Nigeria’s top judge leaves the justice system in a mess. Here’s how his successor can fix it

Nigeria’s Chief Justice, Tanko Muhammad, has resigned following corruption allegations. President Muhammadu Buhari immediately swore in the Supreme Court’s most senior justice, Olukayode Ariwoola, as acting chief justice. Judge Muhammad leaves behind a dysfunctional judicial system. The Conversation Africa asked public law expert Abiodun Odusote what Muhammad’s successor can do to fix the justice system.

What’s wrong with the Nigerian justice system?

The events leading up to the resignation of Justice Muhammad and the news that followed call for reflection on the administration of justice in Nigeria. A week before his resignation, 14 Supreme Court justices had accused him of corruption and failing to take their welfare seriously. Additionally, he has been accused of misplaced priorities and using limited financial resources to take his family on vacation.

Judges cited challenges that nearly crippled the effective adjudication of cases in court. Some of the major issues they raised include non-replacement of vehicles in poor condition, poor accommodation, lack of medicine at the Supreme Court clinic, and poor electricity supply to the Supreme Court.

Others are the increase in the electricity rate to their residences, little or no increase in allowances for diesel and the lack of Internet services to residences and rooms. In his defense, he alluded to limited resources. Then he resigned for health reasons.

Nigerian systems are built around people rather than processes. Any process allowing an individual to access or divert 80 billion naira (about $191 million) must be reviewed.

The time has come for a Supreme Court administrator with the primary duty of court administration and welfare. This person must ensure that the complex is well maintained and serviced, with an adequate supply of electricity, and that the judges are comfortable and paid automatically, without delay.

The court’s accounts must be audited annually and if the appropriate financial resources are not made available in time, the Chief Justice must liaise with the National Assembly and the Ministry of Finance. The Chief Justice should not get bogged down in administrative duties.

What should be the priority of a new Chief Justice?

Nigeria’s judicial and administrative system needs to be overhauled. The Nigerian constitution should be amended to allow for a strong, efficient and independent judiciary. The integrity and capacity of the judiciary must be strengthened. Nigeria has one Supreme Court for a population of over 206 million. Judges are overwhelmed and overwhelmed.

The new Chief Justice must prioritize the decentralization of the Supreme Court. He cannot do it alone, but the Supreme Court can present a position on this subject to the National Assembly and to the Presidency. That there are six other supreme courts, located in the six regions.

These supreme courts would render final decisions in all cases except very few which would be brought before the Federal Supreme Court in Abuja for meaningful interpretation of the provisions of the constitution. Additionally, cases between the states, the federal government, and the National Assembly would be brought before the Federal Supreme Court.

The Chief Justice must also review the procedure for appointing judges and High Court judges to ensure that only highly competent and honest people are appointed. Appointed judges must be in good enough health to perform their duties. I would like one of the Big Five Human Resource and Consulting Firms in Nigeria to be engaged in the process of appointing judges.

Currently, state high court judges are appointed by governors on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council. They must have been qualified as a lawyer for at least 10 years. It doesn’t matter what the person has done since being called to the Bar. The current system leaves room for political manoeuvre.

The third priority is to ensure that the limited resources available are managed optimally. Processes should be put in place to ensure transparency and accountability.

Why is the Nigerian judiciary considered corrupt?

As the judicial system is currently structured, corruption will persist. Corruption is not limited to financial misappropriation but includes all forms of abuse of power. Drivers of corruption in the justice system include delays in assigning and hearing cases, abuse of court process by law enforcement, denial of bail without cause, lack of effective supervision, poor remuneration, method of appointment and promotion of judges, lack of resources and facilities with which to work, political interference from the executive, poor financial management, impunity and inadequate sanctions for offending staff, among others.

What can a new Chief Justice do about this?

Corruption in the judiciary is pervasive and complex. It must be tackled by multiple approaches.

The mode of appointment should be reviewed. Internal supervision needs to be strengthened; you have to see that there is no tolerance for corruption.

Technology should be applied to the administration of justice in Nigeria, including perhaps more effective use and application of electronic hearing, which is publicly available. All originating motions and summonses must be filed and heard through electronic platforms. Judgment must also be delivered electronically.

At Nigeria’s Corporate Affairs Commission, corruption has been eradicated through technology. Now you can register a business without visiting the commission or bribing anyone. This is what technology can do: fast, efficient and transparent. The application of technology can also improve the financial accountability of judges.