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59 Years After Independence: Nigerian Judiciary Still Searching For Freedom 

The Nigerian judiciary has contributed in no small measure to the socio-economic and socio-political survival of Nigeria since its independence from British rule in 1960 but the jury is still out on the degree of importance the country placed on the third arm of government. Olugbenga Soyele examines the contributions and challenges of the judiciary in the last 59 years.

The Nigerian Judiciary just like the other arms of government came into existence before the country attained self rule and by virtue of colonization, the Nigerian Legal System is based on the English Common Law and legal traditions.

Before the country achieved freedom, the judiciary was not separate from the executive, it was just a department controlled by the executive branch of government. Its jurisdiction was also controlled by a supervisory courts based in England as appeals from Nigerian courts goes to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council which was then the court of last resort.

At independence in 1960, the Nigerian Judiciary attained the status of an independent arm of government. This also led to the establishment of the Supreme Court as the apex court of the land, with Sir Adetokunbo Ademola becoming the first indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria in 1958.

However, the story has not been a smooth sailing one for the judiciary because of the many contradictions that plagued the country, one of the historical incident that had negatively impacted the Judiciary was military rule.

This period witnessed wanton disregard for the rule of law and democratic principles. The military government treated the judiciary as if it were an integral part of the civil service. There was indiscriminate dismissal of judicial officers and open disobedience of judicial Pronouncements.

The return of democratic rule in 1999 once again brought to the fore the vibrancy and courage of the judiciary as several landmark decisions were made by the court. This new vigour has been attributed to some unique provisions introduced by the 1999 Constitution, especially those providing for the establishment of two independent regulatory institutions, the National Judicial Council (NJC) and the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC).

However, in spite of these positives, some major challenges persist. One of such challenges is the lack of independence arising from the judiciary being tied to the apron strings of the executive arm of government as recently alluded to by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Mahammad.

Justice Mahammad at the special session that was held to mark the commencement of the 2019/2020 legal year of the Supreme Court said that the Nigerian Judiciary, to a large extent, is independent in conducting its affairs and taking decisions on matters before it without any extraneous influence.
He also stated that, “at the Supreme 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.

 “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.

 “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.

As if reacting to the fundamental issues raised by the CJN, President Muhammadu Buhari at  the commissioning of the annex building of the headquarters of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria in Abuja, said that his administration will continue to adequately fund the judiciary to enable it discharge its responsibilities.

Preident Buhari also noted that the budgetary allocation to the third arm of government, moved from N68 billion in 2014 to N100 billion in the 2019 budget.
He further stressed, ‘‘you will all recall that in 2014, the entire budgetary allocation to the judiciary was N68 billion. Today, the judiciary budgetary allocation has gone up to N100 billion. Rest assured that we shall continue to adequately fund the judiciary to ensure it is enabled to discharge its responsibilities.’’

The Nigerian President used the occasion to appeal to the three arms of government to continue collaborative partnership to ensure that policies, programmes and projects of his administration positively impact the lives of Nigerians.

‘‘Simply put, all Nigerians, regardless of ethnicity, religion and politics deserve peaceful and prosperous lives. Where these basic rights are trampled upon, Nigerians deserve fair justice delivery.

‘‘It is, therefore, our collective duty to work collaboratively to ensure that such rights are safeguarded,’’ he said.

Many have described this development a begin of better funding for the judiciary, over the years there have been accusation and counter accusations of bribery and corruption against judicial officers and the attempt by the Federal Government to tackle the menace through the arrest and trial of some of them had failed to yield satisfactory result.

Most of the judicial officers, whose home were raided on October 7, 2017, by operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) had been absolved of the allegations and the cases which are still in court are moving at a very slow space.

Recognised the damage the allegations of fraud and corruption is inflicting on the image of the judiciary, the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria Justice Onnoghen, who himself was consumed by similar allegations, set up a committee, the National Judicial Council Committee on the Monitoring of Corruption Cases (COTRIMCO), which comprised of lawyers, judges and members of civil society to tackle the menace.

However, very little have been heard from the committee apart from very meetings it held with judicial offices across the country.

Apart from these allegation of corruption that has shook the judiciary to its foundation other problems plaguing the third arm of government are failure of the executive and legislature, at all levels, to respect the authority of the court by obeying judgments without reservation, high cost of litigation, delay in court proceedings, over reliance on legal technicalities and prison congestion.

In one of his recent public interventions, former President of the Nigerian Bar Associarion (NBA) Dr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) called for the transformation of court administration and management by massive deployment of Information Technology, such as, e-payment & e-filing systems, electronic court recorders, internet facilities, training of judicial staff on IT, etc.

The senior lawyer also suggested the empowering of Judges to manage their cases. For him, “a Judge should be in charge of his/her Court and should ‘descend’, as it were, into the arena if that will entail effective case management.

“Gone should be the days when a judge sits back and watch counsel take the Court on unnecessary and unhelpful rigmarole merely because an intervention would classify as a descent into the arena of conflict.
“The Fundamental Objective of Rules of Court is geared towards attainment of justice through the deployment of Judges managerial involvement,” he said.

On his part, human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), said in the midst of all these challenges, the judiciary has continued to live up to its constitutional and historical role as the bastion of constitutional democracy and for it to continue to play it roles effectively stakeholders in the sector must initiate adequate reforms to tackle the challenges confronting the institution and the administration of justice in Nigeria.

Falana, who compared Nigeria’s judiciary to those of developed countries, said some corrupt lawyers were exploiting the system to frustrate cases against public officials.

He said, “If you steal money in China, it is public execution. Nigeria is the only country where you hire drummers and people wear aso ebi to court premises. There is nothing more contemptuous because you are challenging the state for charging you to court.

Here, out of the money you have stolen, you get a bad lawyer who will adopt all manner of delay tactics to get the state frustrated from prosecuting you.

 “Today in England, if you file a motion that is meant to delay the case, you are disciplined by the law society. But here, these are the lawyers that we are celebrating.

According to the human rights lawyer, a judge is more powerful than a President because he can sentence a man to death.

He explained that a judge, who could collect money to compromise cases, could also collect money to kill, using legal instrument.

 “Our country has been destroyed to the point that we now celebrate those who are corrupt. When you charge a big man now for stolen money…abroad, the lawyer will have to apply to the court to be paid for defending somebody who is charged with corruption.

But here, you pay the lawyer and bribe the judge. The judiciary cannot operate outside the Nigerian system,” he added.

Another human rights lawyer, Ebun Olu-Adegboruwa (SAN) said, “this situation is now very urgent, moreso when the number one judicial officer is openly begging for freedom. What would a Magistrate do then?

“Society cannot exist on the dictates of anybody, neither can we discard the basic tenets of democratic engagement, simply because some people are unwilling to play the game by the rules. So, if we turn every space in the newspaper to say it, it will still not be loud enough.

“Right from the period of independence till now, the courts have been the stabilizing force of unity and survival of the nation. No one has ever been so drunken with power to dissolve the court system, even in the dark days of the military. And yet, we now have those who claim to be democrats breathing down upon the most vital arm of government.

“We cannot and must not allow it. We should all rise up to rescue the judges from shedding more tears for their freedom and independence.

“It is now time for Benchers, Senior Advocates, NBA officers and all other stakeholders to take over the cry of the judges, before it gets out hand. Judges being unofficial members of the Bar Association, it is our duty to speak out for and protect them in times like this, the lawyer stated.

16th June 2024
Nigerian Pantagraph