By Ahuraka Yusuf Isah
On October 8, 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari presented a total Appropriation Bill of N13.08 trillion for 2021 before a joint sitting of the National Assembly. Again, he proposed N110 billion for the Judiciary for the 2021 fiscal year. Beginning from 2018 to 2019, 2020 and 2021 making four years running, Buhari has been budgeting same amount of N110 billion for the judiciary while the budgets for the executive and legislative arms of government has been increasing.
According to a judge who don’t want to be mentioned, observed that to say it has never been so bad for the judiciary under any government than this government, both military and civilian is to say the least. ‘’Many people in the judiciary have been soliloquizing or asking questions in the privacy, what have the judiciary really done so badly to President Buhari? His government has neither reviewed judges’ salaries, review retired judges’ pensions nor adequately appropriated funds under any fiscal year to this third arm of government’’, he said.
While reacting to the N110 billion budgeted for the judiciary for 2021, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN) lamented that the nation’s judiciary under President Buhari’s watch had not been accorded its rightful place as an independent arm of government, adding, “The judiciary has always been at the short end of the stick. It has not found favour at all under the current dispensation.”
In the speech he delivered at the 2015 All Nigeria Judges Conference, President Muhammadu Buhari urged the Judiciary leadership to carry out various reforms to position and portray the administration of justice system as humane and efficient, adding that, ‘’the Judiciary must go the extra mile to sanitize itself and improve its capacity to act independently, courageously and timeously’’.
‘’This administration is committed to the financial independence of the Nigerian judiciary in accordance with extant laws. We believe that the judiciary must be treated fairly and must be treated in much the same way as the executive and the legislature’’, President Buhari concluded.
On February 1, 2016 at far away in Addis-Ababa town hall meeting he held with some Nigerians living in Ethopia, President Buhari said as far his administration’s ongoing anti-corruption fight was concerned, the nation’s judiciary remained his major headache.
He said the fight against corruption in Nigeria could only be effectively tackled with the strong support of the judiciary. Again, he promised far-reaching reforms of the judiciary as a key priority for his administration
While also speaking on November 25, 2019 in Abuja at the opening ceremony of the 2019 biennial All Nigeria Judges Conference of Superior Courts, President Buhari demanded for ‘urgent’ judicial reform, seeks efficient ‘Special Crimes Courts’.
The president said he was not unaware of the challenges facing the judiciary, over which he has had discussions with the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad.
“The government has been committed to a number of justice sector reforms such as review of extant laws and enactment of new laws that will improve the lives of Nigerians.
“Additionally, we have worked closely with the Chief Justice of Nigeria to ensure that judicial budgetary allocations are enhanced in view of the needs of the judiciary. I have strongly supported the increase in number of judges at High Courts, Appeal Courts and the Supreme Court in order to reduce the burden of the work placed on judicial officers. I will continue to do so,” he said.
Let us take a cursory glance on how this lofty judiciary reform mantra have been marched with actions and inactions. Despite the outcry in the Judiciary over the declining budget share for the judiciary, Buhari’s first Appropriation Act was to reduce previous figure he met by allocating N70 billion budget for the entire nation’s Judiciary in the 2016 fiscal year. This is N3billion lower than the 73 billion appropriated for the Judiciary in 2015
A little illustration may afford to state it better. Indeed, the previous Appropriation Acts have shown that funding from the Federal Government has witnessed a steady decline since 2010, from N95 billion in that year to N85 billion in 2011, then N75 billion in 2012 and again in the 2013 budget to N67billion. In 2014 and 2015, former President Goodluck Jonathan, through his administration’s window budgeting principle threw N68 billion and N73 billion respectively to the Judiciary.
By 2016, during President Buhari’s Appropriation Act, he budgeted N70 billion for the judiciary, which is N3 billion less than the amount he met. And in 2017, due to serious out cries from several quarters, he jacked judiciary figure to N100 billion. He repeated the same figure for the 2018 fiscal year until the National Assembly in its wisdom increased it to N110 billion. For 2019 and 2020 fiscal years, President Buhari has maintained his ground, to mean the judiciary doesn’t really need money, he continuously appropriated N110 billion for the judiciary, just as he has budged the same sum of N110 billion for the 2021 fiscal year.
The most disturbing aspect of the whole saga is that the judiciary has always itemized the statutory duties it wanted to carry out during any fiscal year, but the Federal Government through its window budgeting policy would hand over any budgetary figure it deem fit for the judiciary.
Take for instance, according to a source close to the judiciary, a budget proposal of about N188 billion was submitted to the nation budget office. But at the end of the day a budget envelop of N110 billion proposal for the judiciary was announced by President Buhari.
However, a cursory glance at budget figures in the reference period shows that while the country’s budget witnessed a geometric incremental pattern annually, including that of the Executive bodies and the National Assembly, the third arm of government saw a slow but steady paralysis, brought about by a downward trend in its yearly allocation. Indeed it has been debilitated by this funding gap. Why do I say this? Well the figures tell the story once again. Let us examine this poser- while the 2011 allocation to the Judiciary represented 2.2% of that year’s budget, in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, the nation’s budget shares for the Judiciary were 1.7%, 1.3%, 1.3% and 1.6% respectively. The N70 billion budgeted for the Judiciary in 2016 (out of the N6.08 trillion total proposals) is 1.1%. The 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 budgetary figures for the judiciary have been declining to below 1.0% just as that of the 2021 fiscal year budget of N110 billion out of a total budget of N13.08 trillion is 0.84%. This is because, while the nation’s total budget increases that of the third arm of government remains constant at N110 billion.
The former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed had raised the alarm during 2015 All Nigeria Judges’ Conference noting that the waning budgets for the Judiciary do not only impoverish the Third Arm of Government but would invariably make it less independent, contrary to the intent and provisions of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
‘’It is a source of great concern that in a country where an arm of Government is appropriated with less than one percent of the National Budget, it is difficult to refer to our Judiciary as being truly independent’’, the then CJN said.
With the current cascading crude oil prices, it appears to be out of place to make bold blame, except that the President’s promise to treat the Judiciary fairly and ‘’in much the same way as the executive and the legislature” still appears a mirage.
INCREASING JUDICIARY WORKLOAD
Former CJN Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar issued on November 15, 2013, the Supreme Court (Criminal Appeals) Practice Directions, 2013, enjoining all Criminal Appeals relating to the offences of Terrorism, Rape, Kidnapping, Corruption, Money Laundering and Human Trafficking to be heard and determined expeditiously.
When he hosted a delegation of the judicial arm of government led by the former CJN, Justice Onnoghen at the Presidential Villa, Abuja on October 6, 2017, President Buhari directed drastic and urgent action to decongest Nigerian prisons, saying they were overcrowded and constitute a national scandal.
He said the prisons were over crowded by up to 90 per cent, adding, “We need a new approach to prisons decongestion. Urgent new measures should be put in place to speedily decongest prisons, not only in the interest of justice, but to save cost for prisons maintenance and enhance the welfare of prisoners.”
While giving pictorial view of the situation, the Nigerian Prison Service (NPS) on December 15, 2017, put the total number of inmates in prisons in the country at 72,384 with 48,527 (67.04%) of these awaiting trial inmates, meaning only 23,857 have actually been convicted by the courts. The prisons are also congested because official capacity of prison system is 50 153; in other words our prisons are over-congested or having occupancy level of 125.9%. The Federal Government also expects the judiciary to reform criminal justice system in order to decongest the prisons in the country. For much is expected, much has to be given.
Of course, nation’s prisons are to be decongested by treating expeditiously all criminal matters by the same number of judges that must deliver on pre-election cases, election petition matters, and try over 2,306 corruption related cases across the country.
VIRTUAL COURT SITTING TECHNOLOGY
The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice had earlier directed the Heads of Courts at Federal and State levels to embark on virtual court hearing for court proceedings to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
On April 22, 2020, the National Judicial Council constituted a Committee headed by Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour with a mandate to devise guidelines and measures to enable safe Court sittings during the challenging period of the Coronavirus Pandemic and consequently adopted the Federal Government guideline
The use of technology by remote hearings of any kind, whether, by Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, Skype or any other audiovisual or video-conference platform in aid of hearing and determination of cases are constitutional are highly expensive.
The acquisition of relevant technological devices and manpower for the ICT Technology were captured in the 2021 budget proposal of N188 billion the judiciary forwarded to the same Federal Government, but only to turn round to approve N110 billion of the judiciary.
Appointment Of Over 60 New Justices
On June 9, 2019 when President Buhari formerly wrote to accept Justice Onnoghen’s resignation letter, the President also asked the then Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, to initiate the process of appointing four new justices of the Supreme Court.
The President’s decision was contained in a statement issued by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu.
The statement quoted Buhari’s letter thus, ‘‘Pursuant to the provisions of Section 230(2) A&B of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), I am pleased to request that you initiate in earnest the process of appointing additional four Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria to make the full complement of 21 Justices as provided by the aforementioned provisions of the Constitution.
‘‘This is in line with the government’s agenda of repositioning the Judiciary in general and Supreme Court in particular for greater efficiency, with a view to reducing the backlogs of appeals pending at the Supreme Court’’.
Consequently, the National Judicial Council had on October 24, 2019 recommended the appointment of Justices Adamu Jauro (North-East); Emmanuel A. Agim (South-South); C. Oseji (South-South); and Helen M. Ogunwumiju (South-West).The recommendations were sent to President Buhari who has the powers to appoint the justices after the senate confirmation.
On November 6, 2020, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad, swore in eight new Justices of the Supreme Court. It is expected that one more appointment of the apex court justice is due, while more would be due to retire in 2021 who also be replaced.
Besides, not less than 60 justices of the Court of Appeal and Federal High Court would be appointed in 2021.
The additional Supreme Court justices being appointed require spaces as their chamber, which must be equipped with books, equipment aside aides and logistics. This also applies to the justices of the other Federal Courts to be appointed the same year. All that were captured in the judiciary budget proposal which the Federal budget office overlooked. With the increasing burden and static judiciary budget at N110 billion, how the third arm of government is better imagined.
SUPREME COURT WORKLOAD
On October 8, 2018, the former CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen announced that the Supreme Court diary was full with appeals set down for hearing from 2018 till year 2021.
This was just only appeals filed between 2006 and 2009 that have dates of hearing/determination from 2018 till the end of 2021. Whereas, appeals or cases brought to the Supreme Court from 2010 till 2018 (8 years running) were yet to get dates of hearing, but set to be assigned hearing dates from 2022 and beyond. Cases affected were civil in nature. By mere simple projection or extrapolation then, it was going to take up to 2028 to clear those 8 years cases.
Speaking on November 10, 2020 when its Committee engaged Chief Registrars of all the courts on their 2021 budgetary proposals, Chairman, Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele, APC Ekiti Central noted that N110 billion earmarked for the arm of government in the coming fiscal year, is grossly inadequate to bring about the needed turnaround.
Bamidele also stated that the Senate Committee “will do all within its legislative powers to ensure that the funding of the Judiciary is improved upon for dispensation of justice in the country efficiently and appropriately.”
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