The Courts are still locked, for good cause. The rigmarole between the Federal and the State governments in respect of the current clamour for financial autonomy and independence for the judiciary, is totally unnecessary. But like in all other spheres of our national life, the ‘Nigerian Factor’ seems to be creeping into this noble struggle, gradually. No one is sure of anything again, in respect of the JUSUN strike, given the cacophony of voices from different parts of the country.
The expectation was that we will receive daily reports and updates, from JUSUN and the NBA with regards to developments on the progress of the strike action, so that we can all run with the vision of this epic battle to liberate the judiciary, once and for all. We have so far only managed to gather snippets of information from the media, about what the Governors are saying and doing, how the President has given a marching order (through his Chief of Staff) to some unidentified persons, what the Chief Justice of Nigeria told JUSUN on the justiciability of the strike action, etc. You can blame the seeming lull on the Nigerian Factor.
The learned authors of IGI Global, publishers of Timely Knowledge, have a very lucid definition of this concept, as follows: “The Nigerian factor, otherwise called ‘the Nigerian Way’, is a term used to refer to the defeatist attitude of most Nigerians in the face of Nigeria’s perverted value system. It is used to describe the intense moral decay or mental corruption which has seriously affected the Nigerian society to the extent that what is universally viewed as reprehensible is paradoxically accepted in the Nigerian context as working and efficacious. In other words, it is the tendency of believing that anything – morally good or bad – can go in Nigeria, because the country is in a severe state of social malady.”
You may take the Nigerian factor beyond the above definition, to include all forms of impunity, perversion of what is right and a very unique definition of what is wrong in a wrong way. As we were all trying to gather strength for a long haul, the Lagos State Chapter of JUSUN emerged with a thunderbolt, with what it described as ‘partial strike’, as captured in the following statement by the chairman:
“Lagos JUSUN found out that it is only Lagos State Government that had shown concerns and seriousness with listening ear to this JUSUN struggle. At this moment, Lagos JUSUN has had four meetings with powerful government officials, especially Mr. Governor himself. From my position and privileges as JUSUN chairman Lagos, we are indeed lucky. Even the national leadership hasn’t made significant progress as Lagos JUSUN does at the moment.
Our auxiliary demands are being speedily looked into and results are manifesting. Though there is a national agitation for financial autonomy, this will be achieved nationally and all States will benefit from it … While showing commitment today (April 20) with the delivery of two new buses to the judiciary while the House of Assembly had only one bus given to them even though both arms of government are currently on strike.
It is impossible that a State branch will suspend a national strike hence JUSUN strike is very much ongoing in Lagos State. But due to the great respect and honour Lagos State judiciary staff have for Mr. Governor and the Chief Judge of Lagos State, it is our desire only to relax strike rules to allow clearance of backlogs, reading of judgments and decongestion of prison occasioned by the Covid pandemic and EndSARS protest.
Therefore, work and official duties are constrained to Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of every week, while Monday and Tuesday of every week remains our strike days that all staff must stay off duty to observe the national strike.
The Union will review the progress both left and right to make informed decisions as the event unfolds. Please, let it be known that the staff of Lagos State judiciary is still on strike but was magnanimous in putting Lagos judiciary and the government of Lagos State first in our time of strength. All gates of courts in Lagos State will be partially opened on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday only.”
The Lagos JUSUN would seem to be speaking from both sides of the mouth; whereas it says it has no power to suspend a national strike, yet it seeks to relax it and although it is said that the union is still observing the strike, its members opted to work for three out of the five days in the week. Is that still a strike at all, when the days of work outnumber the days of strike? This is not new at all, for Lagos State JUSUN. In 2015, JUSUN embarked upon a nationwide strike action in May, to demand for autonomy for the judiciary.
Whilst the State chapters of JUSUN across Nigeria decided to continue the strike action, the Lagos State chapter directed its members to resume work “in the interest of Lagosians”. The chairman of JUSUN at the time, Comrade Emmanuel Abioye, stated that “… the strike has been suspended in the interest of Lagos as the Centre of Excellence”. History is only repeating itself now, with the attempted demobilization of the current strike action by the Lagos State Chapter of JUSUN.
