Nigeria judiciary and the elusive search for autonomy
Nigeria judiciary and the elusive search for autonomy
By Ayo Olukotun
Nigeria judiciary and the elusive search for autonomy
One of the conspicuous deficits of our democratic evolution is the gap between promise and performance, between official rhetoric and the willingness to implement widely acknowledged norms. A striking illustration of this lacuna is the current lament by judicial officers, senior lawyers and legislative leaders concerning the inflexible and deficient budgetary allocation of N110 billion to the nation’s justice sector for three consecutive years, including the Appropriation for 2021. A fortnight ago, in an interaction with Chief Registrars of the courts, Chairman, Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights, and Legal Matters, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele (Ekiti Central), described the statutory allocation to the judiciary for 2021 as “grossly inadequate”. Bamidele went on to say that his committee “will do all within its powers to ensure that the funding of the judiciary is improved upon for the dispensation of justice in the courts, efficiently and appropriately”.

In a related vein, Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on the judiciary, Onofiele Luke, contextualised his arguments within the issues of the appointment of eight new judges to the Supreme Court, the effects of COVID-19, and the security challenges posed by the hoodlums who hijacked the #EndSARS protests and vandalised the courts, causing the destruction of vital documents. Interestingly, successive regimes including that of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) have played up, rhetorically, the significance of judicial independence, of which financial viability and autonomy are cardinal aspects. Sadly, however, we do not put our money where our mouth is.

A typical, glowing acknowledgement of the need for financial independence was made recently when Buhari said, “This administration is committed to the financial independence of the judiciary in accordance with extant laws”. However, since the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as the British like to say, it would have been logical to match the allocation to the nation’s third estate with a budget that relates to its multiplying challenges. To be sure, the vicissitudes of our judicial system and our judges go way beyond the current struggle for decent budgetary allocation. Recall Muiz Banire SAN’s passionate outcry, a few months back, entitled, ‘Please save our Judges’. Lamented Banire: “I have seen Judges, on the verge of death, being deprived, by the executive, of their entitlements for medical treatments simply because such judges refused to compromise on a matter before them. This, certainly, cannot augur well for the institution that is supposed to be another arm of government”. In this light, is it not to be regretted that when an effort was made in the direction of granting autonomy to sub-national legislatures and judiciaries through Buhari’s Executive Order No. 10, the governors, quickly got together to frustrate and eventually defeat that noble effort? So, although the 1999 Constitution (as amended) recognises and stipulates financial autonomy for the judiciary, backed up by judicial pronouncements, it may be some time yet before that is realised in practice. The Executive Order which is now, more or less, a dead letter, had stipulated that, “the Accountant-General of the Federation, shall by this order … authorise the deduction from source, in the course of Federation Accounts Allocation, from the money allocated to any state of the federation that fails to release allocation meant for the state legislature and state judiciary, in line with the financial autonomy guaranteed by Section 121 (3) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended)”. In like manner, the extant constitution envisages financial autonomy at the federal level for the judiciary, by placing it on first line charge from the federation account. Obviously, this was the intention of Sections 84 (1-4) and 12 (5) of our Constitution. In other words, the present struggle of the judiciary, as well as the repeated calls by civil society and the National Judicial Council for improved budgetary allocation, is not the best that can be obtained; however, if successful, it will, to recall the evocative expression of Banire, ‘save our judges’, to an extent.

One of the interesting aspects of the current discourse is the effort, by the judiciary, to transcend the limitations imposed by the global pandemic and the subsequent vandalism of the courts by hoodlums through the automation of the court system. For example, it ought to have been possible to preserve important documents of court proceedings and the entire gamut of the judicial process, beginning with filing to judgement delivery had the system been automated, as envisaged by the judiciary itself. This much was made clear by Gambo Saleh, Secretary of the NJC, when he regretted, before the National Assembly, that the current shoestring budget, roughly one per cent of the entire budget for 2021, does not allow for imaginative technological transitions embedded in earlier budgetary submissions. There is no reason, considering official recognition of the imperative of financial autonomy for judicial independence, why we should not reconsider the current posture of a static low-budget envelope system which has proved grossly unsatisfactory, but, as earlier argued, civil society advocates such as Olisa Agbakoba SAN, who once went to court to enforce the provisions for financial autonomy in the constitution, should not recline until that goal is achieved at both the federal and state levels.

Passing of star writer and journalist, Gbolabo Ogunsanwo

The journalism profession in Nigeria lost one of its icons and founding personages with the sad passing of Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, renowned columnist of the Sunday Times. Ogunsanwo who was both editor of the Sunday Times, and subsequently, acting editor of The Daily Times, was a compelling read for the educated populace, with his influential column – Life with Gbolabo Ogunsanwo. He was editor in the 1970s, at a time when The Daily Times was the preeminent national newspaper, and remarkably before its extremely controversial take-over by the Federal Government, a decision which sent it, in the course of time, to its death bed. He was a product of the effort by Babatunde Jose, Chairman of the paper, to build high-level manpower for the organisation by insisting on graduate training for editors and the journalistic rank and file. Ironically, although the decision paid off by way of increased circulation, it also generated a series of events, including intra-mural fist fights which led to the buyout of the paper and its consequent decline. We have Jose’s account of the events of those years in a monumental autobiography entitled, ‘Power Play at The Daily Times’. Regrettably, I am not aware that Ogunsanwo, a fine writer, wrote his memoirs in order to preserve for posterity, his own version of those events. That notwithstanding, he would be remembered for his fluent, easy-to-read and engaging prose style, but more importantly, perhaps, for journalism with a social conscience. The paper he edited, which enjoyed soar-away circulation figures, was extremely active in the anti-corruption fights of the 1970s as it recorded several victories, including the unseating of a federal minister and powerful Tiv politician, J.S. Tarka. Indeed, some would remember Ogunsanwo for coining the expression, in a headline, “If you Tarka me, I will Daboh you”, referring, thereby, to the confrontation between Tarka and businessman, Godwin Daboh.

For journalism to be reinvented in Nigeria, it will have to draw abiding lessons from the Ogunsanwo era, notable for its crusading zeal and struggle for accountability.

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