Robson Victor, team head of IO Furnitures, a construction firm, should not ordinarily care about court activities.
But this time, like lawyers who ply their trade in the courtroom and other court users whose business interests, freedom, documentations, or general quest for justice, depends on court process, Mr Victor is among the unlikely persons groaning over the ongoing nationwide strike of judiciary workers.
The umbrella body of judiciary workers in Nigeria, the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN), had on April 1, 2021, directed its members across the country to shut down all courts on Tuesday, April 6, a directive that has since crippled both court proceedings and commercial activities within the courts’ premises.
Its reason for the indefinite strike is to press home the demand for financial autonomy for the country’s judicial arm of government.
A verdict of the Federal High Court in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, had in January 2014, held that financial autonomy for the judiciary is a constitutional provision that must be complied with by the executive branch of government.
The attendant consequences of the strike action have left non-litigants who are largely business people, reeling from the courts closure.
Court users and non-litigants, alike, vent their anger and frustrations as life becomes more difficult with the nationwide shutdown of the entire third arm of government entering its second week today, Monday.
Non-litigants lament court shutdown
At a construction site inside the Supreme Court of Nigeria complex in Abuja, construction workers were locked out by officials of the JUSUN, despite appeals to let the non-judicial personnel into the site.
Mr Victor said the strike action had made life difficult for him and his colleagues who depend on the daily pay from the site.
“We are handling a building complex at the Supreme Court of Nigeria. The strike action by the judiciary workers is affecting us negatively, because the daily job we do at the construction site is what we depend on for daily earnings. If we don’t work, we don’t get paid. Also, there is a timeline that was given to us for the completion of the project.
Precisely, we were asked to conclude the work this weekend (last Friday). Now that we are out of job, it will be very difficult for us to commute back home, as we were hoping to work and get paid,” Mr. Victor said.
A similar situation is playing out at the Federal High Court at Maitama in Abuja, as restaurateurs are lamenting low patronage of their services.
Queen Modilim, who runs a canteen inside the court and a restaurant around the court’s car park, lamented that the food she prepared for sale on the day the strike started on Tuesday was wasted due to the industrial action.
She said, “I am not happy about the strike; as you can see there are no customers. We no longer make sales due to the strike action by judiciary workers. Bulk of our customers comes from court workers and lawyers. I pray the strike is called off immediately.
“Our canteen inside the Federal High Court is closed; the striking workers didn’t even allow us to go in and pick a few things that we wanted to take home. The most painful incident so far since the strike began was the wastage of food; we had prepared our food for sale (last) Tuesday, but when we arrived, the court gates were shut and we had to return home with the food. They all went to waste.”
Ms Modilim’s plight is not different from that of Alice Ukwure who operates a restaurant on the court’s premises.
“The strike action has affected us seriously, because if the court is on, we workers naturally patronise us. You can see the car park at the Federal High Court is empty. The strike has impacted on our business negatively; our sales are quite low,” Alice said.
‘Court shutdown is like COVID-19 lockdown’
While a fruit seller, Juliana Ogah, is counting her losses at the Federal High Court, Abuja, a mechanic and vulcaniser, Seyi Emmanuel, compared the industrial action with the national lockdown that was occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic last year.
Nigerian courts, like most of government institutions, were shut down last year as a result of the lockdown imposed to curtail the spread of coronavirus last year.
Weeks into the lockdown, some courts around the country began skeletal sittings to attend to urgent matters; that that had little or no impact on the majority of those whose means of livelihood depends on buoyant court activities.
According to Ms Ogah who sells perishables such as bananas, mangoes and cucumber, she and colleagues had incurred losses as a result of the strike.
“Since the strike started, we have not been able to sell much of my goods. I had just stocked up before the Easter break with the hope that I would start selling my fruits immediately after the holidays. But when I arrived the court on Tuesday, it was locked up. Now, my fruits, especially the bananas are going bad.&
For Mr Emmanuel, a car mechanic, the grounding of the courts could be likened to the difficulties that came to Nigerians during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020.
“I had said it this morning before you (the reporter) got here that this is a second lockdown just like it happened during the coronavirus pandemic.
“To even get money to buy lunch is a serious problem. To have two-square meal is a big deal as a result of the strike. I appeal to the government and striking court workers to call off the dispute in the interest of Nigerians.”
Crippling strike persists
As the strike action lingers, a court user from Keffi in Nasarawa State, Suleiman Yahaya, on Friday, bemoaned the hardship that has been inflicted on Nigerians by the court closure.
Mr Yahaya, who had travelled from Nasarawa to the FCT High Court on Friday, told PREMIUM TIMES that for over two years, he had been assisting an indigent widow to get a Letter of Administration from the probate department of the court to enable the widow claim her deceased husband’s death benefits, but there was no headway.
