Our guest on the programme today is Ike Akaraiwe Esq., SAN. A former 1st Vice President of the Nigerian Bar Association, the convenor of the Rule of Law discussion group – we call ourselves ‘RoLites’ – and practices law in Enugu.
Ayo said that Nigerians had been shocked when a letter was leaked to the public in which fourteen Justices of the Supreme Court had written to the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Tanko Mohammed complaining about the state of affairs in the court. In a reply which confirmed the authenticity of the letter, the CJN deplored the way the matter had come to public attention, likening it to “dancing naked in the market place”. She asked that since it was in any event now public, what Ike thought were the issues are here?
Ike said that the first issue was the hidden one, namely that the Chief Justice could not be easily reached by his brother judges: and that was why they had to write him a letter. He felt that that was deeply troubling and was the principal issue. He said that the letter rightly said that it would be a shame if justices who are called upon to resolve matters between other citizens, for example between the Legislature and the Executive, could not resolve their own matters internally. He said that this was a bit frightening because these were mature, highly educated and intelligent people, many of whom were grandparents.
Ayo agreed that there appeared to have been a breakdown in or lack of communication between the Justices and the Chief Justice, and asked about the issues that the letter raised.
Ike gave the example of the epileptic supply of electricity to the Court and the circular that they should close from their offices by four o’clock. He found it undermining of their output for justices grappling with rulings and judgments to be effectively circumscribed to civil service hours, particularly since the high cost of diesel to fuel their generators was not being met so they could not have electricity even at home. The Justices had also complained of being unable to access the Internet – again because of funding issues.
Another issue raised was possibly more of a personal perk, namely travelling overseas to attend conferences and workshops had been reduced, and for the very few remaining, they were not able to travel with their spouses or assistants, while the Chief Justice was known to have travelled with his household to such events.
Answering Ayo’s question whether such trips were just ‘jamboree’ or was there some aspect of those trips that enhanced the work of the Supreme Court, Ike said that he would like to respect the Justices by saying that it must enhance their work because he would assume that if they wanted to go on holiday, they wouldn’t go in the guise of conference, since they were entitled to their holiday – though he wasn’t sure whether they were entitled to holiday allowance. But he said that out of respect for the distinguished men and women at the apex Court whose average age must be about 65, he must assume that such trips enhance their work, and that on such trips they would be exposed to ongoing developments in the law in other jurisdictions. Consequently they must be experiencing some loss because they were no longer able to attend such meetings.
Ike recalled that during the time of Chief Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar the Justices were effectively barred from attending the meetings of the International Bar Association and the Justices complained that this undermined their performance, so he was sure that the same applied now, and agreed with Ayo that this put the Court in danger of becoming a bit insular.
Ayo then asked Ike why – when the funding of the Judiciary had been made a first line charge on the Federation Account – such problems were still being encountered.
Ike said that this was the most frightening aspect of the problem, particularly considering how long the legal profession had agitated for the Judiciary to receive its funding directly without having to keep going cap in hand to the Executive. For this problem to be still ongoing in the Supreme Court where the Chief Justice and the Chief Registrar disbursing the money directly and not having to go begging for money for fuel etc. was extremely worrisome, because that implied that if and when the States also begin to implement the independence of the judiciary in that regard, there might be fighting between the Chief Judges and the Judges in States over this matter.
Ayo asked where Accountability lay in respect of judicial funding? Was the budget above scrutiny, and just prepared by the CJN and the Chief Registrar, or was there some input from the other members of the Court.
Ike said that the CJN and the Chief Registrar were directly accountable for how the budget was implemented, and that oversight institutions such as the Federal Judicial Service Commission would have the primary oversight responsibility. However, the dysfunctional Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria had made it such that the same Chief Justice of Nigeria headed the oversight body and in fact was Chairman of virtually all the bodies that could play some oversight role such as the National Judicial Institute.
He agreed with Ayo’s observation that none of those bodies could be really independent because the same Chief Justice was at the apex of all of them! The CJN chairs everything to do with the Judiciary, including even the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee.
Ike said that it was crystal clear that the input of the Justices into the process of creating the Budget was not sought, because if it had been sought, they would have been able to thrash out the issues and priorities, and might never have had to write the letter. He agreed with Ayo’s suggestion that if the Justices had been able to make input into the budget, at least if the amount released did not meet up, everybody would understand the cause of the problem.
Ayo remarked that we are all witnessing how illness and health emergencies can subject people without money to stresses on their integrity and asked Ike what he made of the complaint that the SC clinic is underfunded. Ike said that it was tragic, but not surprising given that the First Lady herself had complained of the lack of even Aspirin or Paracetamol in the State House Clinic (which serves the Executive). He said that late Justice Samuel Oseji, who was his close friend despite the difference in age, had told him of his experience at the Supreme Court clinic which had virtually no drugs or anything at all. Ayo wondered whether there was no budget at all for such things.
She asked what Ike felt would be the effect of this dance – naked or clothed – on the perception of the public about the Judiciary. Would they still feel confident that despite their difficulties, the judges could be relied on to do justice, or would they fear that they were at risk of not being fairly treated if they didn’t try to get in favour with some gift? She referred to past reports of money being paid for holidays, books etc.
Ike said there was no doubt that that the crisis had seriously weakened the standing of the judiciary in the public eye. He said that a situation where the 17 or 18 Justices had not sat together to discuss anything at all for two years revealed that there were serious institutional weaknesses that encouraged the perception of corruption, and that in such matters, the perception was as important as the reality.
In closing, and considering how the situation could be remedied, Ike said that the situation exposed the need for the Chief Justice to show leadership capacity. His reply to the letter was one thing, and he had done some good things in the Supreme Court, but he was not superior to them, merely first among equals and there was no need for him to quarrel with them. Ike suggested that what the Chief Justice needs to do is call his brother justices and sort out these matters in a strategic way. When they have done that, they should do the unprecedented: hold a press conference at which the CJN would speak, and then perhaps the next most senior Justice would speak and confirm that all issues had now been resolved. He felt that nothing less than that would be necessary if confidence in the institution was to be restored, stressing that a house divided against itself could not stand.