President Bola Ahmed Tinubu has gave his accent to the bill increasing the retirement age of judges in Nigeria from 65 to 70, signalling the beginning of the much awaited reforms in the judiciary and the Administration of Justice System.
The bill, titled: “Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (fifth altercation) (No.37) bill, 2023”, was the first to be signed by President Tibunu since taking the oath of office on May 29. The law extends the retirement age of high court judges — and others — from 65 to 70 years.
This accent may not be new to anyone who has followed Tinubu’s trajectory in politics. As governor of Lagos State sworn into office on May 29, 1999, one of the first things he did was the increment of Lagos judges emolument with 300 per cent, raising their take home pay more than that of Supreme Court justices. With the increment, Tinubu kick started reforms in the justice sector which other states and even the Federal government followed.
However, his reforms was not without protest or controversy, as it was heavily criticized by some stakeholders in the system who insisted that it was a political strategy to cage the judges and remove their independence. One of the harshest critics was the then Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Late Justice Mahmoud Babatunde Belgore, who said that the increment was politically motivated. He argued that a situation where the Lagos State Government was paying its judges over and above other states will not augur well for an effective and efficient judiciary. This is more so, he argued, when some states still owe their judges three to four months salary. He concluded that apart from politicizing the judiciary,such arbitrary increase could drag the system into subservience.
Others also argued that the Lagos State move was illegal, quoting section 81(3) of the 1999 constitution which vests the remuneration of judicial officers on the National Judicial Council (NJC), the only body authorized by the constitution to collect money meant for judiciary from the Consolidated Fund for disbursement to heads of the national and state Judiciary.
However within two years, all states in the Federation, and the Federal government had copied Lagos reforms. It got to a height on October 16th and 17th 2003, when the then Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Akin Olujimi SAN led 35 other Chief Law Officers of States on a visit to Lagos State. They came to learn how Lagos did its reforms.
Therefore, Nigerians may witness tremendous reforms in the justice system with Tinubu as president.
The President of the Nigerian Law Society (NLS), Mr Kunle Ogunba SAN sees President Tinubu’s accent as a step in the right direction but he also reminded him of judges poor conditions of service.
In a statement titled “Beyond the increase in the age of retirement of judges”, Ogunba said:
“In the early hours of Saturday the 8th October, 2016, the whole world particularly Nigerians woke up to the sad news of the raid of some judges in the Nigerian judiciary which raid, it was later discovered had commenced on Friday the 7th day of October and lasted till the early hours of the aforesaid Saturday the 8th of October, 2016. That unprecedented event marks a dark annal both in the history of the Nigerian judiciary and haunted the Buhari administration till its very end. The intent of that gory episode was in pursuance of its much taunted war on corruption whether that administration effectively fought that war is the story for another day!;
When juxtaposed with the beginning of the Tinubu’s administration who in its early days particularly today the 8th day of June, 2023 signed the fifth Alteration(no) 37 of the 1999 constitution into Law. This step in the early days of this administration shows the importance at play, the judiciary is accorded but we hasten to state that even though it is a step in the right direction but the major problem within our judiciary is not that of age of retirement!.
The salaries and conditions of service of our judges is poor and too low respectively. This administration should as a matter of urgency review the earnings and emoluments of our judiciary if we expect the best from them. As active practitioners within the system we are aware that good, honest and dedicated judges abounds within their ranks whilst conceding that there may a few bad apples within?!.
Therefore this is a clarion call on the president to take more decisive steps in addressing the problems beleaguering the judiciary wholistically!. There is the issue of aged infrastructure as some of the court rooms dates back to the colonial days with little or no improvement whatsoever, this a clarion call for action and with expected harsh realities of the recent increase in petroleum products the welfare of judges nay the struggling workers should be accorded a pride of place in the coming months if not weeks. The template has even been laid by the past administration as the immediate past Attorney General of the Federation informed the whole nation on the 18th of November, 2022 during the commissioning of the Port Harcourt Law School campus that President Buhari has previously assented to such increments for the judiciary and its officers”.
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