By Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN
It is very unusual to see lawyers down their tools, drop those scary wigs and dreaded gowns and become like the ordinary folks, seeking employment and placement. I have since read very funny articles on social media about the kind of trade or business that lawyers can take up during the period the courts are locked up due to the current JUSUN strike action. The Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria, JUSUN, commenced what initially appeared to be an inconsequential strike action on April 6, 2021, to press home their demand for financial independence and autonomy for the judiciary and indeed the legislative arms of government across the nation. The thinking of most lawyers and judges at the commencement of the strike action was that it would fizzle out in the course of time, given that past attempts by JUSUN did not yield anything meaningful. But it has been two weeks now and as each day passes by, the strike action seems to be getting stronger and biting harder.
There are reports of overcrowded police cells, agitated inmates awaiting trial in the correctional centres and indeed a general collapse of law and order in the entire body polity. Coming in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the EndSARS protests and the desecration of the courts, the JUSUN strike action has totally paralyzed all judicial activities nationwide. It has never lasted this long, for all courts across the nation to be locked up at the same time. The question then is this: how did we get here? Over the years, lawyers and judges have paid lip service to the issue of financial autonomy and independence for the judiciary. This was left for individual activists and non-governmental organisations to take up on behalf of the legal community. To make matters worse, it would seem that these selfless entities did not get the desired cooperation from the judiciary, when it mattered most. It is surprising indeed, that the issue of locus standi is still a major setback for the battle against dictatorship and impunity in Nigeria, after the landmark decision of the Supreme Court in the celebrated case of Fawehinmi v Akilu. It says a lot about our commitment to the rule of law and good governance, when judicial workers take up what ordinarily should be the struggle of lawyers. Thank God that this particular NBA leadership has taken up the challenge, with all the actions that the executive has taken since the strike action began.
Having gone this far and so good, JUSUN should be encouraged to continue the strike action until concrete actions are taken to end the captivity of the judiciary by the executive. At its last executive council meeting, JUSUN directed all its branches to take up peaceful street protests all over Nigeria, as a way of drawing public attention to the issues that led to the strike action. Lawyers have shown tremendous support for the JUSUN strike action. For instance, the NBA National, Ikeja, Bayelsa, Ota and other branches of the NBA have staged peaceful protests in solidarity with JUSUN. This should continue until the judiciary is free indeed.
There were high hopes initially that the issues would be resolved, but the meeting slated with the Governors for Wednesday, April 14, 2021 did not hold, as there was no feedback from the Governors’ Forum. It just simply shows that the governors have their own priorities, election related cases having been concluded and decided. It was in the light of this stalemate that the NBA President declared as follows:
“… the Chairmen of all the branches of NBA are hereby requested to effectively mobilize their members and pay visits to their respective State Governors at the Government Houses on Monday, 19th April, 2021 to press home the demand for implementation of financial autonomy for the Judiciary. At the visit, NBA Branches in each State are to present a joint written demand to their State Governors requesting full compliance with existing legislative instruments and court judgments on the financial autonomy of the Judiciary.
The Chairmen of the NBA Branches are further requested to ensure that these visits are embarked upon, every subsequent Monday, until there is full compliance with this demand that is aimed at strengthening democracy and the dispensation of justice. We trust that our members will give the leadership of their respective branches all the support that they require to achieve this much needed victory for our justice system.”
From all the foregoing, it would appear that the governors hold the key to ending this strike action, one way or the other. The federal government has substantially complied with the requirements of the Constitution in making payments directly to the heads of the Courts. This much has been confirmed by JUSUN itself, which is why some have called on JUSUN to unlock all federal courts, but for the issue of collective solidarity. The other question is this: who are the governors? Arakunrin Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, SAN, is one of them. He is a Bar leader per excellence, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association. He is the Chairman of the South-West Governors’ Forum and a member of the ruling All Progressive Congress. He has influence, access to power and commands great respect amongst his colleagues, being the only SAN, in their midst. How can we have Governor Akeredolu in the midst of governors and the Courts are locked up in order to get them to obey the Constitution? The same man who has advocated for the rule of law all his life as a legal practitioner? Wonders shall never end.
What of Governor Ezenwo Nyesom Wike? A senior lawyer, married to a judge and himself a member of the very influential Body of Benchers. How can we have Governor Wike in power in Nigeria and judges are suffering? He is a leading figure in the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, so he is not suffering from power fatigue or intimidation. What of Governor Aminu Tambuwal, a senior lawyer and a one-time Speaker of the House of Representatives? How can Governor Tambuwal be amongst the set of people who are caging the judiciary? What has His Excellency got to hide? Do I mention Governor Hope Uzodima of Imo State, who was restored to his exalted position by the Courts? How can this same man turn around to bite the fingers that fed him so sumptuously? What about Governor Duoye Diri of Bayelsa State? Is he also among the lot? The man who was rejected flatly at the polls but still managed to climb to power through the judiciary? Is he also among those holding the courts captive? What else does His Excellency want?
Wait a minute! Is Governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State also among the governors holding lawyers and judges to ransom? Does anyone still remember the history of His Excellency’s ascension to power? As a beneficiary of the internal crisis within the APC in Zamfara State, the governor did not so much as campaign or spend money on electioneering activities, but he still got all the votes that he did not labour for, all through the courts. He has turned out to be amongst the lords that we have to plead with to obey the same Constitution that brought him into power. I can go on and on, as there is hardly any governor in Nigeria today, who has not benefited from the judicial system.
As we say it within the Bar, if you fight for the rule of law, the rule of law will fight for you too. Not long ago, a governor of a State was the subject of a probe panel by the powers that be, through the house of assembly of that State. You could predict where the game would end; a final report that would indict him for corruption and a ban on him from active participation in politics for a number of years and to stop him from holding public office. He ran to the Courts, seeking for an order of injunction to stop the probe. That is how it works, as the governor today may turn out a plaintiff or a defendant tomorrow.
What then is the solution? Very simple indeed. The Constitution in its section 1 says that it is supreme and every other law, action or policy should be subordinate to the authority of the Constitution. If we want peace, justice and progress in our land, then we must all join hands to persuade the governors to do the needful. They all swore to defend the Constitution, on the day they were taking the mantle of leadership.
It is not fair to us all, that after they have climbed upon the ladder of the Constitution to attain
power, they should turn around to violate the same document. The President and the National Assembly have set the good example to follow through the 4th Alteration to the Constitution. This document went through all the houses of assembly of all the States of the Federation, which means the governors were well aware of it before it was passed into law. They should allow the full implementation of the 4thAlteration, by granting total autonomy to the Courts and the legislative houses of the States. We cannot get the country moving if the judiciary is perpetually under the influence and control of the executive arm of government, as then it will cease to be the last hope of the common man and woman.
I therefore suggest that the NBA should spearhead the efforts towards getting all relevant parties to the roundtable to discuss and to agree. It is an urgent matter that should concern all of us, because one way or the other, we all have common issues to deal with in the courts. So, we should make the judiciary work, so that the Courts would become functional and effective, to deliver justice to all manner of people, without ill will, favour or affection. This was the dream of our founding fathers, which should not be aborted by those who claim to be running with their visions but are daily working to distort them. For as long as it takes to get the courts working, so long the JUSUN strike should continue, even till year 2023 and beyond. There is nothing we gain from a judiciary that is groaning under captivity. Lawyers must go beyond rhetorics and match their words with actions that can end impunity in our national life once and for all. Enough is enough.