If there is one thing the judiciary and indeed the litigating public in Nigeria would commend and celebrate the 10th National Assembly for, is the speedy move being taken to approve new salaries and allowances for judicial officers in the country, writes Alex Enumah.

The Judiciary is the third arm of government in Nigeria’s democratic system of government. Although, its primary function is the interpretation of laws made by the legislature and how such laws are to be executed by the executive.

The Judiciary, however, over the years has played and continue to play the role of sustaining the peace as well as democracy in the country, especially since 1999, when this current democratic dispensation came into being.

However, unlike the other two arms of government whose emoluments have continued to be envied by many people, that of the Judiciary has not only continued to be the lowest but has remained static for nearly two decades. Sadly, the situation had remained pathetic over the years despite public outcry and failed promises of previous administration.

Like a former Justice of the Supreme Court, Muhammad Dattijo (rtd) said, the stagnated salaries and allowances of judicial officers is

“unjust and embarrassing”, especially when the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court earns more than the justices there.

Dattijo, while speaking at a special valedictory court session held to commemorate his retirement from the bench of the apex court had claimed that the Chief Registrar “earns N1.2 million per month” while justices “take home N751,000 in a month”.

He said: “That the unjust and embarrassing salary difference between the justices and the Chief Registrar still remains intriguing to say the least”.

However, all these are about to change now, and kudos to the 10th National Assembly, for its speedy move to pass the bill for the increase of the emoluments of judicial officers.

The approval is highly commendable because it is coming 16 years after the judges’ salaries and allowances were last reviewed by past administrations. Despite several strike actions embarked upon by Judiciary workers and court actions, the last administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, could not bring smiles on the faces of the justices, who have continued to give their all in the dispensation of justice in the country. Not even a court order on Buhari in 2022, to commence the immediate payment of new salaries and allowances of judicial officers, could change their fortune.

Recall that Justice Osatohanmwen Obaseki-Osaghae, of the National Industrial Court, Abuja, had in a judgment delivered in July, 2022, held that the current salaries and allowances of judicial officers in the country is not only abysmally low but embarrassing and accordingly ordered the federal government to put machinery in place for the immediate review of the salaries and allowances of the judicial officers.

Justice Obaseki-Osaghae subsequently ordered the federal government to commence a monthly payment of N10 million to the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), N9 million to other justices of the apex court, President of Court of Appeal, N9 million while other justices of the appellate court N8 million, Chief Judges of both Federal and States High Courts N8 million while judges of the Federal and States HIgh Courts N7 million, Heads of Sharia Court of Appeal and its counterpart in the Customary Court, N8 million and N7 million for the judges in both courts.

The judge in addition held that the federal government shall continue to carry out yearly or once in two years review of the salaries and allowances of the judicial officers. According to Justice Obaseki-Osaghae, the refusal of the government to review the judicial officers’ salaries and allowances for 14 years was unconstitutional, unlawful, adding that the Industrial Court has the power to compel the government to do the needful.

Obaseki-Osaghae, lamented that it is unfortunate that justices and judges who are ministers in the temple of Justice have become “victims of great injustice” in the country.

Her judgment was in a suit filed by a senior lawyer, Chief Sebastine Hon (SAN) who claimed to be an aspiring Justice.

Hon had in 2022, dragged the National Assembly and the Executive arm of government to court over the poor pay of judicial officers, which he noted had remained the same in the last 14 years despite the harsh economic conditions in the country. His main plea was for an order compelling the defendants to forthwith increase the salaries and allowances of judges in Nigeria.

The National Assembly, Revenue Mobilization and Fiscal Allocation Commission, Attorney General of the Federation and National Judicial Council are 1st to 4th defendants respectively.

In a supporting affidavit to the originating summons, plaintiff stated that as a legal practitioner, “who has practised in all the levels of courts in Nigeria, I know that poor pay for judicial officers is seriously affecting the quality of judgments and rulings those officers are delivering and the discharge of other functions associated with their offices.”

He argued that the current economic reality in the country requires that the salaries and allowances of judges be urgently improved upon.

The plaintiff noted that the highest-paid judicial officer in Nigeria – the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) – currently earns about N3.4 million per annum, far below what is earned by such an officer in other countries.

Hon, who quoted what all judicial officers currently earn as provided under Part IIB of the Schedule to the Certain Political, Public and Judicial Office Holders (Salaries and Allowances, etc) Amendment Act 2008, said the paltry sums have discouraged him from aspiring to become a judge.

Justice Obaseki-Osaghae, who agreed with the plaintiff faulted the federal government for expecting judicial officers to negotiate their salaries with their employers from time to time. The judge held that by constitutional provisions while the National Assembly has powers to enact laws guiding the remuneration of judicial officers the RMFAC is bound to determine such amount and charge same to the consolidated account from which judicial officers are paid.

