The judiciary globally has been known to be the last hope of the common man, considering the fact that the other arms of government, the executive and the legislature can decide to play politics with issues that affects the masses, but the judiciary in a sane clime is expected to be neutral and impartial in the dispensation of justice so as to ensure equality and upliftment of the rule of law.
The Nigerian judiciary is one that has been enmeshed with criticism and backlash over the years, owing to the perceived lack of independence which summarily subject it to the whims and caprices of mostly the executive arm of government by grossly violating valid court orders and which the legislature in some cases decide to navigate this part on issues of constitutional jurisdictions.
The coming to power of the present administration, and subsequent administrations since the return to civilian rule in 1999, can best be described as not been favourably disposed to the judiciary, as it has become the weeping boy within the arms of government. This can further be attested to by the invasion of the private residence of some judges not too long ago, on the alleged suspicion of corruption and the unlawful suspension and removal of the then Chief Justice of the federation, Walter Onnoghen, on non declaration of assets.
Coming on this heels, the current budgetary allocation to the judiciary like all other critical sectors of the society is one that calls for concern. According to the National Judicial Council, the paltry sum of N110 billion is nothing to write home about if the independence of the judiciary must be guaranteed.
The NJC said a situation where one agency would decide what others should get without the knowledge of its working environment was not in line with best global practices.
Barrister Ahmed Gambo Saleh, the Executive Secretary of NJC, said this when he appeared before the House of Representatives Committee on Judiciary on Monday in Abuja.
According to him, there is need for a paradigm shift in the judiciary budgeting regime, adding that there was an urgent need for increased funding for the judiciary.
Saleh said that a total of N187,945,531,476 was initially proposal for the 2021 budget operations, but was reviewed to N110 billion considering the ceiling that was given to it by the budget office which ended up allocating 0.84 percent of the budget to the Nigerian Judiciary.
He said that a total of N110 billion was appropriated for the judiciary in 2020, adding that about 75 per cent of the budget was accessed and implemented.
Saleh said that the Nigeria judiciary was in dire need of funding adding that the recent vandalism of some courts occasioned by the EndSARS protests made it more imperative for increased funding.
The Executive Secretary opined that the Supreme Court justices were recently increased by eight making a total of 20 stressing that there was a promise of a special intervention fund to enable it to function but had yet to be received.
He added that the Federal High court was also in the process of increasing the number of judges and that such exercise would come with cost on personnel and capital expenditure.
In the same vein, House of Representatives member, Onofiok Luke, the chairman of the committee, said there was need for extra budgetary allocation for the judiciary.
“If eight justices have been added, I don’t know why there won’t be increase of allocation now that the number of justices has been increased,” he said.
According to him, the destruction of courts by hoodlums brings to bear the need for the digitalisation of courts through recordings and delivery of judgments by the courts.
He said that N110 billion budget proposal in view of current reality for the judiciary was inadequate, adding that there was need for adequate funding of the judiciary for effective service delivery.
Equally, some legal luminaries have also lent their voices to what they described as poor budgetary allocation to the judiciary, particularly when viewed against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic that has amplified the need to expand court facilities for swift justice dispensation.
Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), said Nigeria’s post-COVID-19 judiciary requires massive investment in critical infrastructure in terms of recruitment and remuneration of judges as well as Information Communication Technology, ICT, to fast tract adjudication of cases.
He 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.”
Awomolo further explained, “The truth of the matter is that the judiciary of the Federal Republic of Nigeria post-COVID-19 cannot be regarded as judiciary pre-COVID-19. This is because the new normal has thrown up the imperativeness of the use of information communication technology as a tool to achieving the quick administration of justice, whether criminal or civil.
“But the truth is that it appears that the executive has not realized the need to take a critical look at the gap in the infrastructure, training of personnel and the application of ICT in the judiciary.
“The allocation to the judiciary is very unrealistic. It is a repetition of what has been happening in the last four or five years. But the National Assembly still has an opportunity of improving on the N110 billion budget estimates for the judiciary in the 2021 Appropriation Bill,” he suggested.
Another Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mallam Yusuf Ali, in a separate reaction to the new budget cycle, said “it is in the strategic interest of Nigeria and Nigerians that adequate funding for the judiciary should be a priority.”
He advised that the judiciary should stop going to the executive cap-in-hand, saying, “If you want an independent judiciary, it should be independent in the way it dispenses its own expenses and income as well as expenditure.”
In his own summation, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), advised the Federal Government to ensure that the judiciary’s budget remains on the first-line-charge.
He was of the view that the judiciary should be on a first-line charge and that its allocations should be paid directly to the heads of the courts; to be disbursed directly for budgeted projects.
In view of the above positions on the state of the judiciary and its poor budgetary allocation by these stakeholders, it is imperative to state emphatically here that if the present administration of President Muhammad Buhari really want the effective Administration of the Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, the independence of the judiciary that the common man and indeed the entire Nigerians can look up to without the fear of been compromised and ‘justice for highest bidder’, now should be the time for the present administration to do the needful by not paying lip service to some issues that are begging for urgent proactive actions.
If the National Assembly can earmarked about N129 billion for the renovation of its complex, then what justification does the executive and the legislature have for not appropriating adequate amount for the smooth running of Nigeria’s judicial arm of government?
If not for anything, a well funded judiciary will ensure the judges in all federal government courts are well and adequately taking care of in term of training, ICT compliance in the dispensation of justice and a conducive working environment, devoid of depending on graft in the course of discharging their constitutional duties.
The biggest challenge the Nigerian Judiciary will be facing is battling how to cater for the newly appointed Justices of the Supreme court including the remaining one to make the constitutional requirement of 21 Justices.
Aside, any moment from now the court of Appeal bench will be getting additional 20 Justices and 20 more at the bench of the federal High court.
The question is can the budgetary provision of the Nigerian Judiciary cater for the housing, allowances, training, official cars and salaries for these judges?
Certainly, the Nigerian Judiciary is crippled by under- Funding.
Atavti, is the Judiciary Editor of Nigerian Pilot Newspaper in Abuja