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It’s scandalous for senators to earn more than judges – Sowemimo, SAN


A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr Seyi Sowemimo, speaks with TUNDE AJAJA on the botched raid of Justice Mary Odili’s house, funding challenge facing the judiciary and issues around appointments to the bench at the appellate courts

Some people have described the attempt by some security agents to search the home of Justice Mary Odili, the second most senior judge in the Supreme Court, as an attack on the judiciary; do you see it as such?

I don’t think it’s an attack on the judiciary, especially as the government has disowned the action. The government has not said they know about it and the Attorney General of the Federation (Abubakar Malami) said he wasn’t aware of it. So, I think we should accept those explanations in good faith. From what I read, it appeared there was some mistake as to the numbering and the house they went to was not the one they were supposed to go. So, I think we should see it as an unfortunate development. It is difficult, in relation to the previous one, to wholly condemn the government because as a result of those searches and raids on their homes at that time, a lot of unsavoury discoveries were made which gave one the feeling that maybe at the end of the day, it served some useful purpose. However, this second one does not strike as one that the government masterminded. Some people have also suggested that it was to deny Justice Odili some succession plan, but I don’t think that is realistic because in terms of the retirement dates made public, she is even supposed to retire before the incumbent Chief Justice of Nigeria. In any case, the Nigerian Bar Association has come out to condemn the move. I think that is sufficient.

There are people who believe that the mere arrest carried out one week after the incident is not sufficient and that the issue might be delayed so it could fade out with time. Are you optimistic about the investigation?

I think a week is not an unreasonable delay. I would prefer they undertake a thorough investigation and make appropriate conclusions as to what took place rather than rush it and then we come up with an embarrassing position. There are a lot of speculations as to what may have informed that invasion. However, the NBA said it was following up with the AGF on it and I’m sure the government would want to decide on the appropriate action to take before coming to the public with a position.

The Supreme Court said in a statement on Tuesday that the judiciary should not be seen as the weeping child among the three arms of government because of its conservative stance; should the judiciary continue to be conservative?

I don’t think the judiciary is a weeping child; it deserves respect and is fulfilling its own role; an adjudicating body that is not made up of politicians but of professionals who have been disciplined by their calling, and they are very powerful. In terms of the role they play, if you describe them as conservative, I would say that is how it should be. They are not supposed to be radical. Personally, I think it’s a very well-respected institution. There are cases in which there have been complaints of disobedience to court orders and I think where those happened, the judiciary should flex its muscles, and through the contempt powers, do the needful. All we expect is for them to play the role with integrity so that we don’t have these conflicting orders. I think they should be more mindful of the sensitive role they have to play.

Usually, when a judge is found guilty of misconduct and there is need for disciplinary action, what we see is that they are retired and that’s where it ends. Is that punitive enough?

The judiciary is a very sensitive institution and the way and manner you deal with its erring members would also affect the integrity and the way the serving members are perceived. If you rubbish them, what you end up with is rubbishing the institution itself. I think whatever wrongdoing they are guilty of, they are nowhere near what a member of the executive or legislative arms is guilty of. I believe every act of infringement by any judicial officer should be taken case by case. There will be instances where it’s not simply okay to just retire them. I remember the last one; after the raid on the houses of the judges, one or two of them were taken to court and fortunately, maybe their offences did not warrant imprisonment but they were prosecuted and because they won the cases, if I may put it that way, it appears like they were not adequately punished. I think some of them were acquitted on technical grounds.

However, I think people are just mindful of the fact that they don’t want to do things that would affect the institution, but I believe judges should be monitored more closely, just like the way any public official should. I think there is no question that we all believe the standard of living of judges needs to be improved and I believe a lot should be done in that regard. When you compare what judges earn to what senators earn, the difference is scandalous, and these are people who do sensitive jobs. The NBA and other professional groups need to continuously focus attention on their conditions of service.

On the issue of welfare, there are people who believe that the poor remuneration and welfare packages could have encouraged some judges to engage in questionable practices. Do you think that is enough justification or is it just greed?

