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Judicial independence, a mirage in Nigeria democracy — by NAN reporters

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Judicial independence, a mirage in Nigeria democracy — by NAN reporters

Judicial independence is the principle which stipulates and ensures that judges are not subjected to pressure and influence when adjudicating matters and are free to make impartial decisions based solely on fact and law.

It is the ability of courts and judges to perform their statutory duties free of control or influence by other actors, whether government or private

In Nigeria, this principle is, no doubt, inhibited by innumerable challenges, ranging from threats and attacks on judicial officers, poor renumeration, deplorable working conditions, poor state of infrastructure and excesses of the executive arm of government, among others

From the echelon to the lowest rung of the judicial ladder, no one is insulated from these teething challenges.

In recent years, the country had witnessed gun-wielding security agents swooped on the residences of senior judges, including Justices of the Supreme Court, breaking doors and threatening to harm their family members and aides.

These raids were carried out, most times, by agents of the Department of State Services; a reflection of the executive lawlessness and human rights abuses that characterised the ignoble military regimes.

Worse still, is the wanton attacks and killings in cold blood of judicial officers in the course of their duties.

The most recent was on Feb. 2, this year when gunmen murdered, a Magistrate, Nnaemeka Ugboma, the chairman of Ejemekwuru Customary Court in the Oguta Local Government Area of Imo state

He was killed by gunmen who operated in motorcycles while presiding on a court session.

In Sept. 2021, former Chief Judge of Abia State, Nnenna Oti, was abducted in Orlu, Imo State.

Seven months earlier, Presiding Justice of Appeal Court in Owerri, Rita Pemu, navigated the perils of abduction and possible assassination.

Also, In 2009, Justice Florence Duroha-Igwe, a judge of the Imo High Court, suffered an attack in which both her driver and police orderly sustained severe gunshot injuries.

On Nov. 23, 2018, a body found dumped along Amucha Road in Njaba Local Government Area, Orlu Zone, Imo State, was identified as the remains of Remi Ogu, a Chief Magistrate in the neighbouring Oru LGA.

Ogu and his court Registrar, Uju Nwanne, were abducted the previous day from their duty post.

Three months before Ogu’s murder, in August 2018, unidentified men set on fire, the High Court and Magistrate’s court buildings in the city with all their records and archives.

The potent question among stakeholders has been, how can a judge function freely and impartially in an atmosphere of insecurity, wanton abductions and killings?

Beyond the attacks by the security agents, sponsored killings and abductions by men of the underworld, judicial officers also pass through untold hardship, as a result of neglect from the system designed to protect them.

The most ridiculous was in July this year, when Ekiti State Chief Judge, Justice Oyewole Adeyeye, escaped death, when a section of the state high court complex, in Ado-Ekiti collapsed on him while in the office.

He was rushed to a hospital in the state capital and subsequently flown to the United Kingdom for medical consultation.

The incident which happened around close of work, while the judge was still in his chamber was reportedly connected with the structural deficit of the building worsened by torrential rain.

The President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Yakubu Maikyau, who recently visited the Chief Judge in London, however, gave a hearty report that Adeyeye had fully recovered and would soon return to his duty post.

The worst hit of the challenges of poor renumeration and deplorable working conditions are the Magistrates.

This deplorable conditions of Nigerian magistrates came to the limelight on Oct. 4 when a Magistrate in Anambra State Judiciary was captured on camera riding on a motor bike on her way to court.

Her Worship was reportedly headed to the Neni Chief Magistrates’ Court from Nri all in Anambra State.

On Oct. 17, the Chief Judge of Niger State, Justice Halima Abdulmalik, also raised concerns about the plights of Magistrate and deplorable condition of numerous magistrate courts across the state.

Speaking during a special court session to mark the 2022/2023 legal year of the state Judiciary in Minna, she noted that the lack of official vehicles for magistrates necessitated their travel on public transport to and from their stations.posing potential danger to them.

She also lamented the partial collapse, serious states of dilapidation and disrepair of magistrate courts across the state.

According to the Chief Judge, successive governments in the state starve the judiciary of the much-needed funds to carry out its duties.

She, therefore, called on the government of Gov. Mohammed Bago to immediately implement the Harmonised Conditions of Service Law 2023 passed by the Nineth Assembly of the state legislature.

Similarly, the Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court, Justice Husseini Baba-Yusuf, underscored the need to better the lot of judges of lower courts.

At the beginning of the 2023/2024 legal year of the FCT High court, the CJ decried the poor conditions under which judicial officers in these lower courts, particularly, magistrates operate.

“There is the dearth of court rooms for the magistrates; currently some of our magistrates are sharing court rooms.

Justice Baba-Yusuf, agreed that the magistracy plays a very crucial role in the administration of justice in the country, adding, ‘’once we get it right at the bottom, we will get it right at the top”

The story is not any different in Lagos state as reports have it that the judges of the lower courts in that state are also not enjoying better welfare or have better working conditions.

Moderating a breakout session on Judicial Remuneration and Allowances at the 2023 Annual General Conference of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Onikepo Braithwaite said that she saw the pay slip of magistrates with basic salaries as low as N61,000.

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“Their extremely ridiculously low furniture allowance ranging from N9,270 to N11,543; domestic allowance in July 2023 is N27,000 (which is below the minimum wage of N30,000).

“I also saw a pay slip with a leave allowance of N74,000. I am not sure whether N74,000 can purchase a return flight ticket from Lagos to Ibadan!

