By Henry Ojelu & Peter Duru
The much anticipated mother-of- all battle between 14 Justices of the Supreme Court and the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad over allegations of misappropriation of fund meant for the apex court took a dramatic twist on Monday when the CJN suddenly resigned his appointment.
In a strongly worded letter, the 14 Justices in an unprecedented move had openly accused Justice Muhammad of repeatedly ignoring their demand for improved welfare despite the upward review of the budgetary allocation of the judiciary.
In the letter entitled: The State of Affairs in the Supreme Court of Nigeria by Justices of the Court, the Justices said they decided to air their grievances after they carefully reviewed the state of things at the apex court.
They also accused the ex-CJN of not allowing them to attend trainings, adding that vehicles that were supplied to them were either refurbished or substandard. Non-provision of accommodation for newly appointed Justices was also another major issue raised by the Justices.
In a direct attack on the integrity of the outgone CJN, the 14 Justices accused him of double standard for denying them the privilege of attending foreign trainings whereas he had travelled on several occasions with his spouse, children and personal staff.
Boxed to a corner, the ex-CJN tried unsuccessfully to trivialize the issues raised by calling for calm and insisting that he was doing his best to evenly distribute the allocation to the judiciary to competing needs. In response to the allegations against his administration, Justice Muhammad in a statement by his media aide, Mr. Ahuraka Isah, said: “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.”
According to the ex- CJN: “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.”
Despite his attempt to belittle the grave allegations, the 14 Justices refused to back down on their demands and further threatened to explore ‘extreme’ measures to seek solution to the issues raised.
To manage the national embarrassment the issue was giving the judiciary, the National Assembly last week directed its Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, to as a matter of urgency, intervene.
The Body of Benchers also announced an emergency meeting to deliberate on the crisis.
As Nigerians await more revelations on the unfolding drama in the hallowed chambers of the Supreme Court, the man in the centre of the allegation suddenly announced his decision to resign his appointment on health grounds.
His action has raised critical question of what becomes of the weighty allegation of fund diversion against him and how the endemic rot in the judiciary should be tackled. Some Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SANs, who spoke to Law and Human Rights proffered divergent solutions on the way out.
S’Court finances should be managed by professionals —Prof Ojukwu, SAN
According to former Deputy Director- General of Nigerian Law School, Prof. Ernest Ojukwu, the solution to the multifaceted issues bedeviling the apex court especially management of fund, was to engage competent professionals with the capacity for the management and administration of complex business organisations, while allowing judicial officers to focus on their primary responsibility of dispensing justice.
He opined that while there might be a need for increased funding for the Judiciary, the basis for such need must be properly established and must be juxtaposed against the need for proper budgeting and full accountability with a responsibility on the Judiciary to account for any and all funds allocated to it, as is expected of all other arms of government.
Adopting the resolution reached at a recent Justice Sector Summit, Prof. Ojukwu said: “There is a need to strengthen the administration of the Judiciary by engaging professionals with the appropriate training and capacity for the management and administration of complex business organisations, while allowing judicial officers to focus on their primary responsibility of dispensing justice.
“The objective of professionalising the administration of the courts must be carried out in such a manner that it addresses the legitimate concerns in relation to the accountability of the Judiciary for funds allocated to it, inadequate budgetary skills and discipline and inappropriate prioritisation of needs; against the need to ensure that the independence of the Judiciary is not undermined or eroded.
“This can be achieved by ensuring that professionals to be engaged with the appropriate training in management and administration of the courts report to the Judiciary, but are accountable to the government as a whole. The funding of the superior courts of record should remain the responsibility of the Federal Government in order to limit the risks of political interference by state governments.”
Allegations must be thoroughly investigated —Prof Erugo, SAN
While praising the former CJN for resigning his appointment over the allegations against him, Law lecturer, Prof. Sam Erugo, SAN, insisted that issues raised by Justices of the Supreme Court must be thoroughly investigated. He, however, pointed out that the investigation should be principally with a view to effecting positive change in the apex court.
He said: “This unusual crisis calls for sober reflection and action by the relevant statutory bodies, particularly, the NJC. However, the untimely retirement of Justice Muhammad has paved the way for change, and it should be positive change. In view of the current public concerns and scrutiny of the acting CJN, we may be witnessing some revolution following the resignation of Justice Muhammad, the first of such resignations at the apex court.
“The average Nigerian public officer would ordinarily refuse to resign from office despite public outcry and those responsible for his removal would turn a blind eye. So many public officers accused of worse crimes are still holding on to offices today. The former CJN has shown that public officers could be responsible and accountable to the people by resignation from office.
Resignation does not mean admission of guilt, but respect for public opinion and interest since it creates opportunity for transparent investigation.
“There is now need for thorough and transparent investigation to identify the unusual challenges that led to the allegations contained in the memorandum by the ordinarily conservative Justices of the Supreme Court. This will principally be with a view to effect positive change in the instityution, the apex court. It is common knowledge that the Supreme Court has achieved financial autonomy to a large extent, but the current agitation suggests that the necessary transparency in the administrative machinery to enable the Court and her Justices enjoy the benefits of judicial autonomy is not in place.
“Adequate funding, appropriate remuneration and transparency in the financial management process are sine qua non in insulating the apex court from political and other pressures. In addition, NJC will need to scale up evaluation, monitoring and control of the Justices.”
