Thursday, 1st June 2023

Supreme Court cash-strapped, CJN replies angry justices

By Joseph Onyekwere (Deputy Editor) and Ameh Ochojila (Abuja)
22 June 2022   |   4:17 am
The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, yesterday, responded to a protest letter sent to him by 14 Justices of the Supreme Court, denying allegations of uncaring attitude leveled against him by his brother Justices in the apex court.

Tanko Muhammad

• Ozekhome, Sagay, Akpata seek better deal for judiciary, prudent management of funds
The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, yesterday, responded to a protest letter sent to him by 14 Justices of the Supreme Court, denying allegations of uncaring attitude leveled against him by his brother Justices in the apex court.

In his first official reaction to the leaked memo of the senior Justices in Abuja, the CJN admitted that the Supreme Court, like any other establishment in the country, has been hit by devastating economic crunch.

As a result, he said the leadership of the court under him could no longer meet some of its obligations to Justices, especially in the area of welfare.

He, however, said that the memo sent to him by the aggrieved Justices, notwithstanding, there is no rift between him and Justices of the apex court.

The reaction, contained in a statement issued by his Special Assistant on Media and Strategy, Ahuraka Yusuf Isah, entitled ‘State of Affairs and Demand by Justices of the Supreme Court,’ reads in part: “Judges in all climes are to be seen and not heard, and that informed why the CJN refrained from joining issues until a letter, said to be personal, was spreading across the length and breadth of the society.

“This is akin to dancing naked at the market square by us with the ripple effect of the said letter. The Supreme Court definitely does not exist outside its environment; it is also affected by the economic and socio-political climate prevailing in the country. Besides that, the apex court has to a larger extent, been living to its constitutional responsibility.

“When a budget is made, it contains two sides, that’s the recurrent and the capital, yet all the two are broken down into items. The Federal Government releases the budget based on the budget components. And it’s an offence to spend the money meant for one item for another.

“The accusation so far, in summary, is that more or all ought to have been done and not that nothing has been done; which is utopian in the contemporary condition of our country.

“Before eight new Justices were appointed in 2020 into the apex court bench, there was no additional budget to provide new chambers with equipped library, legal assistance, residential accommodations and logistics for them.

“Besides, two Supreme Court Justices died within the period under consideration. Both the four retirees and the two departed cost the court some funds in form of gratuities and allowances.

“Two weeks ago, eight Supreme Court Justices were nominated for a workshop in London as the court cannot take all of them there at once, otherwise the job would suffer. They would be going in batches.

“Accommodations are being gradually provided for the few that are yet to get. There is none of the apex court Justices without SUV and back up cars. If any of them were purchased but refurbished, the external and internal auditors are here in the court to take those that bought them up over it.

“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 the generator would be put off if the court is sitting.

“The general public should be rest assured that there’s no hostility or adverse feelings among the Justices of the Supreme Court, as everyone is going about their normal duties.”

REACTING, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), said the CJN was right that the economic crunch is everywhere and biting everyone, “however, the entire income given to the Supreme Court yearly is like a drop of water in an oasis.

“Not only that, the yearly allocation to the Supreme Court has not changed in the last four to six years, meaning that every year, in spite of the inflationary trend, which has become geometrical and not merely arithmetical, the allocation remains static. It also means that at the time when the exchange rate was about N180 to N250 to a dollar, which is today about N612 to the dollar, their allocation has not changed. It also means that the quality of life has thereby been receding, instead of appreciating.

“These Supreme Court Justices are members of this society and they reside in it. They have their wives and husbands; they have their children and dependents to take care of. I don’t know who said that because it affects everybody, they should perish. What I expected the CJN to do is to say ‘I am going to take up your complaints and champion your cause before the executive that has become a rampaging bulldog. The CJN should act as the head of the judiciary, who is alpha and omega of the third arm of government, to make sure that the judiciary has more allocation and life is made better for Justices.

“It was Alexander Hamilton in his federalist paper, number 78, who once said that the judiciary is the weakest of the three arms of government; and that it has neither purse, where it keeps money nor even the sword to effect its judgment.

“Are we going to say that the judiciary should remain forever, trampled upon by the other two arms of government? When I read about the entire allocation of the judiciary, I weep. The entire allocation is like what some governors in this country simply pocket and walk away with as if nothing happened. The allocation is less than one quarter of what one ministry has and we have more than 30 ministries in Nigeria. Yet, we are talking about a whole arm of government – the judiciary.”

PRESIDENT of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Olumide Akpata, said the welfare of judicial officers must be holistically addressed to include improving the relatively paltry salaries of judges.

“If we must make the desired progress in Nigeria, we must continually tell ourselves the truth, especially, when it is not convenient to do so. It is election season and we are all witnesses to the humongous war chests that politicians and political parties are amassing. The only way to insulate and make our judges immune to the temptations of being corrupted by these politicians is to assure them of a decent compensation not just while in active service but also in their retirement.

“That is why we at the NBA have continued to fight for the financial independence and autonomy of the judicial arm of government, in every sense of the word. I was stunned at the Justice Sector Summit in January 2022, when a Justice of the Supreme Court informed us that there is no formal scheme for the mandatory appointment of judicial assistants for our Supreme Court Justices. Considering the inordinate amount of cases that our Justices currently handle, how can they realistically be expected to effectively carry out their sacred responsibilities?

“While we fight for the increased budgetary allocations for the judiciary, we must also advocate for the use of these resources for the welfare and wellbeing of our judicial officers, as well as for the improvement of the infrastructure and facilities required by our judges to effectively discharge their duties.

“Above all, we must continue to advocate the entrenchment of the principles of accountability, probity, and transparency in the manner in which the judiciary expends the allocated resources.”

FOR Prof Itse Sagay (SAN), judiciary should be prudent in funds management. “This is a common problem affecting all sectors of the society, not just judges. In fact, the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC) early in its assumption of office after its establishment recommended an increase in the allocation of statutory funds for the running of judiciary, which include salaries and allowances of judges.

“This was graciously accepted by the government, which increased it by a good percentage, but this was about five years ago. So, I understand when they complain because of the tremendous increase in cost of living now. This is affecting everybody.

“What they have to look at is their own internal management of funds, whether the funds are being used judiciously. The problem is two headed – the state of our economy, which is affecting everybody and the internal issue of judicious management of funds.

“Though they have the right to complain, it is rather unusual that this complaint sneaked out and has been heard by everybody. Judges are usually very reticent. For them to open up their internal affairs in this particular instance, I think it must be very serious and needs to be attended to.

“I also think that the judges themselves should be more committed to ensuring that their judgments reflect justice and that there is less predilection to technicalities as an excuse for allowing people who are guilty of offences to escape. So, they have a duty to do that too, in addition to their demand for better packages,” he said.