Our judges are weeping. And they are weeping profusely. Across the country, from the Magistrate’s Court to the Federal High Court and even the Supreme Court, the judges are crying neglect, abandonment and lack of independence and autonomy. And it is as if those concerned cannot hear the judges. It all started with the 2019 Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association held in Lagos in August, when the Chief Justice of Nigeria, the Honourable Justice Tanko Muhammad, stirred the hornet’s net, in his moving speech at the opening ceremony. The CJN did not mince words that the judiciary was under siege, suffers lack of autonomy and was being starved of funds, by the executive arm of government, which was out to muzzle the third arm of the realm. He gave a firm commitment that the judiciary under him would not allow interference or pander to the whims and caprices of the other arms of government. Although the weeping had started long before that time, but now coming from the highest judicial officer in the land, it became a serious matter for public attention.
At that same occasion, there was a controversy as to whether judges were embracing self-imposed timidity or they are being intimidated by the executive arm, which prompted the Chief Judge of Edo State to stand in defence of the judiciary, wondering why lawyers have failed to defend judges in order to give them the needed impetus to do their jobs without fear or favour. She then wondered how lawyers expect judges who go cap in hand to beg for money would turn around to openly confront the executive that pays them. It then became clear to all us at the gathering that the judiciary was in some crisis, but nothing was said on what has to be done to resolve that crisis. All of us departed the conference as is usual with all Nigerian matters, it died down.
However, at the ceremony to mark the new legal year of the Federal High Court, the Acting Chief Judge, the Honourable Justice John Tsoho, cried out aloud that the court had become overburdened with too many cases, such that judges could no longer cope. He said the volume of political cases filed in the Abuja division of the court alone is hindering effective dispensation of justice. Before now, we have always advocated for some drastic measures to address the problems of the courts. The case of the Federal High Court is particularly pathetic, especially the Lagos division of the court. You get to court and cannot find a single sit, not even space to stand. So, lawyers are crowded outside the courtrooms, struggling and peeping to know when their cases will be called. Litigants are forced to stay outside, not able to follow the proceedings of the court in a case which they filed and paid heavily for. In some of the courts, the distance between the presiding officer and the witness box is so close that at times you fear for the judge when it is realized that some frustrated accused person or litigant can actually leap across the divide and take hold of the judge. It is that bad. And I cannot even mention the issue of parking space or public conveniences in the courts. And yet we expect robust legal submissions and the very best of judgments from the cage that the courts have become.
If one was in any doubt about the decaying state of the judiciary, the CJN went all out in his speech during the ceremony to mark the new legal year of the Supreme Court on September 23, 2019. He stated categorically that the judiciary was under siege, particularly from the executive arm of government. Let us hear him.
“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 the fund 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?”
That is the one-million-dollar question indeed: where is the freedom? Judicial independence in Nigeria is still a myth, the governors of the States still lord it over their judicial officers, various political office holders still carry on as if they own some judges and even traditional rulers go around boasting about their influences on judicial officers and the courts generally. The effect of this on our justice delivery system is very debilitating indeed, as when the neutrality of the court cannot be ascertained or guaranteed, then there is no need approaching that temple for any form of remedy. Like I say always, the organ of government that is muzzling the courts is the executive arm, whose actions and decisions are most often the subject matter of various court cases. There has to be consciousness on the part of the executive to allow judges to function according to the dictates of their conscience and the appropriate statutes. If we ever get to the stage where the people have totally lost confidence in the judiciary, then we should all be ready to live in the Hobbesian state of anarchy, where life will become brutish and short. Let us listen to the CJN once more.
“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. That is certainly not a good omen at this stage of our nationhood. The Constitution provides for separation of powers and independence of the three arms of government. I am using this medium to appeal to governments at all levels to free the judiciary from the financial bondage it has been subjected to over the years. 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 takes its destiny in its hands.”
How else can we put this, then that judges are weeping? They are weeping profusely and uncontrollably for that matter. And why should this be so, in the face of the clear provisions of section 6 of the Constitution? Who is causing judges the tears? It is common knowledge, that every Chief Judge who cannot dance very well, to the tunes of his governor, will soon find his way out of office. Indeed, that is the general trend across the land, wherein the executive has successfully pocketed the judiciary in the States, in order to perpetuate their reign of terror, misgovernance and impunity, without any challenge. But why must this be so? Did we vote people into office to become civilian dictators? If the judge who is to adjudicate on a major dispute between a citizen and his governor has to go cap in hand to negotiate his financial survival from the same governor who is a party before him, what then is the fate of the hapless citizen?
This situation is now very urgent, more so 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 a hand. Judges being unofficial members of the Bar Association, it is our duty to speak out for and protect them in times like this.
During his recent visit to Nigeria, the International Bar Association President kept hammering on the cliché, “if you take care of the rule of law, the rule of law will take care of you”, which when well interpreted, is a warning to those occupying positions of authority today, not to brutalize the judiciary, as they will surely one day need the judiciary. We have had many cases of deliberate persecution of political office holders, by their successors or even adopted sons, such that lawyers had to come to their rescue through the courts. It bears much saying therefore that the judiciary that you are muzzling today may turn out to be your only safety valve in the nearest future. As we say it always, litigants come and go, the courts will remain forever. I join the CJN and other weeping judges to plead with the executive arm of government to let the judiciary be. Release their money and let them determine their own budget. It is that simple.