Friday, 2nd June 2023

Rumbling in Supreme Court!

By AbduRafiu
23 June 2022   |   2:36 am
The report about the shameful shabby treatment which is being meted out to the Justices of the Supreme Court has further exposed how low our country can go. There is hardly any institution

Tanko Muhammad

The report about the shameful shabby treatment which is being meted out to the Justices of the Supreme Court has further exposed how low our country can go. There is hardly any institution that is held sacrosanct any longer, that is insulated and kept away from the ravaging waves of the rot and uncertainties that have unrelentingly been assailing the nation. It is not for nothing that the Justices are cocooned from the accustomed tidal waves of disputations of whatever nature in the land -the social, corporate world, in politics, between communities or nations; between governments or between private citizens.

In several climes, they are regarded as deities full of oracular wisdom and the wisdom of Solomon and imbued with power. If a President or governor were to consider a person as an irritant and ask that the fellow be imprisoned or even hanged, it is only the courts that can halt and quash it. They alone have the power of life and death over fellow human beings. The pronouncement of the Supreme Court in many cases becomes Case Law. They interpret and refine the law, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s for overall societal good.

Like an oracle of Delphi, like Thoth the Egyptian God of Wisdom, like Athena, the Greek goddess of reason and wisdom that they are supposed to be, men and women, are heard but not seen. And when seen outside their shrine, not heard. They are precluded from social activities. If they are described as hermits, it would not be far from an apt appellation in which to robe them. They are the embodiment of the law. When they are clothed in mortal robes, they are expected to be guided strictly by their codes of conduct. They are fierce watchdogs of the rule of law and unsparing nor apologetic in its application. Their experience of life is taken for granted; their knowledge is trusted. Appearing before them is with trepidation.

If I may recall a programme at which Chief Justice Teslim Elias was chairman and General Yakubu Gowon was the special guest of honour. Usually, presidents and governors arrive when everybody is seated. Everyone rises in homage to the special ones, after which the doors are shut and security sees to it that no one gets in anymore. To everybody’s shock, General Gowon came very early. He saw the surprise on everyone’s faces. He promptly dispersed the anxiety in the hall, saying he came so early because he did not want to be charged with contempt of court with Chief Justice Elias in the chair. The hall predictably roared in applause. It was humour all right; Gowon’s accustomed elixir to rekindle spirit in seeming moments of anxiety, often effortlessly drawn from his armoury of humour.

The narrative is to demonstrate how powerful Court Justices could be and indeed are. It shows that the law is not respecter of anybody. Even though the Judiciary constitutes the third arm of government after the Presidency, the Legislature, the President’s office can be called to order, called to account or made to face the wrath of the law, too, by the Justices. Such is the power and wholesomeness of the Supreme Court that the Justices are addressed as their lordships. Societies even go overboard that magistrates are addressed as Your Worship. It is either forgotten or is little realised and if realised little thought is given to its import that worship belongs only to the Highest, the Almighty God, the Creator of all. It is to be hoped that substitutes would be found for the words we use at the moment for the form of address to put them on the high pedestal they rightly should be seen to belong. When they retire, the word Honourable is affixed to their names. They are to be exemplars of honour in all they do, to be representatives of all that is high and noble.

What is at issue? The embarrassing report says 14 of the Supreme Court Justices have loudly protested their deplorable and humiliating conditions of service unbefitting of Justices of the Supreme Court. Early in the week, it became known that the Justices have written a letter to the Chief Justice, complaining about poor conditions of service and how their complaints had been ignored.

The letter is titled: “The State of Affairs in the Supreme Court of Nigeria and Demand by Justices of the Court.” The letter reads as follows: “My Lord the Honourable Justice of Nigeria, we, the Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, carefully reviewed the state of affairs in this court, and unanimously resolved to write formally and draw the attention of Your Lordship to our demands.

As a Preamble, let it be clearly understood that the resolution to write Your Lordship was reached with sense of responsibility. We are serving this country diligently and to the best of our ability. We resolve disputes between the Executive and the Legislature including all manner of disagreements, between governments and individuals. We are responsible citizens of this country. It would be a tragedy if the Nigerian public were to know that we are unable to resolve our problems internally without going public.

The decision to write you formally must be seen by Your Lordship as an effort on our part to preserve the dignity of the judiciary and the respect accorded to us by governments and the people of Nigeria. God forbid the day that our internal issues become a matter of national discourse.”

