Nigeria: The Judiciary - Now That the Strike Is Over

18 June 2021
opinion

Abuja — It's time to enthrone financial autonomy across the states.

A collective sigh of relief is now audible across Nigeria following the suspension of the industrial action by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) which paralysed judicial activities across the federation for over two months.

· The industrial action was called by the JUSUN to demand for the implementation of financial autonomy for the states, as per Section 121(3) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which provides that any amount standing to the credit of the judiciary in the consolidated revenue fund of the state shall be paid directly to the heads of court concerned.

· The judiciary, clearly, occupies a significant position in the country, as it is saddled with the role of stabilizing democracy based on the fundamental principle of state governance. Yet the judiciary has, sadly, not been able to meet up with expectations in carrying out its constitutional functions, which could be partly attributed to its constant dependence on the executive for funds. Whilst discussing the present, it is, however, important to relive the battles of the past, as it will aid in navigating the future.

The circumvention of the constitutional requirement of disbursement of funds to the judiciary by the states, over time, led to several suits filed against the government, and judgments given in favour of financial autonomy in 2014. These were largely disregarded, thus leading to the industrial action of January 2015.

The non-compliance with the judgment of the court later led to the invocation of the Presidential powers under section 5 of the constitution, culminating in the Executive Order 10 of May 2020. The order made it mandatory for all states in the country to include the allocations of the judiciary in the first line charge of their budgets. The order was, however, not implemented following objection by the state governors on the premise that the president acted ultra vires his powers. The state of affairs led to the JUSUN ordering its members to shut all courts in the country from April 6, 2021 to press home its demand for implementation of financial autonomy for the judiciary.

· The government, in response, held several reconciliation meetings with the leadership of JUSUN aimed at hashing out resolutions to end the strike, with a Memorandum of Action signed between the Nigeria Governors' Forum, after initial hesitation, and JUSUN on June 4. The agreement required the state governments, amongst others, to credit the accounts of each state judiciary with the pro-rata amount due to them, with the monthly allocations to the judiciary, in the event of any shortfall, reflecting a percentage of the appropriated sum or an irreducible minimum amount to be allocated every month for the purpose of meeting its costs whichever is higher.

· Each state is also required to set up a State Account Allocation Committee (SAAC) to be given legislative teeth in the various fund management laws, charged with the responsibility to oversee the distribution of available resources to the judiciary. Modalities and timelines for the full commencement of full financial autonomy at the state level were subsequently drawn up, with agreement reached between JUSUN and the government, thus leading to the eventual suspension of the strike on Wednesday 9th 2021.

Yet while the strike may have been suspended, the whole situation has clearly lit the blue touch for a wider discussion on the subject. Clearly, one swallow does not make a spring, but the resolution of the industrial dispute is an indication of a small flock of birds of good omen hovering around the subject of financial autonomy.

The battle for financial autonomy is, clearly, not going to be achieved on a platter of gold, as whoever wants to make an omelet will have to break eggs. There is, therefore, the need to create a long-termist and forward-looking framework to deal with the issues already agreed.

A five-man committee has already been set up by the judiciary's regulatory body, NJC, to monitor the implementation of financial autonomy for the judiciary in the various states of the federation. This, indeed, is the right step to take, given that the road up the mountain is, given the challenges ahead, steep and winding, and likely to be strewn with obstacles, tricky traps and veiled in a lot of mist. So what now?

Moving forward, consideration would need to be given to the report of the Presidential Implementation Committee on compliance with the Section 121 (3) provisions, as currently obtains at the federal level, with a view to enthroning uniform modality across the country.

The concept of 'autonomy' would also need to be reconceptualized, so as to be viewed beyond the lenses of financial independence. Such move would require broadening its scope to include other areas such as the mode of appointment, removal, promotion, discipline, security of tenure in office, of judges, so as to ensure non-interference from the other arms of government, etc.

· The remuneration and welfare of judicial officers should also be in the mix, given that the salaries of judges were last reviewed a long time ago under the Certain Political, Public and Judicial Office Holders (Salaries and Allowances, etc.) (Amendment) Act 2008. This, clearly, has since passed its use-by-date, with the level of inflation and currency devaluation over the years. Urgent steps would therefore need to be taken to remedy the situation, so as to make the remuneration of judges to be in sync with the current economic realities.

Finally, adequate safeguard would be required to ensure that "financial autonomy" is not abused or misused. Adequate checks and internal monitoring tools would therefore need to be created within the judiciary to ensure the proper utilization of its funds.

· These are, clearly, trying times for the judiciary, and the teething problems are not going to be solved with the same thinking we used when the problems were created. This is therefore a moment in history when we have a chance to think outside the box. There is not just the responsibility to do better for now at least, there is now the opportunity.

Oghoghorie, a policy writer & public affairs analyst, wrote from Abuja

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