It’s a mix of all those things; poor remuneration, greed and lack of patriotism, but the fact remains that we should not expose our judges to temptation by giving them very poor remuneration. It will be unfair for you to pay a judge a paltry sum and expect them to decide fairly in disputes involving billions or trillions of naira. There is a limit to which many people can endure such. I think before we condemn and apply severe punishment, let it be that you pay them very well, so that if they are found to be corrupt, there will be every justification to punish them and we would know it was caused by greed. The vast majority of judges have done well, otherwise we won’t have a judiciary to talk of today. We have an idea of what senators and members of the House of Representatives get as salary and allowance. It takes a huge sacrifice to be on the bench and be seeing all these things going on, so I’m always in support of a good welfare package for our judges. Until we are able to reach that position, we will not really be too justified to breathe down the neck of any judge. However, it will never justify it. Anybody who accepts that appointment knows that it calls for a lot of sacrifice. You can’t get there and say you don’t know what you signed for.

Some lawyers have condemned the practice of governors buying vehicles and houses for judges as a form of support for the judiciary. The lawyers believe it could compel the judges to do the bidding of the state. What do you think?

I think judicial autonomy is the way to go and I’m happy there has been that pressure to make sure it happens. This year alone, the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria was on strike for months for that purpose. For me, it is not the executive buying cars for judges that would make them compromise. Judges are also part of the government in a way and don’t forget that their salaries come from the government. It is left for individual judges to assert their independence. What they are getting is a right, not a favour. So, they don’t have to feel they should dance to the government’s dictates. In the 1960s when we had the best of our judiciary, they were also funded by the government but that didn’t make them compromise their integrity. I am for judicial autonomy, but I’m also not going to accept that the mere fact that the government pays the bills of these people means they are vulnerable. Government pays the salary of the President and the ministers and we demand of these people that they should act in public interest. So, the fact that the government pays judges, legislators and others is all the more reason why we can demand of them to act as patriots and in the interest of the nation.

The Federal Government has said it cannot continue funding state courts, but the states opposed it. What do you think is the ideal?

One thing is that there seems to be an imbalance in the distribution of resources in this country. Left to me, the Federal Government takes far more than it should and that is why we have these disputes and the states demanding more equitable distribution of resources. I think the Federal Government should look into it. That is what the whole debate about restructuring is about; fiscal federalism. As long as the Federal Government insists on getting the lion share of the resources of this nation, then they have to bear the brunt of funding the courts as best as they can. Otherwise, they should let us have fiscal federalism.

The Federal High Court in Jalingo, Taraba State, ruled that a former acting governor of the state, Sani Danladi, could not contest future elections and that ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2019. Recently, the Federal High Court reviewed its judgement and ruled that he could contest. Can a lower court review its own judgement, especially when the apex court has affirmed it?

I have some reservations because I haven’t read the court judgement you are talking about and my immediate feeling would be that maybe fresh facts came to light and there are new circumstances that have arisen and have warranted the change. Again, this review may be on the same premise that the Supreme Court previously upheld any disqualification. However, like I said, unless I look at the judgements, I cannot comment reasonably on it.

Some lawyers have argued that brilliant academics and senior lawyers should be eligible to be appointed as judges of the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court like we had in the past, looking at examples like Justice Teslim Olawale Elias and Justice Augustine Nnamani. Why do we have that reluctance?

Yes, we have Justice Elias and Justice Nnamani, who came straight from the bar. You have that same thing happening in some other Commonwealth countries like Canada. There were people who came from the law faculty to be appellate judges and chief judges. There used to be Justice Bora Laskin, who was once the Chief Justice of Canada. He came from the Law Faculty to the appellate court and eventually became the Chief Justice. You have Justice Elias who moved from being the Attorney General to being the Chief Justice and he performed very well. I believe our Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal would be enriched if we have this diversity. I believe ultimately we will get there. I agree there is some reluctance. Like most things in Nigeria, it takes so long to achieve what should be commonplace. I know many of the organs within the legal profession have canvassed for this position and are pushing for it. We hope to see such in the near future.

If the various organs have canvassed it, whose duty is it to make it happen, is it the National Judicial Council or the President?

It would take a combination of all of them. We also need to probably change the constitution because it is the NJC that makes recommendations to the President as to who to appoint. The President needs to be properly advised and at the same time the NJC needs to have a policy that allows for such diversity even if we need to make it expressly clear in our constitution. We have to balance these things. It is not often and it should not be the routine whereby you appoint people from outside the bench to the Appeal Court or the Supreme Court. It should be rare, but we should at least have some flexibility that allows something like this to be possible once in a while. If it has worked in the past, we should look into the possibility that it could be something that we should try again in the present. But there is definitely that reluctance as you have observed. It’s how to overcome it that those within the profession have to sit down and seriously address.

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