Lawyers and court officials in the judicial arm of government have cried out over the effects of the ongoing strike by judicial workers, under the aegis of the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN). The strike, it was gathered, has left the courts under lock and key. Lawyers who have cases to defend or prosecute in court have decried the negative effects of the strike on their clients, thereby urging the Nigerian government to embrace peace in the interests of litigants.
Information Nigeria recalls JUSUN embarked on strike on April 6, shutting down all courts in the 36 states, including Federal Capital Territory (FCT), to protest for the implementation of financial autonomy for the judiciary as the third arm of government. The union had alleged that the Federal and State governments had over the years, declined to grant financial autonomy to the judiciary.
The strike is coming at a time when the country is battling criminal activities such as kidnapping, rape, among others. One begins to wonder how the common man would get justice when the courts are on strike. A Lawyer, Olakunle Gbadamosi, told Information Nigeria that “the judiciary is facing several problems but if the issue of financial autonomy is solved, others would be taking care of.”
Lawyers differ on Strike
Lawyers who spoke in separate interviews with Information Nigeria said they have pending cases in court, while lamenting that some of their clients are still in correctional centres due to closure of the courts.
A Lawyer, Mayor Ogbonna, who spoke with Information Nigeria in Lagos, decried the effects of the strike on litigants, adding that the strike had delayed the freedom of some persons in the correctional centres. He urged the Judiciary and the state government to dialogue and come to a reasonable conclusion for the strike to be called off.
He said: “As it is, everything is at a standstill. There are a million and one people in prison that their matters are not going on because of the strike. This three-week strike has caused a lot of backlogs. So many matters are supposed to come up but couldn’t as a result of the strike.
“Meanwhile, the judiciary is going on a three-month vacation from July to September. Now, most of the matters have been adjourned to May/June. The ones adjourned to April that didn’t come up will now be shifted to October or a longer date. This means a lot of suspects will have to stay in correctional centres for minor offences.”
On his part, Pius Oreayodele Esq, a Lagos based Lawyer says JUSUN strike is a welcome development by many Lawyers in Nigeria as they demand for financial autonomy of the Judiciary. Oreayodele says he is in support of the strike “before the Judges and Lawyers lose their integrity, adding that the sacred place of Justice must be protected.
He said: “For Judges, it is plus for them to be independent in the discharge of their duty without any interference from the executive; they would be able to follow rules of law strictly and do justice accordingly. For Lawyers, as you know that we have state Counsels who are on salary basis, and we have those Lawyers who are private Lawyers. For state counsels, they have nothing much to lose in term of financial loss because their salaries are intact, but for private Lawyers are the most affected.
“And as you know that Judiciary is the watchdog for the other two organs of government. And now, Judiciary been on strike is like the whole Chapter Of the Constitution is on strike, in particular, section 36 of the said 1999 Constitution which provides for “Fair hearing”, that fundamental right have been taken away from the common man in the society, the hope of ordinary Nigerian is been suspended by this strike.
“They cannot go to court and challenge any trespass to their private life, property or any infringement to their inherent fundamental right, they cannot challenge any Executive rascality, they cannot challenge any Police brutality.
“Indeed the effect of this strike on Nigeria as a whole is like economic recession. it is a set back to our country. The Federal Government and the State Governor must do something about it as a matter of urgency before Nigeria collapses and people start to use self-help to defend their interest.
“If these demands are not met, sooner judicial officials will start demanding money from Lawyers before they can appear in court in their matter. We don’t want our court to have a public perception given to Nigerian Police as the most corrupt agency of government in Nigeria, so by this view, I support the strike and I am ready to bear the financial loss pending the strike is called off.”
Judiciary to be blamed?
The 1999 constitution, as amended, grants financial autonomy to the federal and state judiciaries. But, to enforce strict compliance by state governors, Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, a former Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) president, and the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) filed separate actions in courts. In spite of various judgements affirming financial autonomy to state judiciaries, state governors have refused to comply.
The rate at which state governments ignore the principle of Separation of Powers calls for serious concern. State judiciaries get funds from state governments, which is why no state government will ever lose a case they institute or instituted against them in the state high courts. This is the major reason the judiciary needs financial autonomy.
In September 2020, Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu presented 51 Sports Utility Vehicles (SUV) and eight houses to judges in Lagos State. At about the same period, Governor Nyesom Wike also bought SUVs for judges in Rivers State. Recently, Governor Aminu Tambuwal bought SUVs for judges in Sokoto State. These acts have technically handcuffed the judges from giving judgement against state governors. Furthermore, by accepting these car gifts, the judges have literarily given away their rights to financial autonomy. It will be difficult for a judge to rule against a major benefactor.
While the government should take the huge blame for the pedestrian state of the judiciary in Nigeria, JUSUN owes Nigerians some level of professionalism, selflessness and patriotism.
Both parties must note that in a negotiation process, any party that is determined not to shift grounds end up losing everything. Both parties should be more concerned on how best to sustain the judiciary and the country as a whole.
Information Nigeria believes this is time for major stakeholders in the country to speak up to put an end to this standoff. JUSUN and the federal government should sheathe their swords and reach a workable agreement for lawyers and judges to return to court while they continue further negotiations.
By Gbenga Odunsi, for Information Nigeria, Lagos.