It would seem however that the root cause of the attempted sabotage is not traceable to JUSUN simpliciter. The NBA national had directed all state branches of the NBA to ‘visit’ the governors of their home States, as part of measures designed to put pressure on them to yield to the demands of JUSUN. This was understood within the circle of lawyers as a form of mild peaceful protest that would involve the majority of members of the NBA, with placards and sufficient media coverage.
So, we were all gearing up for the event in Lagos State for Monday, April 19. And given that there are about five branches of the NBA in Lagos, Ikeja, Ikorodu, Epe, Badary and some new units in Eti-Osa and Surulere, it was expected to be a very loud event indeed. But alas! The visitation was turned into an executive session, no placards, no media chat and no press statement. The governor later took his time to take selfies with those in attendance and that was all. It has been mum since.
The Nigerian factor also came into play, when all manner of arguments were being canvassed on why Lagos State should not continue the strike; from EndSARS protests, to Covid 19 and even prison congestion, as if there are no suspects who have been awaiting trial for years before now. Some people have suggested that the strike action be reviewed, given that the courts cannot be closed indefinitely. Indeed this may well be true, but such appeal should go directly to those responsible for the impasse in the first place, in this case the governors, who are said to be responsible for undermining the judiciary. We must hold them responsible for the present fate of inmates, suspects and litigants across the country.
Ever before JUSUN declared its national strike, it was well aware of the status of the judiciary at the federal level, whether it is independent or subservient, whether it is well funded or starved of funds and whether the welfare packages of the judicial staff are commensurate with what obtains in other climes. To then turn around to whip up banal sentiments of the alleged peculiarity of any State as a justification for aborting the strike action is a total disservice to JUSUN and indeed the NBA.
In the prosecution of the strike action, JUSUN approached the NBA as a critical stakeholder in the judicial sector and lawyers all over Nigeria have in response declared their total support for the strike action. Thus, JUSUN cannot on its own unilateral terms, purport to suspend the strike action, without due consultation with the NBA, as it lacks the power to make the decision on its own. The Nigerian factor led to savage threats in some States, where some governors were said to have directed lawyers to prevail on JUSUN to call off the strike.
The Nigerian factor also manifested in the form of government propaganda, through which affected Ministers have issued different statements on what the government is doing or intends to do. This is also not acceptable, as there should be a co-ordinating office that can be held responsible in this situation.
A good suggestion is for JUSUN to consult with the Academic Staff Union of Universities on the strategies of sustaining a strike action beyond six months, given the history of that organization as the only entity that has succeeded in prosecuting a strike action beyond three months consecutively. The NBA national has done the right thing to call out lawyers from all State branches, with very encouraging responses. This should continue, in a very peaceful and orderly manner, whilst the President and other relevant stakeholders continue to engage the government, both at the federal and state levels, for a common agreement on autonomy for the judiciary.
There is no need to ‘Nigerianize’ the JUSUN strike action at all, but rather that lawyers and judiciary staff workers should unite behind the same agenda to secure the much needed autonomy for the judiciary. The governors have promised May, 2021, which is just about a week from now. The NBA branches that are yet to “visit” the governors of their States should do so promptly, with maximum mobilization and publicity. It is a struggle that we must and will win, for the good people of Nigeria, for democracy to thrive and for our collective destinies.
Even though judges are only to be seen and not heard, they have a stake in this particular struggle, because they have influence and they should deploy it in support of the strike action. The judges have husbands and wives in very important positions of authority in the States, in the National Assembly, in the Presidency and indeed amongst the people who are seeking to emasculate the judiciary. We are all in this together and the pressure must come from all fronts, to get the judiciary to be free, whether from the kitchen or from the bedroom, on the pulpit or on the Bench; the judges must make a positive impact, upon the struggle for judicial independence.
If and when we all gather together with one voice to speak truth to power, there will be no need to resort to the Nigerian factor, which is almost tearing apart the fabric of our national life. It cannot be said that in the Nigeria of year 2021, there is no money to maintain judges, to build more courts, to cater to the welfare of judicial staff, to improve infrastructure in the courts and to put in place such enduring mechanisms as to guarantee a smooth and efficient justice system for our nation. Over to you, our governors.
-Ebun Olu Adegboruwa is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria