•Mull strike action, as Body of Benchers, Senate wade in
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri, ABUJA
There seems no immediate end in sight to the ruckus at the Supreme Court over alleged mismanagement of funds and absence of probity by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Ibrahim Muhammad, as 14 justices of the court, insist on full blown investigation.
The justices had in a recent letter to the CJN, which was leaked to the public, protested the non-payment of their legitimate entitlements for a prolonged period of time.
They accused the CJN who doubles as the Chairman of the National Judicial Council, NJC, of ignoring their repeated demand for improved welfare, despite the upward review of the budgetary allocation of the judiciary.
Aside allegation that accommodation was not provided for new justices that were sworn in since 2020, the aggrieved jurists, accused the CJN of not allowing them to attend foreign trainings, adding that vehicles that were supplied to them were either refurbished or substandard.
According to them, though they were blocked from attending foreign trainings, the CJN, at their own expense, severally travelled out of the country with his spouse and children.
“In the past, justices were nominated to attend two to three foreign workshops and trainings per annum with an accompanying person for reasons of age.
“Since Your Lordship’s assumption of office, justices only attended two workshops in Dubai and Zanzibar. They were not accorded the privilege of travelling with accompanying persons as was the practice.
“Your Lordship totally ignored this demand and yet travelled with spouse, children and personal staff.
”We DEMAND to know what has become of our training funds, have they been diverted, or is it a plain denial? Your Lordship may also remember that the National Assembly has increased the budgetary allocation of the Judiciary.
“We find it strange that in spite of the upward review of our budgetary allocation, the court cannot cater for our legitimate entitlements. This is unacceptable!,” the aggrieved Justices stated.
More so, they decried that the Chief Registrar of the court had in an internal memo that was served on them, stressed that electricity would only be supplied to the court between 8am and 4pm daily, owing to lack of diesel, implying that they must leave office before the stated time.
“The state of health care in the court has deteriorated; the Supreme Court clinic has become a mere consulting clinic. Drugs are not available to treat minor ailments.
“There is general lack of concern for justices who require immediate or emergency medical intervention,” they added, even as they equally bemoaned the disconnection of internet services at their chambers and official residence.
In the letter titled: “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.
“Your Lordship, with all due respect, this is the peak of the degeneration of the court; it is the height of decadence, and clear evidence of the absence of probity and moral rectitude.
“Your Lordship, this act alone portends imminent danger to the survival of this court and the judiciary as an institution, which is gradually drifting to extinction,” they wrote.
Meanwhile, the CJN, had in his response to the letter, berated his brother justices for taking the issue to the public, an action he said was akin to “dancing naked in the market.”
In a statement that was signed by his media aide, Mr. Ahuraka Isah, the CJN, while denying any wrong doing, maintained that “Judges in all climes are to be seen and not heard.”
Justice Muhammad, who will retire on December 31, 2023, noted that despite financial difficulty the court was facing, his administration made efforts to recruit legal assistants for the justices and also provided some other logistical support they were entitled to.
“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 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.”
“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 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.
“The high cost of electricity tariff and diesel is a national problem. 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 internet services have been restored to Justices’ residences and chambers, just as some allowances have been paid to them.
“The general public should be rest assured that there is no hostility or adverse feelings amongst the Justices of the Supreme Court, as everyone is going about his normal duty”, the CJN stated.
However, contrary to the CJN’s position that the bedlam had been taken care of, investigation by Saturday Vanguard, revealed that the aggrieved justices are still insisting on a thorough probe of budgetary allocations of the judiciary, especially funds meant for the Supreme Court.
A top source at the apex court who craved anonymity, told Saturday Vanguard that the CJN had at two separate meetings with the justices, begged them to sheath their swords.
“The justices who were angry that the CJN ignored resolutions that were reached in previous meetings, insisted that accounts of the court must be probed.
“Even some retired justices that were enlisted by the CJN to help him to beg his brother Justices, also expressed their displeasure over the current state of affairs in the Judiciary”, the source added.
It will be recalled that Justice Ejembi Eko who retired from the apex court on May 23, had asked the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission, ICPC, and other investigatory agencies in the country to probe and expose what he described as internal fraud in the management of the budgetary resources of the Judiciary.
Justice Eko decried what he termed as “the vandalization of the Judiciary budget”, saying he was baffled the welfare of judges remained in abject state, in spite of the increase of the budgetary allocation of the Judiciary.
He argued that allowing investigating agencies to look into the financial books of the Judiciary, will not compromise its independence.
Likewise, the immediate past CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, who was in 2019, forced out of office by the President Muhammadu Buhari led administration and replaced with the incumbent CJN, had at a book lunch he attended on June 16, warned that the Supreme Court was gradually turning to “a glorified High Court”, owing to the ill-treatment of the justices.
He said there was need for the government to urgently look into the issue of welfare of judicial officers in the country to enable them to perform optimally.
Meantime, determined to restore calm at the apex court, both the Nigerian Senate and the Body of Benchers, have waded into the ongoing impasse at the Supreme Court.
While the Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, mandated the Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, to as a matter of urgency, intervene in the crisis rocking the judiciary, Vanguard, learnt that the Body of Benchers have also fixed a meeting with the warring parties, next week.
Confirming the development, a top source at the NJC disclosed that the interventions became necessary, after some of the aggrieved justices considered the idea of embarking on a strike action to drive home their point.