Complete overhaul of S’Court governance process — Owonikoko, SAN
Abiodun Owonikoko, SAN, believes that until the accounting and procurement process at the Supreme Court is completely overhauled, the issues raised by the 14 Justices would still persist under the current administration of Justice Olatunde Ariwoola.
According to Owonikoko, the Supreme Court ought to be a reference point for higher standard in accountability for other arms of government.
“The accounting and procurement process at the Supreme Court warrant governance overhaul. It should become process-driven than discretionary at the whim of head of court. The financial autonomy of the judiciary should not be a licence to jettison accountability. Our judiciary must be held to even higher standard of upright handling of its finances than the other arms of government where pork-barrel and political patronage dominate appropriated funds.”
Owonikoko further emphasized the need to increase the salary and other welfare packages of Justices to reflect current economic realities.
He said: “Above all, it’s high time we bench-marked the remuneration and welfare package of our higher bench Justices to compare favourably with international best practices. This is to insulate them from undue pressure, vulnerability to influence and poverty of welfare.
“To whom much is given, much should be expected. Inflation has made nonsense of salary earning public officials in Nigeria lately – and the position of judicial officers is even more perilous since they are limited in options to seek multiple streams of income. Their condition of service ought to be made dignifying and edifying to befit their status as our lords temporal.”
Truth and reconciliation panel —Hon, SAN
While some stakeholders have advocated outright probe of Justice Muhammad’s administration in light of the can of worms spilled by his fellow Justices, Sebastine Hon, advocated a less dramatic approach. According to Hon, what is needed to tackle the issues raised is through a Truth and Reconciliation panel which he suggested should be headed by a retired Chief Justice. This approach, he said, would help the judiciary come off the current quagmire unhurt.
“I suggest that a respectable retired Chief Justice of Nigeria, who is of impeccable and unbending disposition, should spearhead a truth and reconciliation panel. The Body of Benchers should nominate such a personality and other members of the panel; and the said panel should have the boldness to tackle the issues without fear or favour. This way, the Judiciary may come out of the crisis unhurt, or just slightly hurt. I don’t subscribe to the Senate or any outside institution or persons attempting to proffer solutions. They will compound the problem rather than solve it.”
S’Court must adopt appropriate changes—Pedro, SAN
Former Solicitor-General of Lagos State, Mr. Lawal Pedro, SAN, said the new leadership of the Supreme Court must come to terms with modern realities and adopt appropriate changes.
He said: “I must admit times have changed and the legal profession, including the Supreme Court, has not been spared.
Therefore, the leadership of the profession and the Supreme Court going forward, must change with the time but ensure to preserve and protect the integrity of the profession and the institutions where the profession is practised.
“Meanwhile, I don’t think the recent complaints against the system of administration in the Supreme Court by the 14 justices and other issues raised should be seen or taken in the usual parlance of allegations of “mismanagement of funds” which has a different meaning from what the justices complained of.
“The response of the former CJN underscored the lack of unity which may have arisen from non-holding of regular meetings of the justices of the court. This should be addressed urgently as there is only one Supreme Court in Nigeria and it should be seen as such. Therefore, the apprehension of hostility or adverse feelings amongst the Justices should not arise.
“The response of the CJN also brings to the fore the position of the judiciary in governance of the country. Is the Judiciary a parastatal of the Executive arm or the third arm of government? If we agree it is an arm of the government, then it should have what it requires, insulating it from unnecessary outside influence and making the justices and other staff comfortable to function properly to guarantee effective and efficient administration of justice so as to contribute to the social and economic development of the country.”
Allegations against Ex-CJN must be probed —Pepe, SAN
Mr. Douglas Pepe, SAN, opined that the only way to restore people’s confidence in the Supreme Court is by carrying out a thorough investigation into the allegations against the ex-CJN. He stated that sweeping the weighty allegations raised by the 14 justices under the carpet will adversely affect the public perception of the justice sector. “The acting CJN should ensure that those allegations against the former CJN were probed because the allegations were coming from high quarters. So there is need for a transparent probe and the findings published so that Nigerians will be reassured that whatever went wrong is being addressed or has been addressed.
“If you don’t probe it and sweep it under the carpet, you will be making a big blunder because an impression has already been planted in the minds of Nigerians. And we know that the judiciary should be seen to be above board by all Nigerians. So this is not just a matter of the judiciary, it is a matter of every member of the public.” .
On the resignation of the former CJN, the legal luminary said: “The resignation of the former CJN is a welcome development. It is also better that the Justices stood up against him and forced him out. He was not treating them well. They had raised the issue of being denied their rights and privileges.
“Suffice it to note that the improvement of the welfare of judicial officers is paramount. Even if you get judicial independence and the Justices are not well paid, it makes no difference. There are indications that even the ones that have retired, some of them especially from the state judiciary, find it difficult to get their pension.
“So you have a situation where a Justice of the High Court who is being paid from the Federation account but when he retires, if he is a Judge of the State High Court, the moment he retires, his pension is returned to the state government and the state governments find it hard to pay them their pensions.
Some of them are suffering. You hear complaints from them that their pensions are not being paid regularly and their welfare not taken care of. So these issues should be given attention by the new CJN,” he said.