Under the current democratic dispensation in Nigeria, the judicial powers of the state are vested in the courts to hear and determine all disputes between persons and between government and all persons. But for them to discharge such duty impartially and independently, their autonomy is constitutionally guaranteed. Unfortunately, such judicial independence has severally been sabotaged by the executive arm of government that has, over the years, become very notorious for withholding funds appropriated for the judicial arm.
It is indeed instructive that it was in the bid to insulate the judiciary from executive control and influence that Section 81 of the 1999 Constitution provides that “any amount standing to the credit of the judiciary in the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation shall be paid directly to the National Judicial Council for disbursement to the heads of the courts established for the Federation and the states under section 6 of the Constitution”. With respect to the judiciary in the 36 states of the federation, Section 121 of the same Constitution similarly stipulates that “any amount standing to the credit of the judiciary in the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the State shall be paid directly to the heads of the courts concerned.”
Even when the letter and spirit of the above quoted provisions of the Constitution are not ambiguous, with a political class that has penchant for impunity, there has been reluctance on the part of the executive to recognise and respect the financial independence of the judiciary. Thus, since the restoration of democratic rule in May 1999, the provisions of the Constitution pertaining to financial autonomy for the judiciary have been observed in the breach by the federal and state governments without exception. In the circumstance, heads of the various courts have been running to the executive to plead for the release of funds appropriated for the judiciary. And since he who pays the piper dictates the tune, it is then little wonder that the judiciary has found it difficult to play its critical role in a functioning democracy.
Disturbed by the illegal withholding of funds for the judiciary, a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, approached the Federal High Court last year to have a judicial interpretation of the relevant provisions of the Constitution on financial independence for the judiciary. In a judgment delivered last week, the presiding judge, Justice Ahmed Mohammed, declared illegal and unconstitutional, null and void the control and disbursement of funds earmarked for the judiciary by the executive arm of government.
In upholding the submissions of the civil rights lawyer, the judge held that “the present practice of judiciary funding by the defendants, which makes the judiciary dependent on the executive arm in budgeting and release of funds, violates sections 81(2)(3)(c) and 84(2)(7) of the Constitution.” In consequence, the judge ordered that money belonging to the judiciary in the Consolidated Revenue Fund should henceforth be fully paid directly to the National Judicial Council.
In view of the verdict of the Federal High Court which has upheld the law on financial independence for the judiciary we urge the defendants, the executive and the legislature not to waste time and resources on pursuing an appeal on the matter. We also call on all stakeholders to ensure that the judgment is fully complied with so that the judiciary can be repositioned to discharge its constitutional duties without fear or favour.
Since an independent judiciary is a basic prerequisite for the consolidation of democracy, we call on our judges to shun corruption and abuse of judicial powers which are antithetical to a virile judiciary badly needed at this most challenging period of our national life.