She said it was time for the state governors and governments to do the needful and review the salaries and allowances of magistrates which are overripe for a healthy upward review.

The Secretary of the NBA in Ondo State, Mr Olumide Ogidan, also, recently bemoaned the remuneration of judges and magistrates in the country, saying poor welfare of judicial officers was anathema to free and fair dispensation of justice.

“ The remuneration of judges and magistrates in Nigeria is nothing to write home about.

“The condition of our magistrates is even worse as some have to take “Okada’ (commercial motorcycle) LPbefore they get to their courts. It is a thing of shame.

“The judicial autonomy is only on paper, the implementation is far from being real.

“The state judiciary still looks up to the governors for funds. It is not supposed to be so,” Ogidan said

Some of the stakeholders, who spoke with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in Jalingo, said judicial officers needed an improved welfare package to enable them deliver justice.

Malam Bello Mohammed, the Executive Director, Centre for Social Justice and Development, an NGO, said magistrates in Taraba now struggled for space in commercial vehicles and tricycles with even criminals, putting them at great danger.

Mohammed recalled that in 2012, during late Gov. Baba Suntai’s administration, the government raised the allowances of judicial officers, and they were given brand new cars and special salary packages.

According to him, the officers’ lives were transformed then, until Gov. Darius Ishaku’s administration came on board, and all the benefits, were suspended.

In Bauchi state, the Magistrates Association of Nigeria (MAN), during its annual training programme, recently, decried the “poor condition of service” under which its members are operating.

Similarly, the Chairman of the NBA, Ibadan branch in Oyo state, Mrs Folasade Aladeniyi, stressed that, a situation where magistrates were not given official cars when appointed was an abberation.

According to her, Magistrates are not considered as judicial officers in some states, as they are treated like civil servants.

“Unlike judges, who are paid by the National Judicial Council (NJC) and receive allowances from the state, Magistrates receive salaries based on their grade levels in the state civil service, while their welfare is not given any consideration, whatsoever.

“This is given further credence by the retirement age of magistrates, which is 60 years or 35 years, in accordance with civil service rules.

“The judiciary is not autonomous, as the executive still determines the funds that go to the judiciary from the state’s allocation.

“If the judiciary gets its fund, the executive can appoint auditors to look into the books for the purpose of checks and balances,” she said.

Also, the chairman of Association of Lower Court Judges, Oyo State branch, Mrs Olabisi Ogunkanmi, said that there was no provision for training and job enhancement for magistrates, as only judges were considered for such entitlements.

Ogunkanmi, who is a Chief Magistrate, further stated that court processes were not front loaded in the magistrate courts.

“We still write in long hand, while there is no provision for laptop, hence no access to e-authorities.

“There is also no provision for books and legal assistance; no provision for medicals, yet salary is deducted by the state for health
which is not accessible.

“Courts are not maintained and there is no
provision of furniture too,” she said.

Ogunkanmi attributed these developments to some challenges owing to paucity of funds, occasioned by non-independence of the judiciary and absence of security.

According to her, although, the Magistrate Court is not a superior court of record as listed in Section 6(5)(a)-(j) of the 1999, Constitution, it is recognised as a lower court of record established for a state and covered by Section 6(4)(1) & (5)(k) of the Constitution.

She, therefore underscored the need for the relevant authorities to be sensitive to the plight of the magistrates.

The judges of the Upper Area Courts are not left out in this cry for improved welfare and work environment.

One of the judicial officers of an Upper Area Court sitting in Karu, Nasarawa State told NAN that prioritising welfare of judicial officer of lower courts was paramount to curbing corrupt practices in judicial system.

The Judge, who preferred anonymity said, an upward review of the welfare of judicial officers of the lower courts would boost the morale of the judicial officers and ensure swift dispensation of justice.

Dr Oreoluwa Odunniyi, a Lecturer at the Department of Public Law, Faculty of Law, Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU),said the challenges in the nation’s judicial system was due to lack of full financial autonomy for the judiciary

According to him, if the judiciary is given financial autonomy, it will be independent and do things effectively.

Oduniyi stressed that the three arms of governments need to function independently.

“If we want to have a vibrant and effective judiciary, they must be given full financial autonomy, whereby the Chief Judge of each state will present their budget to the states assembly.

The Chief Justice of Nigeria will present the budget of the federal judges to the National Assembly,” he said.

He decried the situation where the finances of the judiciary in the states is under the whim and caprices of the governor.

According to him, the principle of separation of powers as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution must be respected at the state level.

Recognising this anomaly and the need to urgently address it, former President, Muhammadu Buhari, on May 22, 2020, signed an Executive Order 10, granting financial autonomy to the legislature and the judiciary in the 36 states of the federation.

The order empowers the Accountant-General of the Federation to deduct funds for the state legislature and the judiciary from the federation allocations to the states.

However, all the 36 states through their attorneys-general filed a suit on September 17, 2020, contending the constitutionality of the executive order.

The plaintiffs said with the executive order, the federal government’s responsibility of funding capital and recurrent expenditures of state high courts, sharia court of appeal and customary court of appeal has been pushed to the state governments.

In a split decision, the majority of the court’s seven-member panel agreed that the president exceeded his constitutional powers in issuing the executive order

Six out of the seven members of the panel proceeded to void and set aside the executive order which, perhaps, would have gone a long way in addressing the challenge of judicial independence in the country.

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