By Ahuraka Yusuf Isah
To whom much is given, from him much is expected, have been an age long statement found even in the ecclesial books.
But what happens when the responsibility devolved upon a person or body becomes so astronomically larger or inversely proportional to the authority or resources to assume the burden? Perhaps, this is almost the situation the judiciary has found itself in the recent years, and has contributed largely to the much discredited appraisal of the body by the general public. Curiously, the situation is assuming alarming proportion.
While President Muhammadu Buhari had allocated N100 billion to the judiciary in the budget estimates he submitted to the National Assembly for 2018 Appropriation Act, the federal legislature in its wisdom increased it to N110 billion, because it is the same N100 billion that was appropriated for the 2017 fiscal year.
Curiously, the Federal Ministry of Finance have not been releasing funds to the judiciary in line with the N110 billion in the 2018 Appropriation Act. Executive secretary of the National Judicial Council (NJC), Ahmed Gambo Saleh who confirmed this development which was aired in the AIT’s 8pm network news last Friday November 9, 2018 added that budgeted fund being released to the Third Arm of Government is highly marginal.
A head of one of the judiciary agency told LEADERSHIP that the situation is so disturbing and making it difficult to run the judiciary on the grounds that while expecting N100 million releases, a timesthe sector could hardly get up to N10 million.
In the speech he delivered at the 2015 All Nigeria Judges Conference, President Buhari urged the Judiciary leadership to carry out various reforms to position and portray the administration of justice system as humane and efficient, adding that, “the Judiciary must go the extra mile to sanitize itself and improve its capacity to act independently, courageously and timeously”.
“This administration is committed to the financial independence of the Nigerian judiciary in accordance with extant laws. We believe that the judiciary must be treated fairly and must be treated in much the same way as the executive and the legislature”, President Buhari concluded.
Constitution Fourth Alteration Bill President Buhari assented to in June this year, grants financial autonomy to the State Houses of Assembly and the States’ Judiciary.
The Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Sen. Ita Enang, had stressed the importance of the law saying that with the signing into law of the Constitution Alteration Bill the Judiciary in the states would also enjoy similar financial independence as their budgetary allocations would no longer go through the budgeting process of the executive arms at the state level, but would be transferred directly to the account of the judiciary.
“Therefore, upon this signature, the amount standing to the credit of the judiciary are now to be paid directly to the judiciary of that state, no more through the governor and no more from the governors”.
But the law has been there except that state governors who are law onto themselves would rather observe it in breach, despite even a subsisting court orders mandating them to transfer what’s accruable to the state judiciary.
A governor of one of the north central states has arrested allocation to the judiciary of his state for six months running without a blink of eyes, just because the leadership of judiciary in his state failed to carry out his filthy instruction.
Back to the real judiciary challenges. In the Constitution (4th Alteration) Act, No. 21, Buhari assented to,there was amendment to Section 285 authorizing the court or tribunal to suspend Ruling on preliminary objection or interlocutory issue relating to jurisdiction and deliver same at the stage of final judgment. It inserts six new sub-sections that is (9) – (14).
While new Section 285 (10) states that “A Court in every pre-election matter shall deliver its judgment in writing within 180 days from the date of filing of the suit; new Section 285 (12) says “An appeal from a decision of a Court in a pre-election matter shall be heard and disposed of within 60 days from the date of filing of the appeal”.
In other words, the Constitution Amendment No. 21 mandates the pre-election matters to now follow trajectory of election petitions for determination. The new law, which sets the timeframe for concluding before election any pre-election matters that might be taken to the courts, is a further amendment to Section 285 of the 1999 Constitution and the previous amendments through the Electoral Act of 2010.
Whereas the previous laws had dealt with anticipatory challenges to the election and setting the time frame for settling in court any post-election matters that may arise from an election, the new amendment seeks to address the disputes arising from pre-election exercises before actual election is conducted
Indeed, over time it had shown that the previous laws, which are the combined effects of Section 285(5) (6) and (7) as amended, and Section 134(2) and (3) of the Electoral Act 2010 did not anticipate certain political and electoral machinations in the course of the parties choosing their candidates for an election and which, of course, had usually led to bigger disputes and prolonged litigations after the election. The previous laws in Section 285(6) provided that “An election tribunal shall deliver its judgment in writing within 180 days from the date of the filing of the petition”.
A similar restriction was placed by subsection (7) that: “An appeal from a decision of the election tribunal or court shall be heard and disposed of within 60 days from the date of the delivery of judgment”. These provisions of the Constitution were also adopted verbatim by Section 134(2) and (3) of the Electoral Act 2010. An interpretation of these provisions merely concern itself with irregularities during an election, which are to be resolved in the courts afterwards.
The import of this amendment is the increase in constitutional duties devolved upon the judiciary. This is why the current attitude of the federal government in making inappropriate releases to the judiciary is in negligence of the duties or burden being heaped on the third arm of government.
What makes the ongoing maltreatment of the judiciary or paltry releases bizarre is that politicians have been trooping to file pre-election matters, ostensibly increasing the workload of the judicial officers. Indeed, it is the same attention, devotion, deployment of judicial officers to contend with the demands of determining the election petitions that are required for the pre-election matters or appeals.
Former CJN Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar issued on November 15, 2013, the Supreme Court (Criminal Appeals) Practice Directions, 2013, enjoining all Criminal Appeals relating to the offences of Terrorism, Rape, Kidnapping, Corruption, Money Laundering and Human Trafficking to be heard and determined expeditiously.
When he hosted a delegation of the judicial arm of government led by the CJN, Justice Onnoghen at the Presidential Villa, Abuja on October 6, 2017, President Buhari directed drastic and urgent action to decongest Nigerian prisons, saying they were overcrowded and constitute a national scandal.
He said the prisons were over crowded by up to 90 per cent, adding, “We need a new approach to prisons decongestion. Urgent new measures should be put in place to speedily decongest prisons, not only in the interest of justice, but to save cost for prisons maintenance and enhance the welfare of prisoners.”
While giving pictorial view of the situation, the Nigerian Prison Service (NPS) on December 15, 2017, put the total number of inmates in prisons in the country at 72,384 with 48,527 (67.04%) of these awaiting trial inmates, meaning only 23,857 have actually been convicted by the courts. The prisons are also congested because official capacity of prison system is 50 153; in other words our prisons are over-congested or having occupancy level of 125.9%. The Federal Government also expects the judiciary to reform criminal justice system in order to decongest the prisons in the country. For much is expected, much has to be given.
Of course, nation’s prisons are to be decongested by treating expeditiously all criminal matters by the same number of judges that must deliver on pre-election cases, election petition matters, and try over 2,306 corruption related cases across the country.