By Femi Aborisade
Significance of the strike
THE 6th of May 2021 marks one full month that the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) started its strike. This is a positive development, particularly within the context of the tendency for some unions to call off strikes within a few days of commencement. JUSUN has shown exemplary leadership for the trade union movement. Someone expressed a pleasant surprise about the solid JUSUN strike by asking me, are the JUSUN leaders imported from another country?
We commend JUSUN’s leadership and its rank-and-file members for setting a striking example in labour resistance. JUSUN has been on an indefinite strike from 6th April demanding financial autonomy for the judiciary. Despite enormous pressures from different quarters that the strike be called off, JUSUN has held its ground.
The government of Lagos State tried to undermine the strike by compromising the JUSUN leadership in the state. The Lagos State government failed resoundingly. The strike has been overwhelmingly successful on a national basis. All levels of courts, including the magistrates’ courts nationwide, have been shut down in obedience to the strike called by JUSUN. Yet, the strike has nothing to do with increase in salary or allowances. It is a strike to enforce observance of express provisions of the constitution. JUSUN has shown that the rank-and-file union members are eager to strike and fight for good cause in the collective interest, provided committed, trusted, and reliable leadership is provided.
The strike has also shown that ordinary working people are capable of uniting for a good cause regardless of primordial differences in ethnicity and religion. All JUSUN members, cutting across all ethnic groups and religious affiliations are united behind the banner of JUSUN – financial autonomy for the judiciary. We commend the JUSUN leadership for a marvellous refreshing atmosphere of the festival of the unity of the oppressed as against pre-strike tensions along ethnic and religious divides.
The JUSUN strike has been called for one singular demand: financial autonomy for the judiciary in accordance with the express provisions of the Constitution. As far as the courts of the federation and the states are concerned, Sections 81 (3) and 121 (3) of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended, respectively, provide that any amount standing to the credit of the judiciary shall be paid directly to the heads of the courts concerned.
Disobedience of court orders
Sections 81 (3) and 121(3) of the constitution have been judicially interpreted in three cases. They are Suit No: FHC/ABJ/CS/667/13: Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria vs National Judicial Council & 36 Governors of the States; Suit No. FHC/ABJ/CS/63/2013: Olisa Agbakoba Vs FG, The NJC & National Assembly; and Suit No. NAD/56/2013: Olisa Agbakoba Vs A.G., Ekiti State & 2 Others.
The failure and/or refusal of the state governments to observe the constitutional provisions as well as the courts’ pronouncements is fundamentally unconstitutional. It is indeed an aberration, signifying continuation of impunity and lawlessness by the ruling class. If the Houses of Assembly of the states were truly independent, they ought to have set in motion the process of impeaching the governors who have refused to observe constitutional provisions.
Bandits in power
The governors who have refused to obey constitutional provisions may be likened to bandits in the bush. The bandits in the bush do not accept that their victims have rights under the law/constitution. They kill, maim, rape and dispossess their victims of their properties. To the bandits in the bush, they are above the law. It is the same mentality of the bandits in the bush that the governors display when they refuse to give effect to constitutional provisions as far as financial autonomy to the judiciary is concerned. Therefore, we can say we have bandits in power just as we have bandits in the bush menacingly subjecting the lives of ordinary people to unbearable agony.
Ordinarily, the courts’ pronouncements ought to have curtailed the excesses of the state governments who are disobeying Section 121(3) of the constitution. But the governors have no regard for the courts. By section 308(1) of the constitution, no civil or criminal proceedings can be instituted against the governor. Otherwise, contempt proceeding, which is quasi-criminal, ought to have been instituted against the governors who have refused to obey court judgments delivered pursuant to an interpretation of constitutional provisions on financial autonomy for the judiciary. The legislature too appears to have been emasculated. Otherwise, the refusal to carry out the provisions of the constitution ought to have earned the defaulting governors impeachment under Section 188 on the ground of ‘grave violation or breach of the provisions’ of the constitution.
In the circumstances, the only weapon available to whip the state governments into line, within constitutional provisions, is the strike action such as the JUSUN’s.
The JUSUN strike has received popular support. Many branches of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) have protested in the streets in support of JUSUN. Other branches are carrying out ‘protest by leadership visits to the Governors on weekly basis’ as directed by the national leadership of the NBA.
Prospects for victory
The chairman of the Governors Forum, Governor Kayode Fayemi, has publicly announced that financial autonomy would be observed by the governors as from May 2021. Contrary to the undertaking, the governors have confirmed that governments are not to be trusted. We can only believe what they do, not what they say. But it should be appreciated that the announcement by the chairman of the Governors’ Forum was produced on the popular support which JUSUN Strike enjoys. On Tuesday, 5th May 2021, the NBA national leadership, in an email shared with all lawyers in Nigeria, signed by Dr Rapulu Nduka, the Publicity Secretary, commended JUSUN and NBA branches.
The email stated in part, that: “Be assured that the leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association will continue to engage the various stakeholders in ensuring that the constitutional provisions guaranteeing the financial autonomy of the judiciary, are enforced to the letter, as a condition precedent for calling off the strike action”.
The reiteration of support by the NBA should be an assurance to JUSUN that its cause is the cause of all who cherish to live in a country governed by the rule of law rather than by the whims and caprices of a few individuals. Therefore, JUSUN should not call off the strike until financial autonomy is fully observed in accordance with constitutional provisions. JUSUN should not take mere promises as concession to justify the sacrifices that have been made in the last one month. Only the pressure of strike action can compel the ruling class to be lawful.
Lack of Financial autonomy is related to corruption in the Judiciary
There is a relationship between corruption in the judiciary and lack of financial autonomy for the judiciary. Where the heads of the courts are compelled to beg the governors for what has been budgeted for the courts, many of the governors are likely to use that opportunity to ask for favours from the courts, in cases where they are interested.
His Lordship, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, has recently pointed out this tendency in relation to His Lordship’s inability to approach the governors over the JUSUN strike. In other words, the main source of corrupting influence on the judiciary is essentially from the executive arm of government who starve the judiciary of funds.
Therefore, the fight for financial autonomy for the judiciary is also a fight to reduce corruption in the judiciary. Though, it is recognised that except for a few bad eggs, the judiciary is populated by ordinarily honest, credible, and decent persons with integrity.
Room for improvement
While commending the JUSUN leadership for the conduct of the strike so far, we encourage JUSUN to adopt more active methods of strike which involve the initiatives of the rank and file. In this regard, more peaceful street protests should be organised at grassroots levels so that other workers from other unions, as well as lawyers, may have an opportunity to show solidarity in peaceful mass actions. This is the secret to enduring victories in labour struggles – concessions won based on the strength of the muscle of industrial action.
Comrade Aborisade, activist and human rights lawyer, is the Principal Partner of Abope Chambers.