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Rediscovering the Attributes that made Nigeria’s Judiciary High-Calibre in Africa – Yemi Osinbajo

Being the speech delivered by His Excellency, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, GCON, the Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria at the Justice Sector Reform Summit 2022, Themed: DEVISING PRACTICAL SOLUTIONS TOWARDS IMPROVED PERFORMANCE, ENHANCED ACCOUNTABILITY AND INDEPENDENCE IN THE JUSTICE SECTOR held at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre on the 25th of January, 2022.

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First, let me commend the panel that just had a lively and frank discussion. I think this is what we want to see here today, very open, frank and to the point.

I want to commend my brother, Olisa Agbakoba, SAN for conducting this panel discussion in a manner that speaks to what we want to achieve here today.

I have had the privilege of participating in several summits, workshops and other conversations on reforming the justice sector in Nigeria. But I must say that this particular Justice Sector Summit is one that gives me the greatest sense that we are on the verge of a breakthrough.

There are a few reasons why: the first is the collaboration behind the summit: the Bar Association; the authentic voice of the legal profession, the National Judicial Council; the sole body responsible for judicial matters especially matters of appointment and discipline of judicial officers, and civil society partners alongside donors who have had several years of reform engagements with the administration of justice system in Nigeria.

The second reason is, to borrow an aphorism adopted by the organizers of the Wole Olanipekun Justice Summit 2.0 the “Fierce Urgency of Now.” There is a growing sense that our system of justice may not long endure the serious issues that have over the years, continued to damage its credibility and fitness for purpose.

Given the challenging economic times, there is the worry that the system may not be competitive enough to attract foreign or even local investments. To quote President Muhammadu Buhari, “the extent to which we can attract business to our country depends in part upon investor perception of the quality of our justice delivery system. If we are seen as inefficient and ineffective, we would lose out to more efficient systems.”

The third reason is the approach that this summit proposes to take, which is, not to waste precious time on an elaborate exegesis of the problems, we are already experts’ analysis, and that is very evident – we have been doing it for many years at many summits but to focus on the practical and doable solutions to the problems in the short and medium to long terms.

Also critical is the focus on four or five clearly outlined areas: namely the establishment of a solely merit-based judicial selection and promotion process; a new approach to Judicial budgeting and funding and the all-important question of judicial remuneration and welfare. I think the very important point has been made already on questions of accountability – how is what is provided for being spent? So that we are able to have a proper conversation on what is required.

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Devising workable solutions to the problem of delays in the justice delivery system and the implementation of a court monitoring scheme are the remaining areas of focus.

I will restrain myself from pre-empting the discussions that will take place in the several sessions today but permit me a word or two on some of the issues.

On the question of appointments, I think it is fair to say that for practically any job at all, no matter how menial or exalted, it is the norm that the applicant will go through some process of evaluation and interview. The rigour of such processes usually depends on the enormity of the responsibility the applicant is to bear, and ultimately, the outcome considered reasonable from such an exercise is that it is the best from amongst the applicants that will emerge successful.

This is why it is quite frankly stunning that the process for evaluation and interview of judges, men and women statutorily empowered to literarily determine the lives and livelihoods of others is one of the least rigorous processes imaginable.

In the United Kingdom from where we derive most of the structures of our judicature, applicants to judicial office in superior courts go through several screening processes, at some point, it was 17 stages, including written examinations, interviews and role-play exercises. They are subjected to rigorous background investigations covering professional credentials and abilities, public records, judicial pronouncements, and personal financial affairs; evaluation by the Bar Association on Integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament. And in the US, Supreme Court appointments involve rigorous public screening by the Senate, which sifts through the entire public, and sometimes private lives of candidates. That is the nature of the rigour that anyone who should hold the power of life and death, and power over other people’s livelihoods, should go through. It shouldn’t be a “take a bow” situation at all. It must be rigorous because the moment the person is appointed into a high office of that sort, they are unleashed as it were on the rest of us.

