By Editorial Board
Recently, President Bola
Ahmed Tinubu directed the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) to evolve ways to improve remuneration of judges. The Chairman of RMAFC, Muhammed Shehu, had earlier announced that the salaries of elected politicians, judicial and public officers would be increased by 114 per cent.
Although President Tinubu supports this stance, however, he considers the recommended increment in the remuneration of judicial officers unacceptable, and in consequence, instructed the Commission to come up with a more realistic rate that will reflect the present economic reality.
The issue has provoked a debate on the propriety of the privileged treatment being accorded to judges to the exclusion of other public officers who are equally confronted with the harsh economic circumstances of the country. Some analysts have argued that giving exclusive preference to the pecuniary interests of a select few without any corresponding consideration for the generality of the people is inequitable. After all, every Nigerian worker is making a significant contribution in building the nation; hence deserving of adequate compensation. Worse still, the national minimum wage remains a paltry N30,000 despite the rising inflation.
The 1999 Constitution mandates the government to control the national economy in such a manner as to secure the maximum welfare and happiness of every citizen based on social justice and equality of status. Therefore, attempt by the government to isolate the interests of a singular class of people without making any appropriate arrangement to shield the rest of the society from the adverse effects of its economic policies is perceived as unjustifiably discriminatory.
Nevertheless, the well-being of judicial officers is a matter of national interest. Judges are sui generis. They occupy a distinct pedestal in the order of (superior) national precedence. The importance of the judicial sector in fostering national integration, stability, growth, and development cannot be overstressed. Nigeria is one of the most litigious countries in the world, and the resulting enormous workload placed on her adjudicators is quite burdensome. Effective justice dispensation requires tremendous mental, physical, and psychological exertion. Therefore, to strike a balance, Judges should be entitled to rewarding emoluments.
Across democratic jurisdictions, the judiciary is one of the most revered institutions in the society. Judges are charged with the ultimate decision over the life, freedoms, rights, duties, and property of all persons in a given geographical territory. Simply put, the words of a “judge are literally and figuratively, the law, eternal, and majestic.”
Affirming the importance of the judiciary, the 7th United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders declared as follows: “Whereas it is, therefore, appropriate that consideration be first given to the role of judges in relation to the system of justice…”
Unarguably, justice dispensation is one of the most tasking and self-sacrificing professional calling in the human endeavour. Once a judicial officer assumes office, he is no longer a ‘society person’ but is expected to hold himself aloof from the public to maintain impartiality, neutrality, and independence.
In the words of a former Chief Justice of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, “The task facing the modern judge is not an easy one. But it is one of critical importance. If we fail, the rule of law will fail. It is as simple as that.” Suffice it to say, that the judiciary is the pillar on which society rests.
Judges no doubt deserve quality social security benefits. In contrast, the salaries of Nigerian judges, which were last reviewed in 2007, are unimaginably ridiculous in comparison with their contemporaries in other climes. Magistrates are now abandoning the courtroom in search of greener pastures elsewhere.
In 2021, no fewer than 30 magistrates in Cross River State protested against non-payment of their 24 months salaries. Aggrieved by this sad reality, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Sebastine Hon, dragged the federal government to the National Industrial Court of Nigeria in 2022, seeking an upward review of the emoluments and salaries of judges and was graciously obliged by the court. Describing the poor salaries of judges as a “national shame”, Justice Osatohanmwen Obaseki-Osaghae stated that judges have been “victims of great injustice”; hence “it is unconstitutional and unlawful for the RMAFC to refuse to review (their) salaries.”
Despite the risk associated with justice administration, there is a lack of proper safety and security provisions for judicial officers. Lately, Nigerian judges have been subject to unprecedented malicious criticisms, intimidations, threats, and cyber-bullying from disgruntled members of the public. On February 2, 2023, a Customary Court judge was killed during court proceedings in Imo State.
Admittedly, the Nigerian judiciary needs to raise its performance to meet public expectations. Conflicting and controversial judgments churned out by the courts are worrisome. This reinforces the call for urgent judicial reinvention and reforms. To place the citadel of justice on the right footing, a holistic reformation is necessary. This would entail a merit-based recruitment/elevation process; periodic performance assessment; review of controversial judgments; activation of internal disciplinary mechanisms against erring jurists; provision of a conducive and safe workplace; and quality remuneration package, amongst others. Lately, the undue descent of the political class into the judicial arena has tended to cast doubts on the integrity and independence of the judiciary.
The weightier issue is the propriety of the President deciding the salaries of judges. The power to determine the remuneration, salaries, and allowances of federal judges is solely concentrated in RMAFC. Consequently, it is a constitutional aberration for the President to issue directives to RMAFC in that regard. Undeniably, the impartiality of the judiciary will be impaired if the chief executives (president and governors) prescribe the salaries of judicial officers. After all, he who pays the piper dictates the tune. Accordingly, RMFAC should be allowed to discharge its constitutional obligations without interference.
To safeguard the constitutionally guaranteed independence of judges, the judiciary must be financially autonomous. It is constitutionally empowered to handle its affairs and as such should not be drawing its statutory financial entitlements from the executive. It is not the duty of the chief executives to pay judges’ salaries, erect court buildings and other judicial facilities.
These actions are calculated to curry judicial favours. The welfare of federal judges is not a matter subject to presidential approval. It is purely under the purview of RMAFC. Whilst the decision of RMAFC to review the salaries of judges is commendable, the commission should come up with
a figure that is fair, just and realistic with current state of the Nigerian economy.