The Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Ibrahim Muhammad, on Monday, warned Governments at various levels to allow the judiciary to enjoy its independence without undue interference, saying “we will never be subservient to anybody, no matter his position in the society”.
The CJN, who spoke at a special session that was held to mark the commencement of the 2019/2020 legal year of the Supreme Court and swearing-in of 38 newly conferred Senior Advocates of Nigeria, maintained that the judiciary under his watch will uphold the tenets of the constitution as the supreme law of the land.
He however decried that despite the fact that the constitution provided for s separation of powers and independence of the three arms of government, he has continued to go cap in hand to beg for funds to run the judiciary, a situation he said has impacted negatively on the administration of justice in the country.
He said it was time for the judiciary to take its destiny in its hand, insisting that “we need to 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”.
The CJN said: “There have been various debates at different fora as to whether the Nigerian Judiciary is truly independent. In most cases, discussants always assess the situation from varied perspectives; and that largely accounts for the often conflicting answers given. The Nigerian Judiciary, to a large extent, is independent in conducting its affairs and taking decisions on matters before it without any extraneous influence.
At the Supreme Court, like I have always said, we are totally independent in the way we conduct our affairs, especially in our judgments. We don’t pander to any ‘ body’s whims and caprices. If there is any deity to be feared, it is the Almighty God. We will never be subservient to anybody, no matter his position in the society.
“Be that as it may, when we assess the judiciary from the 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 a Progressive decline. The only thing I can do at this juncture is to plead with all concerned to let us enjoy our independence holistically.
“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. It is like saying a cow is free to graze about in the meadow but at the same time, tying it firmly to a tree. Where is the freedom?
“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.
“Effort should be made by the relevant authorities to increase the salary and also work out measures to improve the welfare package of judicial officers, especially after retirement. The comfort of my brother justices in various courts across the country is one of my topmost priorities and I will pursue it with the seriousness it deserves.
“Ideally, retired justices should be accorded the benefit of annual medical treatment locally and abroad, if the ‘ need arises to go for foreign Medicare. The subsisting poor medical care has accounted for the increasing deaths of most of our retired justices, as they often retire into penury and even without any befitting accommodation to rest their pale nerves.
“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.
“That is certainly not a good omen at this stage of our nationhood. 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.
“Let it not just be said to be independent but should, in words and actions, be seen to be truly independent. There should not be any strings attached. We would not like to negotiate our financial independence under any guise. Even as I speak now, some States Judiciaries are still having issues with their respective governments. A stitch in time will certainly save nine. Let the judiciary take its destiny in its hands”, the CJN stated.
While enjoining the Nigerian Police Force and other security agencies to always conduct proper investigations before charging suspects to court, the CJN, said the apex court had in the last legal year, entertained a total number of 1,874 cases, comprising of motions and appeals.
“Out of these, we heard 788 Civil, 262 Criminal and 65 Political, making a total of 1115 motions. Similarly, the court considered a total number of 759 Appeals, comprising of 215 Civil, 156 Criminal and 388 political. A total number of 324 judgements were delivered in the year”, he added.
The CJN enjoined the new SANs to avoid sharp practices that are capable of exposing the judiciary to ridicule, stressing that their conduct will henceforth be subjected to public scrutiny.
Meantime, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, who was a guest at the event, said President Muhammadu Buhari would take steps to improve both the justice system and welfare of judicial officers in the country.
However, he urged Justices of the apex court not to succumb to pressure from political parties that would lodge appeals to challenge judgements of various election petition tribunals.
“In the light of the concluded general elections and its aftermath election tribunals’ judgments, over which our courts of first instances and appellate courts, decided on different election issues presented before them, this address serves as a clarion call on the Court of Appeal and to this apex Court of the land, to be courageous in delivering landmark decisions in favour of justice, equity and fairness.
“Also, this court should not be seen to bow to the pressures of different political actors, being the last hope of every litigant, irrespective of any irregularity that might have occurred in the course of dispensing justice by different election tribunals. It is important that this court as a final arbiter remains just and resolute in resolving all issues presented before it.
“The above role of the Supreme Court brings to mind the revered words of Justice Chukwudifu Oputa (JSC) of blessed memory, on the ünality of the Supreme Court in the case of Adegoke Motors v. Adesanya (1983) 3 NWLR (PT 109) 250 @ 274, thus: ‘We are final not because we are infallible rather we are infallible because we are final’.
“Similarly, based on a presidential mandate, the Committee on the Review of Judicial Salaries and Conditions of Service was constituted. In coming up with its recommendations to ensure that the welfare of our noble judicial officers reflect current realities, the Committee consulted with all Heads of Courts and other stakeholders. I can assure this noble gathering that the efforts of the Committee will soon materialize for the good of our dear country”, Malami stated.
On its part, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, in a speech that was presented by its National President, Paul Usoro, SAN, harped on the need for the judiciary to protect itself from what it described as unlawful attacks from other arms of the government, citing the case of the former CJN, Walter Onnoghen.
It further tasked the National Judicial Council, NJC, to intensify its efforts to weed out corrupt elements from the Bench, even as it urged FG to look into the welfare of judicial officers.
“We betray our vaunted fight against corruption in the judiciary and public sector when we remunerate our judicial and public officers most inadequately as we currently do.
“The fight against corruption is best fought by tackling the incentives for corruption such as the extremely inadequate compensation packages for our judicial and public officers generally.
“We appeal to relevant stakeholders, to holistically review upward the compensation packages of our judicial officers at all levels, sufficient to objectively eliminate any incentive for corruption in the judiciary. At the same time, the judiciary must not relent in ridding itself of corrupt elements, if any, in its fold. The internal self-regulating processes that reside within the NJC, pursuant to law, must be utilized and constantly oiled to weed out corrupt judicial officers who give the judiciary a bad name.
“The judiciary would, in the process, strengthen public confidence in the institution while keeping at bay those persons and agencies who demonize and degrade the judiciary”.
Meanwhile, the ceremony marked the official return of Justice Sylvester Ngwuta who was earlier tried on corruption charges by the Federal Government but found innocent by the court, to the apex court bench.
Justice Ngwuta was among other justices that attended the special court session to herald the new legal year of the apex court. Vanguard