Supreme Court’s leadership war, sign of institutional dysfunction’ — Access to Justice

By Joseph OTTEH


A leaked letter addressed to Nigeria’s Chief Justice (CJN) by 14 Justices of the Court show profound levels of disaffection among Justices of Nigeria’s highest court about the leadership of the court, headed by CJN Tanko Muhammad CFR, GCON. The Justices lamented the lack of leadership in the court, the deteriorating welfare of Justices of the court, the lack of attention to resolving problems faced by Court Justices, including those that impact the efficiency and productivity of the court, as well as the failure to adopt ready Practice Rules to improve the adjudicatory efficiency of the Court. Their complaints also cover issues of transparency, allocation and management of the Judiciary budgetary appropriations, with the Justices querying whether appropriated funds have been diverted!!! In a media release, the CJN has countered the allegations, listing efforts being made to address the concerns of the Justices, although the response fell far short in addressing the many issues listed in the Justices’ letter.

Charges of Ineptitude and Nepotism Unprecedented; They Ought to Be Impartially/Thoroughly Investigated

Allegations of ineptitude and nepotism against the CJN by the 14 Supreme Court Justices are arguably unprecedented in the annals of the Supreme Court’s history. These charges are very serious, and implicate questions about the ability of the holder of that office to effectively discharge the functions of the office. They must not be overlooked, swept under sheets, or simply reduced to “in-house squabbling” given that they raise fundamental questions about how the apex court functions and its capacity to act as an effective bulwark for sustaining constitutional democracy. This is why a resolution of this matter must go beyond reconciling the CJN and the authors of that letter – as some have sought to do. The letter by the Justices of the Supreme Court shows that, even at basic “house-keeping” levels, the Judiciary’s leadership is inert and unresponsive. Additionally, aspects of the letter raise important questions of governance, transparency, budgeting and expenditures, and these go way beyond personal grievance. Given the parlous state of the Judiciary, allegations that anyone, not least the head of the Judiciary, is contributing to the Judiciary’s deterioration or dissipation must be taken extremely seriously.

Allegations Amplify Questions of Judiciary’s Accountability and Transparency

The 14 Justices’ letters raise questions of accountability for the use and management of Judiciary appropriations. Questions about the Judiciary’s transparency and accountability have been, of late, the subject of widespread controversy. The Attorney General of the Federation, the Budget Office, as well as the Independent Corrupt Practices and Anti-Corruption Commission (ICPC), have all raised questions about it. In a valedictory speech last month, rtd. Supreme Court Justice, Ejembi Eko lamented that the use of the Judiciary’s budget was shrouded in opacity, while alleging that senior court officials were lending themselves to be used in the “vandalization of the judiciary budget”. Alongside this, he called for anti-corruption agencies to open the “books of the judiciary to expose the corruption in the management of their budgetary resources”.

The Judiciary cannot afford to continuously feed the perception that it is shady or murky, because, other considerations apart, it will be counter-productive to its interests, and hurt its agitation for better funding. The Attorney General stated a while ago that he could not say if the Judiciary was being under-funded since the books of the Judiciary remain closed.

These questions have persisted for too long. The CJN must now disavow the insinuations and convince the nation that the Judiciary abides by the highest tenets of rectitude. The CJN should;

A. Open the audited accounts of the Judiciary for public scrutiny as a way of setting the records straight.

B. Further invite relevant anti-corruption agencies to also conduct reviews of its expenditures as a way of further demonstrating its openness. If the federal Judiciary cannot demonstrate transparency, it cannot be in a position to hold other Judiciaries accountable for their expenditures and conduct.

C. Rebuild trust, firstly between him and his “brother” Justices of the Supreme Court, and secondly rebuild trust between the Judiciary and the Nigerian people. That trust has been badly shaken over the course of many years.

D. Improve working conditions of Justices and Judges of our courts, and reform Nigeria’s Judiciary to restore respect and dignity to courts and Judges nationwide.

To strengthen judicial accountability, the National Judicial Council must play a major part in this process, and should:

A. Make a specific policy requiring that all Judiciary’s audited accounts be open for public inspection;

B. Restructure court management and administration, and request heads of court to appoint professional managers to oversee matters related to court administration – welfare, training, logistics, housing, procurement and disbursements, etc to relieve heads of court of these functions and ensure smoother and professional delivery of these services.

Access to Justice Bemoans Lack of Reform of Judiciary

Aside from problems of Court Justices’ welfare, there are also interlocking concerns over the “welfare” of the Judiciary and the administration of justice as a whole. It is deeply unfortunate that Nigeria’s Judiciary, despite the upheavals it has undergone since 2016 when the Department of Security Services first invaded the homes of many Judges, has not undergone any fundamental shifts of its business model, to win back respect and public confidence in the institution. On the contrary, the Judiciary’s ethical and political capital continues to nose-dive, with its leadership presenting no vision for transformation.

Nigeria’s Judiciary remains largely unreconstructed, and continues to “bump along the bottom”. Its current leadership has largely drawn blank on the expectations and exigencies of rebuilding the judicial system that will serve Nigeria’s 21st-century justice needs, even as many areas of the judicial system remain outmoded and inefficient. It has not overseen the acceleration of technological solutions into the justice delivery process, to quicken justice delivery, and ultimately ensure the judiciary will not again be caught napping in the event of another pandemic; it has not fixed the broken system of judicial appointments to reduce the nepotism and the arbitrariness characterizing judicial selections; it has done very little to strengthen judicial oversight and its disciplinary system, particularly given the upcoming elections in 2023, and it has hardly fought for judicial autonomy over its funding. In effect, Nigeria’s Judiciary is still wobbling and remains on its back foot. Nigeria deserves a better judicial system!

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