By Alex Enemanna
The argument for upward review of retirement age of High Court judges from 65 to 70 is not backed by any healthy logical drive. Also, there is no proof that the clamour is geared towards giving the wobbling judiciary, which is fast losing its glory and aura in the adjudication of justice, a new lease of life for effective service delivery. It is rather one of the litany of policies in the country hastily churned out to serve the interest of a very insignificant few, while the generality of justice seekers remain grossly under-served, less satisfied, and with a cold feet to approach the Temple of Justice. Aside uniformity with the retirement age of Appeal and Supreme Courts Justices currently pegged at 70, there is nothing else to support the unbridled sensation for new retirement age for High Court judges.
Those behind the needless push for inflated pension age for judicial officers should instead be worried that the third tier of government, the supposed last hope of the common man (even uncommon man) has been fatally battered and derided to its very face. Trust deficit in the system remains unresolved and the hope of the people being served rapidly thins away by the day. The “go to court” slur that has crept into our entertainment lexicon clearly paints the judiciary as a place where people’s time and resources are wasted with multiple endless adjournments — not a temple to get succour from the pain of injustice and relief from intimidation and oppression.
Amusingly, the 9th National Assembly largely seen as Ministry of Lawmaking because of its “oh yes” razor-sharp eagerness to do the biddings of the executive has gone to town, thumbing its chest as leaving a “legacy in judicial reforms” with the hasty passage of what they call “Uniform Retirement Age for Judicial Officers 2023”. “This is very important amendment to the Constitution and we are happy that it is going to be part of our legacy as the 9th National Assembly”, Senate President, Dr. Ahmad Lawan was quoted to have said.
One would assume that the Senate would have allowed we the Nigerian masses to determine what amounts to “legacy” under their legislative term and what amounts to feathering the nest of unproductive clerical officers in the system who want to manage their old age with government resources. I will elaborate this.
Again, one would be at loss as where the desire to uniformise this retirement age comes from, in a country where there are thousand and one things to be uniformised which the legislature has paid a deaf ear to. For instance, when are we having a uniformed salary structure between university lecturers and their rank mates in NNPC, CBN, FIRS and other A-list government agencies? When are we having a uniformed access to education between the children of the elite and the children of akara sellers in the street of Ibadan, Lokoja, Kaduna, Nnewi, Umuahia, Asaba, Dutse and elsewhere in the country? When are we having a uniformed access to security between the heavily guarded politically exposed individuals with bulletproof cars and the rest of us who rely on mantle from our spiritual fathers for our security? When would there be uniformity in access to healthcare between those in government who can fly to any part of the world for VIP healthcare services and those of us who drink agbo and queue endlessly in the over-worked public health institutions?
To say that the controversial circumstances under which this Bill was passed into law by the two chambers of the National Assembly calls for questioning will amount to putting it most mildly. For instance, apart from the usually predictable input of the departments of lawmaking in the states often mistaken as Houses of Assembly, no public hearing was held on this critical piece of legislation that borders on our access to justice. Input of the judicial officers themselves was not sought, amounting to shaving their hair in their absence.
Of what essence is it to press for 70-year retirement age in a country where life expectancy is on a rapid dwindle and currently hovers between 50-55 years? What this implies is that at 45, people are already gradually wearing out and their productivity sets on decline as elements of old age and other factors begin to take a toll on such persons.
If our courtrooms are dominated by senior citizens who ordinarily should be enjoying their retirement in their private lives, where will the vacancy for younger and more energetic judges aspiring to contribute their own quota to the enhancement of the system come from? The tomorrow of young ones should not be occupied by those who have enjoyed their own, yet have refused to leave the stage when productivity begins to drop on the account of age.
At the moment, the age of retirement and length of service in the core civil service is 60 and 35 years of service, whichever comes first. Then someone, somewhere believes that a man who has been writing in long-hand, with paper and pen before litigants for 20, 30 or 40 years is not due to go home at 65 to bond with grand children? Ridiculous!
A senior member of the bench informed me in confidence that a large number of them are eager to bow out at the age of 65 and not looking forward to staying a day beyond that age. According to him, when the issue of their retirement age was first tabled on their WhatsApp group, a large number of them seriously kicked against it, but because they are only meant to be seen and not heard, they can’t take to the streets and be carrying placards around like the labour unions to communicate their disapproval.
The junior officers in the system who perform less strenuous jobs have been fingered to be in an unholy alliance with the National Assembly for the hasty and premature passage of this Bill. How would they not want to remain in “active” service even beyond 80 when they only exist as a conduit to guzzle taxpayers’ money with minimal productivity, if any? An Igbo adage says he whose job is to swallow would not appreciate the hard work of the man who crushes. Will those who have no business performing the core tasks of a judicial officer bother if you want them to spend their entire lifetime on the job?
The prolonged silence of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) is really concerning. One can hardly fathom out if it goes with the spirit of camaraderie or just a conspiratorial silence. The body of lawyers must speak up for those at the bench. Nothing gives a sense of fulfillment than retiring when you are strong enough to move around, than when old age fully takes a toll. We must not necessarily wait until we have judges who appear in their chamber with walking stick before we appreciate a moderate retirement age.
If we continue to approve all demands for upward review of retirement age, Appeal and Supreme Court clerical officers may come out tomorrow and put a demand for further increase in their retirement age currently at excessively inflated age 70 and say that “my Lords” have said so.
Productivity should come first and at 70, how many people in this country are strong enough to be productive in what they do? The judicial officers should instead be asking for a decent pay and enhanced welfare package and not an unnecessarily lengthy years of service.
My appeal therefore is for President Muhammadu Buhari to withhold his assent from the Bill as he bows out of office May 29 and not take any action that serves no purpose in repositioning the judiciary for optimum performance.
Enemanna, an Abuja-based journalist writes from [email protected]