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The demand for judicial independence

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[files] Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) shuts down Federal high Court, Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and others in Abuja…yesterday. PHOTO: LUCY LADIDI ATEKO

The ongoing strike action embarked upon by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) is no doubt worrisome, as it further tilts the order and stability of the country, currently hinged on a precarious footing, towards the precipice. Although the stakeholders are in talks with the Federal Government with a view to resolving the complaint, it is important that appropriate steps are adopted to ensure financial autonomy for the Judiciary, and thus enable that arm of government to play its appropriate role in a true federation with separation of powers.

At a time that the nation is battling with an increase in the rate of insecurity, occasioned by kidnappings in the South-South, banditry, and insurgency in the North, ethnic unrest in parts of the Southwest and attacks on Police units in the South East, the absence of the Judiciary to create a semblance of order is indeed a recipe for chaos.

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The grouse of the Union is the persistent refusal and or reluctance by state executives to enforce what is termed “financial autonomy” in the Judiciary as dictated by Section 121 subsection (3) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), which provides that “any amount standing to the credit of the Judiciary in the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the state shall be paid directly to the heads of the courts concerned.”

It would not be the first time the Union would embark on such an industrial action to press home its demands, as a similar action was taken in January 2015, which lasted four weeks. The argument usually put forward by the states has been the paucity of funds which they claim are dictated by what accrues from the Federation Account and the Internally Generated Revenue (IGR); as such, state governments cannot accept or agree to the wholesale release of funds to the Judiciary, particularly where capital expenditures are involved.

While this may be the case, the executive must realise that the Judiciary is an independent and equal arm of government, whose needs and priority should not be paired with agencies and or ministries under its purview. Funds due to the Judiciary should be released to the state heads of court in good time, without the need for the heads of court begging for same, a situation that makes a mockery of the principle of separation of powers which the country professes to operate. The executive powers of a state extend to the execution and maintenance of the Constitution, and the refusal of these state executives to give effect to the express provisions of the Constitution is a breach of the Constitution which they pledge to defend. When will elected officials realise their position of trusteeship, public officers employed to execute the will of the people as succinctly codified in the Constitution? The provisions of the Constitution do not leave room for the exercise of their discretion in the matter.

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Often regarded as the last hope of the common man, and the bastion of order in a democratic society, the Judiciary plays a critical role in the development and sustenance of democracy. And the provision for its adequate funding cannot be overemphasized as this would enable it to carry out those constitutional duties with which it has been saddled, ensure requisite checks on the other arms of government, and in no small measure guarantee its independence.

Nigerians continue to lament the inadequate number of judges, congestion of court dockets, and the inordinate length of time it takes to conclude matters brought before the courts, situations that could be addressed if the Judiciary receives its fair share of the state’s revenue as at when due. These issues have a direct negative impact on the nation’s economy as foreign investors are often dissuaded from investing in an environment with a poor justice delivery system.

However, as opined by Nigerian Bar Association, in a statement signed by its President, Mr. Olumide Akpata, in an attempt to convince members of the union to reconsider its industrial action, while the spirit behind the action is commendable, the timing poses potentially devastating consequences for justice administration in the country, coming on the heels of the lockdown occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Therefore, critical stakeholders must find a way to resolve this seeming impasse for the sake of the poor masses, who are usually the victims in these situations. Court activities across the nation having been paralysed, aggrieved litigants unable to approach the courts for justice are tempted to resort to self-help, thus leading to a state of chaos, at a time when the capacity of security agencies are already wearing thin owing to the innumerable security challenges currently plaguing the nation.

The silence of the Federal Government on the matter is not golden, particularly as the action by the Judiciary Staff Union coincides with ongoing strike action by resident doctors in the country over unpaid salary arrears and non-review of hazard allowance and members of the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP) over unpaid salary backlogs, amongst others. Indeed the plethora of protesting workers calls to question the competence of the current administration in running the country when considered against the backdrop that ample notice had been issued by these bodies. What Nigerians need at the moment is a government that is responsive to their needs, and this administration is doing little to assure Nigerians that it fits the bill.

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