Justice Obaseki-Osaghae however, stated that where they failed to carry out their constitutional duties, the court has the power to compel them to do so.

The court described the failure of the federal government to do the needful as a deliberate effort to alter the salaries and allowances of the judicial officers. While the judge noted that the RMFAC has powers to review the judicial officers’remuneration from time to time and in tune with current realities, she said the non review amounts to financial embarrassment and harassment as well as a national shame.

“No doubt it has affected their job, and inspite of that they have continue to do their job without fear or favour”, the judge held.

She further held that the 1st and 2nd defendants does not have unbridled, whimsical powers to refuse, fail to review the remuneration of judicial officers.

The court while holding that the current salary paid by the 2nd defendant through the 4th is embarrassingly low and unrealistic with the current economic conditions as well as global standard for judicial officers, accordingly ordered the federal government to immediately put in place legal and administrative machineries for the review of the remuneration of judicial officers.

According to the judge, the failure of the RMFAC to review the remuneration of justices and judges for the past 14 years notwithstanding the challenges of present time is unconstitutional and unlawful.

Although, the administration of former President Buhari in response to the judgment of the court, four months later

had announced an immediate approval for increment in the salaries of judicial officers, however, no increment was effected up till when he bowed out of office in May, 2023.

At every opportunity, however, President Bola Tinubu on assumption of office, assures of giving priority to the welfare of the Judiciary. Speaking last November at the opening session of the All Nigerian Judges Conference of the Superior Courts, President Tinubu had disclosed that he had directed the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) to urgently evolve ways to improve on the welfare of judicial officers.

Represented at the occasion by the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Prince Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), the president declared, “I have directed the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission to review its previous unacceptable recommendation of a 114 percent increase in the remuneration of judicial officers and come up with a more realistic rate that will reflect the present economic reality.

“I am optimistic that the process will be concluded as soon as possible, making the Judiciary independent as I have done elsewhere. I assure you that it will be done here, just be a little patient.”

True to his words, President Tinubu last month asked the National Assembly to consider and pass a new bill seeking to provide new salaries and allowances for judicial officers in the country. The Executive Bill forwarded by the President was titled: A Bill for an Act to Prescribe the Salaries, Allowances and Fringe Benefits of Judicial Office Holders in Nigeria and for Related Matters.

The President, in the letter read at plenary penultimate Tuesday, by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Abbas Tajudeen, said the bill seeks to end the “prolonged stagnation” of the remuneration of judicial officers.

“The judicial office holders salaries and allowances bill seeks to prescribe salaries and allowances and fringe benefits for judicial officials to end the prolonged stagnation in their remuneration and to reflect contemporary socio-economic realities”, the letter read in part.

A breakdown of the bill revealed that the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) will receive a monthly salary of N5.4 million, amounting to N64.8 million per annum. The monthly take home consists of N1.1 million basic salary and N4.3 million in regular allowances.

The annual pay includes various components such as personal assistant allowance of N3.6 million, hardship allowance of N6.7 million, entertainment allowance of N6 million, utility allowance of N4 million, outfit allowance of N3.3 million, journal subscription allowance of N2 million, medical allowance of N5.3 million, long service allowance of N1.3 million, restricted or forced lifestyle allowance of N6.7 million, dual responsibility allowance of N2.9 million, and legal researchers’ allowance of N6.9 million.

The bill also proposes N61.4 million annually for justices of the supreme court.

Although, the new figure is a far cry from the N10 million directed by the industrial court especially, when taking into consideration the astronomical increase in the cost of living in the last 10 months, nevertheless, the President and the National Assembly, are worthy of commendation for breaking what was fast becoming a “jinx” in the Judiciary.

Meanwhile, the advice of a Professor of Law and President of the Center for Socio-Legal Studies (CSLS), Prof. Yemi Akinseye-George (SAN) two years ago to former President Buhari remains applicable today.

Akinseye-George had in late 2022 urged the federal government to ensure that its enhanced salaries for judicial workers recently approved was in line with the order of Justice Obaseki-Osaghae of the National Industrial Court.

Besides Akinseye-George had also called for the enactment of new laws that would remove salaries of judicial officers from the category of political office holders for the scheme to run successfully.

According to him: “The CSLS notes with delight the directive issued by President Muhammadu Buhari to the Revenue Mobilization, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMFAC) to commence implementation of improved salaries and working conditions of judicial officers. “We urge the commission to act quickly on the president’s directive so that the 2023 budget can reflect the review. In doing so, the commission must give due regard to the judgment of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN) that prescribed certain amounts as befitting salaries for different levels of judicial officers”.

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