The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, on Monday, lent his voice to the debate over the independence of the judiciary, lamenting that Nigeria’s judiciary is under financial bondage.

The debate over the independence of the judiciary has deepened following the circumstances surrounding the exit of Onnogen from office earlier in the year.

Speaking in Abuja at the special court session marking the beginning of the new 2019/2020 legal year of the Supreme Court and the inauguration of 38 new Senior Advocates of Nigeria, the CJN said the judiciary might be independent in conducting cases brought before it but the independence had been lost to the lack of financial freedom.

He also warned that “all binding court orders” must be obeyed, adding, “Nobody will be allowed to toy with court judgments”.

He likened the state of the Nigerian judiciary’s independence to a cow that is asked to graze freely but remained tied firmly to a tree.

He said, “If you say that I am independent, but in a way, whether I like it or not, I have to go cap in hand asking for funds to run my office, then I have completely lost my independence.

“It is like saying a cow is free to graze about in the meadow but at the same time, tying it firmly to a tree. Where is the freedom?”

He said the Supreme Court, which he described as “the busiest and most hardworking” apex court in the world, was “totally independent in the way we conduct our affairs, especially in our judgments”.

He added, “We don’t pander to anybody’s whims and caprices. If there is any deity to be feared, it is the Almighty God. We will never be subservient to anybody, no matter his position in the society.”

He stressed the third arm of government remained in a financial bondage, saying, “Be that as it may, when we assess the judiciary from the financial perspective, how free can we say we are? The annual budget of the judiciary is still a far cry from what it ought to be. The figure is either stagnated for a long period or it goes on a progressive decline.”

He also complained about judges’ salaries.

He said, “I make bold to say that the salaries of judicial officers in Nigeria are still far from an ideal package to take home. Effort should be made by relevant authorities to increase the salaries and also work out measures to improve the welfare packages of judicial officers, especially after retirement.”

Appealing to the Federal and state governments, the CJN said, “I am using this medium to appeal to governments at all levels to free the judiciary from the financial bondage it has been subjected over the years.”

He vowed that under his watch, the judiciary “will strongly uphold the tenets of the Constitution as the supreme law of the land”, insisting that all court orders must be obeyed.

He said, “The rights of every citizen against any form of oppression and impunity must be jealously guided and protected with legal tools at our disposal.

“All binding court orders must be obeyed; and nobody, irrespective of his or her position, will be allowed to toy with court judgments.

“We must collectively show the desired commitment to the full enthronement of the rule of law in the land.”

He warned that disobedience to court orders or non-compliance with judicial orders was a direct invitation to anarchy in the society.

He blamed lawyers and litigants for the congestion of cases at the Supreme Court and called for an amendment to the Constitution to limit the nature of appeals filed at the apex court.

He made only a veiled reference to the circumstances leading to the exit of his predecessor, Justice Walter Onnoghen, as one which shook the judiciary to its foundation.

On his part, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Abubakar Malami, called on the Supreme Court to deliver landmark judgment in favour of justice in the electoral disputes that would come before it.

Malami, represented by the Solicitor-General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice, Dayo Apata, a recipient of the SAN rank at the Monday’s event, said the apex court’s decision to side with justice should not be seen bowing to the pressure of different political actors.

He said, “In the light of the concluded general elections and its aftermath election tribunals’ judgments, over which our courts of first instances and appellate courts, decided on different election issues presented before them, this address serves as a clarion call on the Court of Appeal and to this apex court of the land, to be courageous in delivering landmark decisions in favour of justice, equity and fairness.”

All the speakers at the event, including Thompson Okpoko (SAN), who represented the leader of Nigeria’s Body of SANs, Chief Richard Akinjide (SAN), called on the 38 new SANs inaugurated on Monday to be humble, ethical and professional in their conduct.

A wife of a Justice of the Supreme Court, Mrs Adedoyin Rhodes-Vivour, who spoke on behalf of the new SANs said she and her colleagues would uphold the dignity of the rank.

Other lawyers conferred with the SAN rank on Monday were the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice, Dayo Apata, and Lagos lawyer, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa.

The list included Abdullahi Haruna, Manga Nuruddeen, John Asoluka, Adedokun Makinde, Daniel Enwelum, Emmanuel Oyebanji, Tuduru Ede, Abdul Ajana, Ama Etuwewe, Oladipo Olasope, Leslie Nylander, Olusegun Fowowe and Andrew Hutton.

Also in the list were Olukayode Enitan, Paul Ogbole, Olaniyi Olopade, Samuel Agweh, Olusegun Jolaawo, Prof. Alphonsus Alubo, Ayo Asala, Abiodun Olatunji, Olumide Aju, Chimezie Ihekweazu, Prof. Mamman Lawan, Prof. Uchefula Chukwumaeze, Usman Sule, Safiya Badamasi, and Echezona Etiaba.

The rest are Godwin Omoaka, Emeka Ozoani, Alexander Ejesieme, Jephthah Njikonye, Aikhunegbe Malik, Alhassan Umar and Oyetola Muyiwa.

 Ngwuta attends event

Meanwhile, Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, who had stepped down from judicial duties since 2016 to answer to corruption allegations attended the event at the Supreme Court on Monday.

Indication of his resumption emerged on Monday as he joined members of the Supreme Court’s bench at the special court session marking the commencement of the new 2019/2020 legal year of the apex court.

He sat on the bench as the third most senior judge, behind the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, and Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour.

Next to Justice Nguwta in terms of seniority among the 14 judges of the apex court was Justice Mary Peter-Odili.

Ngwuta, with some judges whose houses were raided by the operatives of the Department of State Service in August 2016, was asked to step down from the bench pending the conclusion of the criminal trial against him.

The National Judicial Council had said the affected judges were not suspended as they continued to earn their pay for the period but were only barred from judicial functions.

Some of the judges had been recalled.

But Justice Ngwuta and some of the judges were subsequently charged with corruption charges.

Ngwuta was charged with money laundering before the Federal High Court in Abuja, and with assets declaration breaches before the Code of Conduct Tribunal.

But both cases were dismissed in 2018 following a Court of Appeal’s verdict which prohibited the trial of a serving judge without being first disciplined by the National Judicial Council.

Ngwuta had not been part of any sitting or ceremony of the court since 2016 until Monday.

Two former CJNs – Justices Alfa Belgore and Mahmud Mohammed, were present at the event.

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