The robustness and transparency of the processes in these jurisdictions provide comfort to the candidates of the fairness of the selection process and enables the public to have front-row seat in some of these processes.

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Also, while we ask for the best from our judicial officers, we must equally ensure that the conditions under which they operate are not only befitting but are good enough to attract the best of minds in our profession. Judicial remuneration and welfare are critical. Why should a judge earn so much less than a federal legislator?  There is no basis for it whatsoever. We should in fact benchmark without necessarily creating fresh new legislation because the Legislature doesn’t have any legislation about their own salaries.

If we benchmark what a federal judicial officer/Court of Appeal Judge earns to what a House of Representatives member earns, you’d find a startling difference. If you benchmark a Supreme Court Justice to what a Senator earns, you’d notice the difference. If we start that quick process now, we would not have to go through the rigorous process of legislation. We would just benchmark the salaries even if we are going to call it allowances.

The truth of the matter is that the responsibilities of the judge or justice of the Supreme Court/Court of Appeal are such they must be well remunerated. They are such that when they retire, they must be able to go to homes that they own in decent places where they live. That’s the way it should be. We shouldn’t have a situation where judges are anxious that when they retire, they won’t have homes to go to, because their salaries today can’t build anything decent.  We must ensure that these are the conditions that are met.

We must strengthen the processes of reviewing performance, incentivising excellence, and penalising misconduct.

There is also no question that the expeditious delivery of justice cannot wait any longer. The reputation of our system for repeatedly resulting in what the UK Court of Appeal described as “catastrophic delays” must be reversed.  One Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria gave evidence in a court in England, that it would take between 30 – 40 years to conclude a case in Nigeria.

Everyone knows that these delays take far too long, everyone who has practised in our courts knows that delay as a strategy is one of the weapons that our colleagues deploy repeatedly.

It is the responsibility of the bar and the bench, but I must say, especially with respect to delays, a lot depends on what counsel will do. In criminal cases, a lot depends on when you are able to conclude investigations, witnesses, especially those on the side of the prosecution.

We cannot make a scapegoat of any arm of the administration of the justice system; it is clear that we all have blame and responsibility here.

We can do better. We have to do better. Our problems are ours, not for spirits, to solve. They are human problems and I am sure we can solve them. We must be intentional in our approach. We must rediscover those attributes that made Nigeria’s judiciary a supplier of high calibre judicial personnel to other countries on the continent.

Let me again commend all the partners, especially My Lord, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, CFR, for his strong and unwavering support for reform, and for honouring the promise he made at the 2020 Justice Research Institute Webinar of championing pragmatic reforms in the sector.

Our President, President of the Nigerian Bar, Mr. Olumide Apata, deserves praise for spearheading this partnership and re-energising the Bar in its role as the single most important resource for the Bench towards addressing its most pressing challenges. And our partners, the Justice Research Institute, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Justice Reform Project for their long-standing commitments and hard work in support of justice sector reform over so many years.

For us in the Executive, support for this justice sector reform effort is a given. The Honourable Attorney- General, Abubakar Malami, SAN, has said as much. The involvement of the Executive in this reform, as far as this administration is concerned, has been ongoing and there have been several iterations of that effort. I think what is important at this point is the synergy with all of the other arms of the administration of the justice system and it is entirely possible for us to make a breakthrough now.

We will continue to work with you in identifying and accelerating the needed incremental and substantial reforms in the sector.  Much hope and expectation are hanging on the outcome of this summit.

The proposed approach of optimizing the recommendations of this summit, by developing a template of key deliverables under each of the identified issues into action-points, short-term and long-term; working out modalities and strategies for implementation and progress-tracking; and assigning timelines for their achievement is commendable and result oriented. We are also assured that at next year’s summit, we would receive a Progress Report on achievements and sector performance.

I thank you all for your attention and I wish you fruitful deliberations.

About the Author

Professor Yemi Osinbajo is the Vice President of Nigeria.

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