By Innocent Anaba
The assertion that the judiciary is the last hope of the common man is a time-tested truth. When at some point, officials of other arms of government, Executive and Legislature, fail to guarantee the constitutional rights of citizens, the judiciary is often the final arbiter. Though not isolated from common frailty of a system managed by human elements, the Nigerian judiciary has stood the test as the true conscience of the nation. Despite this creditable performance, the judiciary is silently labouring under the heavy burden of poor funding which may soon cripple it if not tackled urgently.
Among the three arms of government, the judiciary is the least funded. While the executive and the legislature are able to negotiate better deals for themselves, the judiciary isn’t so lucky. The judiciary is therefore, left at the mercy of both the executive and the legislature for funding. The consequence of this is that it does not get the resources it needs to deliver on the mandate given to it by Section 6(1) and (2) of the Constitution which provides: (1) “The judicial powers of the Federation shall be vested in the courts to which this section relates, being courts established for the Federation.” (2) “The judicial powers of a State shall be vested in the courts to which this section relates, being courts established, subject as provided by this Constitution.”
Granted that in the face of dwindling revenues, shortage of funds is not only a challenge to the judiciary but also to other arms of government, but the judiciary is worse off. This is because it has no leverage in the budgeting process.
The executive prepares the appropriation bill while the legislature passes it into law.
The judiciary is then left at the mercy of the two arms of government. More often than not, the executive reduces the budget estimates submitted to it by the judiciary. Sometimes, a sympathetic legislature jerks it up. For instance, while President Muhammadu Buhari allocated N100 billion to the judiciary in the budget estimates he submitted to the National Assembly for 2018 Appropriation Bill, the legislature in its wisdom increased it to N110 billion. That is N10 billion above the same N100 billion that was appropriated for the 2017 fiscal year.
When the budget is finally approved, the executive then decides how to release it. Sometimes it releases funds for the judiciary on quarterly, monthly or bimonthly basis without considering the needs of the judiciary thereby forcing the latter to adjust its plans. The executive gives to the judiciary what it thinks is right and not what the judiciary actually needs. Apart from the uncertainty it creates, releasing funds to the judiciary piecemeal is usually very frustrating. It makes planning difficult.
While the federal judiciary has fared better in terms of funding, courts at state level are barely getting by. Judges in some states sit in decrepit court rooms. Facilities that should make their court rooms.
comfortable are lacking. Many governors hold their judiciaries to ransom by refusing to release funds to the courts in violation of the constitution.
Elucidating on the magnitude of the problem, Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen at a recent function stated that the issue of inadequate funding at the state level is one of the greatest challenges confronting the judiciary of this nation. He enumerated.
the challenges to include lack of manpower development,inadequate facilities, among many others. According to him, how free or democratic a nation is, can be determined by the powers the judiciary is allowed to exercise.
“It is quite often said that the litmus test to find out how free and democratic any nation is; is to take a cursory look at its judiciary to find out what powers the nation is prepared to concede to this vital partner in governance,” he added. Various capital projects embarked upon by the judiciary across the country are either at a snail speed or completely abandoned due to non-availability of fund. Even judicial officers and other court staff don’t get their salaries and allowances on time thereby exposing them to corruption. Proposed reforms including automation of the judicial process remain mere ideals with no fund to implement them. The situation is further compounded as some judges are afraid to deliver judgment that goes against their governors to avoid being starved of fund. Many are under perpetual apprehension.
The reality is that many judges are not independent.
Aside from section 6 of the Constitution which gives judicial power to the judiciary, the legislature has continued to increase the workload of the judiciary.
For instance, the Constitution (4th Alteration) Act, No. 21 which President Buhari assented to, amends Section 285 of the constitution authorising the court or tribunal to suspend ruling on preliminary objection or interlocutory issue relating to jurisdiction and deliver same at the stage of final judgment. It inserts six new sub-sections that is (9) – (14). This is more work for the judiciary.
While new section 285 (10) states that ‘’A court in every pre-election matter shall deliver its judgment in writing within 180 days from the date of filing of the suit, new Section 285 (12) says “An appeal from a decision of a court in a pre-election matter shall be heard and disposed of within 60 days from the date of filing of the appeal.” In other words, the Constitution Amendment No. 21 mandates pre-election matters to be determined on time just like election petitions. The implication of this amendment is the increase in judges’ workload.
Ahead of the general elections next year, the courts are already flooded with pre-election matters. After the elections, the courts will be further stretched with the commencement of election tribunals. Though more responsibility are being given to the judiciary, the executive has not deemed it necessary to allocate more resources to the judiciary.
The Way Out
In the speech he delivered at the 2015 All Nigeria Judges Conference, President Buhari said that his administration was committed to the financial independence of the Nigerian judiciary in accordance with extant laws. Buhari emphasized that the judiciary must be treated fairly and much the same way as the executive and the legislature. While the president’s observation is commendable, he must however, back up his talk with action. The president should be encouraged to do more in line with his promise to help the judiciary reposition itself.
Mr President should ensure implementation of the Constitution’s Fourth Alteration Bill he assented to in June which grants financial autonomy to the State Houses of Assembly and the States’ Judiciary. Under the new law, amount standing to the credit of the judiciary will be paid directly to the judiciary of that state, no more through the governor and no more from the governors. The reality, however, is that most governors are in breach of the law. The leadership of the judiciary will have to find creative ways to engage the governors and persuade them to comply with the new law.
Resources are getting scarce. Revenue from oil is not likely to rise in the nearest future. It therefore, behoves on all institutions of government to avoid waste and make judicious use of resources allocated to them. Judiciary will also be better served if it heeds this advice.