By Alex Enemanna
We have fatally weakened our institutions to the extent that we are left with no option but resorting to window-dressing in a desperate effort to shift their attention from the most critical and germane issues to spur them for effective service delivery. Interestingly, some of the institutions misfire at any available opportunity to present their case. It goes to say that in an environment where slavery and subjugation pervades, anything serves as an aura of fresh air and freedom. Why is the muscled and emasculated Judiciary not harping on independence rather they concentrate on elongation of retirement age? Are they comfortable with the current system where they beg cap in hand, wholly at the mercy of the Executive for allocation in a way that stifles the principle of independence of the arms of government? These are questions begging for answers. Preposterously and unassumably, at a time we are confronted with barrage of issues that border on the security and welfare of our dear citizens, the National Assembly is fixated with pushing the proposed retirement age of Supreme Court Justices from the current 70 to 75 years while also treating as a ‘matter of urgent national importance’ the 70-year retirement age proposed for High Court judges from its current 65 ahead of Constitution Review this year.
This again lends credence to the skepticism expressed in some quarters by concerned citizens that the upcoming National Assembly Constitution Review will end up a white elephant project whose aim will not only be defeated but a conduit for those in authority to feather their nests, provide safe haven for their cronies and allies, leaving the masses frustrated, more angered and pauparised. This is the same National Assembly that has maintained a deafening silence in the midst of debilitating and depraving economic environment our people face. This is the same NASS that has kept mum while Nigerians are being brazenly intimidated, harassed, tortured and killed by security agents, within and outside Nigeria. Is it not the same National Assembly that feigns ignorance while the principle of Federal Character is being randomly raped by the Executive, where some zones are massively favoured against others in appointment into government key positions? Is it not the same National Assembly that watches helplessly while the Federal Government’s Social Investment Fund is being mischievously hijacked and those it is meant for benefit nothing?
One wonders why the extension of the retirement age of Supreme Court Justices and high court judges becomes of utmost importance in the to-do list of the National Assembly members at this time. Would one be right to say it is a surreptitious move to fly the kite of tenure elongation for the Executive through this amendment to prove their loyalty to President Muhammadu Buhari as they have openly professed? Whatever reasons that may have been adduced for this unholy agenda, it is both misplaced, unneeded and should be perished now.
To begin with, permit me to ask Sen. Ovie Omo-Agege, chairman of the Constitution Review Committee and his colleagues who now masquerade as champions of judicial reforms and respecters of judges, where were they when in 2016 security agents invaded the homes of Supreme and high Court judges, assaulted their family members, destroyed their properties and took them away like common criminals? When the salaries of the judges remained static for about 13 years, up until 2020 following the enactment of the “Certain Political, Public and Judicial Office Holders (Salaries and Allowances, etc) (Amendment) Act of 2008” which came into force on February 1, 2007, where were the National Assembly members? It is on record today that the annual basic salary of a Supreme Court Justice is far less than five million Naira. According to a 2019 investigation by LEADERSHIP, under the “Certain Political, Public and Judicial Office Holders (Salaries and Allowances, etc) (Amendment) Act, 2008”, the CJN’s annual basic salary is N3,353,972.50 (or N279,497.71 monthly), while other Justices of the Supreme Court and the President of the Court of Appeal received N2,477,110 as basic annual salary or N206,425.83 monthly.
At the same time, the Justices of the Court of Appeal, Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court and President of the Industrial Court, Grand Khadi of State and FCT Sharia Court of Appeal, President FCT and State Customary Court of Appeal earned annual basic salary of N1, 995,430.18 each. It further indicates that the salaries and purchasing power of Nigeria judges and their counterparts abroad and even in some African countries are wide apart. For instance, in the United State of America (USA), while the then Chief Justice John Roberts earned $255,500 (or N118, 807,500 then) per year, the eight associate justices earned a healthy pay raise to $244,400 (N113, 646,000).
Paradoxically, our Legislature is one of the most expensive and fund-guzzling institutions across the world. Whatever their earnings are has largely remained one of the world topmost secretive shenanigans. When they acquire expensive SUVs, move in chains of convoys, can they say same of our Lord Judges? Yet our lawmakers believe that the only thing that can douse the hydra-headed disparity between the Legislature and the Judiciary arm of government is to increase their retirement age by 5 years. For me and many other discerning minds, this is ridiculously insulting.
In an era where life expectancy in Nigeria is on a free fall, currently put at 55.12 years, it only amounts to playing God to say with the tune of certainty that one can live up to 70 and above before taking a deserving rest from work. A 2019 World Population Review on life expectancy ranked Nigeria 198th out of 202 countries studied. According to the study, Nigeria has better life expectancy than only Sierra Leone (199th), Chad (200th), Lesotho (201st) and Central African Republic as the least ranked nation at 202nd position. It therefore amounts to ‘celebration of life’ to exceed 60th birthday in Nigeria.
Suffice to say that whatever underhand dealings the judges are accused of is traceable to a debilitating welfare package available to them. The political class has so made our judges susceptible to corruption by deliberately keeping them under a strangulating work environment, refusing to roll out legal framework that will put them at par with their counterparts across the world in terms of welfare. This cannot be extricated from why the proposed 5-years retirement age extension appears savoury on the face value, when in the real sense it does not mitigate for loss of comfort during service.
In the case of teachers whose retirement age was recently raised from 60 to 65 years, of what need is that when they will still be subjected to backlog of unpaid salaries? For a teacher who has, for instance worked for 35 years but yet to attain the retirement age, does it make much sense to remain in service hungry or embark on a deserving retirement with something to live the rest of his life? Left to fly, new retirement age for judges will serve as disincentive for younger benchers who aspire to reach the top of their professional career. With one representation from each state, it implies that there will not be any replacement until a sitting judge clocks 75 or 70 as the case may be. Lest I forget, why are we so sure that the soundness of the minds of the judges will remain intact while we over-labour them at an old age? Are they immuned from depreciation of productivity value as they grow higher in age? What is the level of their physical fitness that we must do bank on their mental fitness for such a delicate national assignment at the age of 75 and 70 respectively? Aside this, this self-serving mission has the tendency to further generate constitutional crisis than we may envisage. What happens if civil servants, police officers, the military and Para-military agencies and the rest begin to ask for a new retirement age? Can we shoulder the pressure?
My Lords, the respected judges should instead press for a healthy welfare system that will reasonably close the gap between them and the Legislature instead of this anachronistic effort to have them serve for longer years. At a graceful 70, our senior citizens are worthy of a deserving rest, having served their fatherland meritoriously. Whatever level of satisfaction they haven’t attained at 70, how sure are they that additional 5 years in service can offer such?
The National and state Houses of Assembly must discard such bill to the bin where it rightly belongs. They should commit their energy to pushing agenda that will have a wide spread and minister to the critical needs of our people, particularly security, employment and national unity. These should occupy the front burner in the upcoming Constitution Review Exercise. Anything short of this will amount to effort in futility.
Enemanna writes from Abuja
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