“I applied for Letter of Administration for over two years now, but I have not been able to get it. A widow whom the letter of administration is being processed for has no money to come to the court. I came in on a two-day break to help the widow to sort out the letter issue out, only for me to learn today (last Friday) that the court is on strike.
“I feel like crying; it’s very painful in these hard times to waste fare and time coming to the court. My trip from Keffi to the FCT High Court cost me over N2000 apart from feeding. The government is supposed to do something. It is not good for citizens to experience frustration. The striking workers don’t even allow court users to go near the court,” he said.
A mobile book seller and cybercafé operator at the FCT High Court, Kingsley Okoro, said his business “depends solely on lawyers and litigants and as well as other court users.”
“I sell law books while operating the cybercafé where litigants and court users like individuals who come for affidavits patronize us. But since the court shutdown took effect last Tuesday, I have not been able to make sales. Lawyers and litigants were stranded at the court premises that day,” Mr Okoro said.
‘Anarchy on the prowl’
Lawyers are some of the primary users of the courts. Chukwuma-Machukwu Ume, a former Attorney General of Imo State, said the continuous closure of the court would spell doom for justice dispensation in Nigeria.
Mr Ume, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), noted that it was bad enough for the court system in the country to be shut down in a day as it could lead to lawlessness.
“It is very unfortunate that the court system in Nigeria has to be shut down even for a day. The court system is what keeps the society in shape; what makes transgressors to be stopped and what gives victims of transgression a relief. When the (court) system is down, anarchy is on the prowl. But in any case, I would also like to let you know that the effect of the shutdown is as bad as the cause that made the shutdown to take place.”
He posited that elected officials in Nigeria use the constitution to get to power, &only to destroy and discard same document when they are called upon to uphold its provisions.&
Mr Ume, who is a rapporteur of the Victims of Persecution, a non-governmental organisation, said, “In the first place, what we are going through is an idea where people use the constitution to get into an office, and despise the provisions of the constitution. It is unheard of that a constitutional provision is being thrown into the dustbin; causing the JUSUN to go on strike.
“The independence of the judiciary which encompasses financial autonomy is provided in the constitution. Why is that constitutional first-line charge from the consolidated revenue is not being obeyed? It’s only being obeyed in the breach.
“So, victims of persecution abhor a situation where it is JUSUN that would be calling on the government to obey the constitution. Obedience to the constitution should be the primary duty of the government; no one needs to remind them about it.”
47,000 inmates’ trial stalled
Going by the latest inmates, statistics published by the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS) on its website on April 6, 2021, there are over 47,416 awaiting trial inmates in its facilities in the country.
This figure constitutes about 72 per cent of the total 65,781 inmates in the country’s correctional facilities. It speaks volume about the contribution of awaiting trial inmates to the vexed issue of prison congestion in the country.
Of the 65, 781 total inmates, only 18,365, about 28 per cent, are convicts who are serving jail terms.
The courts shutdown across the country will definitely compound the woes of the prisons which are largely poorly funded by the federal government, and prisons’ overcrowded conditions will only make them more vulnerable to jailbreaks the country has seen in recent times .
How to solve problem
In proffering solutions to the debacle, Mr Ume noted that Nigeria does not need an executive order to implement financial autonomy for the judiciary.
He said this is because an executive order cannot be superior to a constitutional provision. &The constitution has provided already for financial autonomy for the judiciary,& he said.
“I expect the judiciary to also live up to their powers; the various courts should sit up and declare the behaviour of the various governors who refuse to obey the first-line charge provision of the constitution, and declare their actions as unconstitutional as well as stop every budgetary allocation to the executive until they obey the constitutional provisions for judicial autonomy.
“Security votes to the governors should be nullified until they obey the constitutional provision. We should sit up and protect our constitution and not to be romantising with a breach of it.”
However, another lawyer, Yemi Akinseye-George, President, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, aligned himself with the earlier position of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) that the strike action was ill-timed.
While expressing his support for the cause of the industrial dispute, Mr Akinseye George, also a SAN and professor of Law, appealed to the striking workers to suspend the strike and explore what he termed “less disruptive means” of actualising financial autonomy for the judiciary.
“While I support the objective of the strike which is to demand for compliance with the constitutional provisions and the Executive Order on financial autonomy for the judiciary, I’m not sure the timing of the strike is right. The judiciary and the entire country are yet to recover from the devastating effects of COVID-19 and the attendant disruptions on the administration of justice. The JUSUN strike at this time smacks of an overdose of a good medicine.
“Having made the point loud and clear, the strike should be suspended. But the agitation for improved working conditions, financial autonomy and well-being of the judicial sector must continue through less disruptive means.”
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