Body of Benchers wades into Supreme Court justices-CJN feud

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*Olanipekun

Ime Akpan, Lagos

The Body of Benchers has set up a seven-member committee to intervene in the standoff between 14 Supreme Court justices and the chief justice of Nigeria, Mr. Tanko Muhammad.

The disagreement followed a leaked memo in which the justices had in a joint petition, accused the CJN of abandoning his responsibilities and diverting funds meant for the running of the Supreme Court.

Chairman of the Body, Mr. Wole Olanipekun said in an interview that the committee is headed by a former CJN, Mahmud Mohammed.

He said the objective of the committee is to resolve the impasse while the ultimate objective is to work out an acceptable package for judicial officers all over the country, particularly judicial officers in superior courts.

Olanipekun who advised the warring parties to simmer down said: “We held an emergency meeting today (Tuesday) and for now, we have set up a Body of Benchers Judiciary Advisory Committee. It will be a standing committee of the Body of Benchers and the Chair of the committee is Justice Mahmud Mohammed, former Chief Justice of Nigeria.

“I am a member and the Vice Chairman of the Body of Benchers is a member and four others. We are swinging into action. We are talking to parties concerned, individually and collectively.

“For now, we are advising that they should sheath their swords. The immediate objective of the committee is to resolve the impasse while the ultimate objective is to work out an acceptable package for judicial officers all over the country, particularly judicial officers in superior courts.”

Besides, he said the committee would work to improve the welfare package for judicial officers in the country.

“The committee has also been mandated to compare and contrast what the judicial officers take as their remuneration among others with what is obtainable in other parts of the world.

“The committee will confront the executive with what we derive as the best condition of service, remuneration, among others, as obtained by other countries of the world. The CJN cannot do this; the organogram tilts against the independence of the judiciary as we want it,” he added.

Recall that 14 Supreme Court justices had in a memo to the CJN complained to their budgetary allocation which, according to them, was yet to be increased in the last four years.

The judges also talked about the failure to replace dilapidated vehicles, accommodation problems, poor healthcare services at the Supreme Court clinic and poor electricity supply to the court.

Other issues include the non-signing of amended court rules, an abrupt stoppage of foreign workshops and training per annum for justices; and no provision of qualified legal assistants.

“The decision to write to you formally must be seen by Your Lordship as an effort on our part to preserve the dignity of the Judiciary and the respect accorded to us by Governments and people of Nigeria.

“We are serving this Country diligently and to the best of our ability. We resolve disputes between the executive and the legislature including all manner of disagreements, between governments and individuals…It would be a tragedy if the Nigerian Public were to know that we are unable to resolve our own problems internally without going public,” they said in the memo.

They called the CJN’s attention to an internal memo served by the chief registrar, which notified judges that electricity would be supplied to the court between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. daily, due to the lack of diesel.

“The implication of this memo is that the Justices must finish their work and close before 4pm. Your Lordship with all due respect, this is the peak of the degeneration of the Court; it is the height of decadence, and clear evidence of the absence of probity and moral rectitude,” the justices 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.

“Your Lordship, this is a wake-up call. Your Lordship must take full responsibility as our leader. You must not concession your responsibility to people who have no responsibility or stake in preserving and defending the dignity of the institution,” they said.

Replying to the allegations yesterday, the CJN said the action of his colleagues who are supposed to be seen and not heard was akin to dancing naked in the market.

His reaction was contained in a statement signed by his spokesman, Mr. Ahuraka Isah, entitled, ‘State of Affairs in the Supreme Court and demand by Justices of the Supreme Court.’

“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.

“The Supreme Court does not exist outside its environment; it is also affected by the economic and socio-political climate prevailing in the country. Besides that, the Apex Court has to a larger extent, been living up to its constitutional responsibility,” he said.

He explained that the Supreme Court had in 2022 budgeted to re-roof and rehabilitate its complex built over 30 years ago.

On the issue of accommodation and other facilities, Muhammad said: “Accommodations are being gradually provided for the few that are yet to get them. There is none of the Apex Court Justices without SUV and backup cars. If any of them were purchased but refurbished, the external and internal auditors are here in the court to take those that bought them up over it.

“The high cost of electricity tariff and diesel is a national problem. The Chief Registrar might have budgeted for N300 per litre but diesel is now selling for over N700 per litre and therefore has to find a way around it without even bringing it to the attention of the CJN. But there is no way the generator would be put off if the Court is sitting.

“Internet services have been restored to Justices’ residences and chambers, just as some allowances have been paid to them. The CJN held a meeting with his brother Justices last Thursday and another one is due to hold this week.”

He assured the general public 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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