The Justices complained about poor accommodation, non-payment of their allowances and non-provision of the internet with which to work at home and poor health facilities. Accusing the Chief Justice of maladministration, they said their woes began largely during his tenure. It is said that the yearly budgetary allocation of N110 billion to the highest court has remained static since 2018 despite inflationary pressure that has not spared people and institutions. This has made their working condition deplorable.

The Chief Justice has, however, allayed the fears of any rancor or fissure in the court and that the issues in contention have largely been resolved, and that in fact, he met with his brother Justices last week Thursday and another meeting is billed for this week. According to a statement by his Senior Special Assistant (Media), Churaka Yusuf Isah, Chief Justice Tanko Mohammad said he had refrained from joining issues with his brother Justices because “Judges in all climes are to be seen, not heard, and not until he discovered that “a letter said to be personal, is spreading across the length and breadth of the society. This is akin to dancing 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 capita, 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 on one item for another.

“Take, for instance, the Supreme court budgeted this year to re-roof and rehabilitate its complex built over 30 years ago and that is being done. The work on the extension of the complex is near completion, the aesthetic lawns and cleanness of the perimeters are being well kept, and security and water supply are adequately provided for his brother Justices in their offices and residences.

“During the period of the pandemic, a profound and extra-care were maintained to avoid casualties among them as well as the staff generally. It would have amounted to an act of irresponsibility to divert money meant for the above otherwise. The accusation so far in summary is that more or all ought to have been done, which is utopian in the contemporary condition of our country.

“Before eight new justices were appointed in 2020 onto the apex court Bench, there was no additional budget to provide new chambers with an equipped library, legal assistance, residential accommodation and logistics for them. The apex court has to make do with the resources at its disposal to meet its needs over time. All the Justices of this court have at least legal assistance, except some may opt for more…two Supreme Court justices died within the period under consideration. Both the four retirees and two departed cost the court some funds in the form of gratuities and allowances.”

On the complaints of the workshop in London, a facility programme of which the Justices have not been availed, the Chief Justice said: “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. Accommodation is being gradually provided for the few that are yet to get it. There is none of the Apex Court Justices without an SUV and backup 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.

According to the Chief Justice, court rules are being reviewed but the exercise has to be critically done “to avoid conflict with the constitution and other extant laws. Not all the CJNs have reviewed the rules in the past. Within the three years, his brother Justices mentioned came the pandemic and the judiciary workers’ strike. The internet services have been restored to justices’ chambers, just as allowances have been paid to them.”

When there is a crisis at the highest court in the land, how do members of the public intervene? We are talking about sharp differences in a closed circle of oracles whose pronouncements are law and infallible. Justice Chukwufudi Oputa more admirably referred to as Socrates of his time for his profound thoughts once wrapped the Supreme Court in the garment of infallibility. He did say in 1989 that the Supreme Court is final because it is infallible and infallible because it’s final. It is within such awe that the Justices of the Supreme Court should be held. We still have to wade into the conflict because of the grave danger of disunity among the justices poses. The response of the Chief Justice is, backed with facts, is tight and impressive. I think, however, the grievances have built up for some time and the CJN did not rise to the occasion to nib it in the bud. He did not appear to carry his colleagues along in the administrative aspect of his onerous responsibilities. Two, it is said, is a company and three is a crowd. How many are the Justices that they cannot meet even on the Supreme Court budget more so when it falls short of expectation—not 15 on the whole? Supreme Court Justices are men and women who have had experiences, even if a handful in administration. They rose through the ranks—from High Court to Appeal Court. In all of these, they gathered experience in human management. What does the Supreme Court lose in Justice’s brainstorming, not just on law and cases? It ought not to take them by surprise when there is a budget cut or delay in the release of funds or appropriation. They are sufficiently on top of affairs to appreciate that. I believe there is more to gain in collaborative working. It ought not to be it is at the point of putting out fire through last-minute meetings or in a Press statement that the Justices would be learning about their affairs bordering on their welfare.

It is the whole nation that loses in the tardiness of the other arms of the country—the Executive and the Legislative—in not placing the Judiciary on a special pedestal. How do we explain a situation a Supreme Court Justice is paid only about N500, 000 a month and a professor N450,000 while a senator goes home with nothing less than N14 million a month, even if we go by the figure of Shehu Sani and not by the revelation of Professor Itse Sagay? Hold it: N29 million a month and he should know. We cannot afford to have the Justices enlist in the Labour Congress before the government looks seriously into their affairs.

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