Nigeria’s top judges in public spat over disputed benefits - CJ says it's 'dancing naked in the market place'

Members of Nigeria’s apex court have come out strongly against the leader of the country’s judiciary, Tanko Muhammad. In the first letter of its kind, they have written to him, as Chief Justice of Nigeria to complain about a variety of issues related to conditions at court as well as conditions under which the judges operate. They moan about a memo informing them that electricity will operate at court only between 8 and 4 due to a diesel shortage, about amended court rules that have not been finalised, and about not being able to take ‘accompanying persons, due to age’ when they travel for training. The CJN in turn has responded with a statement that, by implication, criticises the judges for their initial letter, saying it amounted to ‘dancing naked in the market square’. In the letter he makes assurances, however, that everyone at court is getting on with their work and doing their normal duty.

 

In an unprecedented move, the entire complement of Nigeria’s supreme court has signed a protest letter sent to the country’s chief justice, Tanko Muhammad. The letter, leaked to the media, concerns a number of issues related to perks, internal court arrangements and related matters. It was answered a few days later by a formal statement issued by the CJ’s spokesperson, Ahuraka Isah.

Epileptic electricity

Among the complaints by the judges was the ‘epileptic electricity supply to the court’, the restoration of the justices’ monthly internet allowance and the failure to provide court accommodation for newly-appointed judges.

They also took issue with failure to provide ‘qualified legal assistants’ and wrote, ‘We are aware that even lower courts provide legal assistants’ for judges. ‘We require qualified legal assistants in order to offer our best. This demand has not been accorded any attention by the [CJ].’

They complained about the state of the court’s medical clinic. It had ‘become a mere consulting clinic,’ they moaned. ‘Drugs are not available to treat minor ailments. There is a general lack of concern for Justices who require immediate or emergency medical intervention.’

‘Reasons of age’

As to the rules of court, they were the ‘immediate tools employed by Justices to dispense justice to court users.’ Yet, they complained, ‘Your Lordship has kept the amended Rules of Court for almost three years now, awaiting your signature. We strongly believe the new rules will aid speedy dispensation of justice.’

The state of vehicles available for the judiciary to use was a cause of complaint, along with problems associated with ‘training’.

However, their complaint related to ‘training’ was rather unusual: the judges wanted the CJ to reinstate the system that operated ‘in the past’, when judges were nominated ‘to attend two to three foreign workshops and training per annum with an accompanying person for reasons of age.’

Privilege

However, since the present CJ had taken over, judges had attended only two workshops and ‘were not accorded the privilege of travelling with accompanying persons as was the practice.’

‘Your Lordship totally ignored this demand and yet travelled with your spouse, children and personal staff. We demand to know what has become of our training funds, have they been diverted, or is it a plain denial?’

Another hot issue concerned the fact that electricity is only being supplied to the court between 8am and 4pm because of a diesel shortage. The judges said the implication of this memo was that the justices had to finish their work and close before 4pm. It was clearly a question that had the court’s members exceedingly agitated.

Imminent danger

They wrote,

‘Your Lordship, this act alone portends imminent danger to the survival of this court and the judiciary as an institution, which is gradually drifting to extinction. The judiciary is an arm of government.  … The implication of the memo is that this arm of government is potentially shut down. May God never allow that day.

‘Your Lordship, this is a wake up call. Your Lordship must take full responsibility as our leader. … We will not wait for the total collapse of the institution. We must not abandon our responsibility to call Your Lordship to order in the face of these sad developments that threaten our survival as an institution. We have done our utmost best to send a wake up call to Your Lordship. A stitch in time saves nine.

‘Finally, Your Lordship, the choice is now yours. It is either you quickly and swiftly take responsibility and address these burning issues or we will be compelled to further steps immediately. May this day never come.’

Dancing naked

The CJ moved quickly to assure the judges and the public that all was well with the court and that ‘everyone is going about his normal duty’.

His replying statement began: ‘Judges in all climes are to be seen and not heard, and that informed why the CJN refrained from joining issues until a letter, said to be personal, is spreading across the length and breadth of the society. This was akin to dancing naked at the market square by us with the ripple effect of the said letter.’

He explained that he had to ensure that money was spent for the purpose for which it was allocated. The ‘accusation’ from his colleague ‘is that more or all ought to have been done and not that nothing has been done; which is utopian in the contemporary condition of our country.’

‘No hostility’

There was no additional budget for the eight new judges appointed to the supreme court in 2020 and the apex court thus had to make do with the resources at its disposal.

He said two supreme court judges had died ‘within the period under consideration.’ ‘Both the four retirees and the two departed cost the court some funds in the forms of gratuities and allowances.’

‘The general public should be rest assured that there’s no hostility or adverse feelings amongst the justices of the supreme court, as everyone is going about his normal duty.’

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