the CJN’s response also fails the test of leadership for failing in temperance, conciliation and a deliberate effort to protect the institution.