Workers in the employ of the Kogi State judiciary are groaning over many months of unpaid salaries following a lingering impasse between the executive and the judicial arm of government.
Trouble started when Governor Yahaya Bello last year directed that all members of staff of the state judiciary should present themselves to a committee for verification, biometric data capturing and undergo a “table payment’’ process.
But the leadership of the state judiciary, led by the chief judge, Justice Nasiru Ajanah, and the Judicial Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN), Kogi State chapter, kicked against the move, which they noted was contrary to the doctrine of separation of powers and independence of the judiciary as enshrined in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Kogi State public finance law.
They argued that all that had to do with the recruitment, discipline and other issues that pertained to members of staff of the state judiciary were under the purview of the Judicial Service Commission and not the executive arm of government.
The executive arm was said to have taken the decision unilaterally, without any recourse to the Judicial Service Commission.
There were also concerns that the move was tantamount to depriving the judiciary of its independence and could also impact negatively on the judicial pronouncements to be made by the courts.
The governor, however, insisted that the subventions due to the judiciary would not be remitted until it complied with the aforementioned directive.
Following the ensuing standoff, the subventions due to the judiciary was stopped by the executive sometimes in June 2018, thus resulting in nonpayment of salaries to judicial staff and crippling of other activities in that arm of government over the last nine months.
Piqued by the development, the Judicial Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN), Kogi State chapter, embarked on an indefinite strike action in December 2018 following the non release of subventions to the judiciary for about six months.
Following the strike action, activities across courts in the state were on Tuesday grounded as a result of unpaid salaries.
The chairman of the JUSUN in Kogi State, Comrade Emmanuel Waniko, said the industrial action became necessary due to the refusal of the state government to release subventions due to the judiciary, a situation he noted led to the nonpayment of judiciary staff in the state. He said the leadership of the union had been battling the state government over compliance with a 2014 Federal High Court judgement that mandated each state government to respect section 121(3) of the constitution, which stipulates the financial independence of the judiciary is states.
According to him, judicial staff members could no longer afford to meet basic needs and transport to work; hence the need for the industrial action.
The strike action, which is almost entering its fourth month, has grounded all activities across the state-owned courts, thus impacting negatively on the administration of criminal justice in the state.
In the same vein, workers in the state judiciary are feeling the brunt of the ongoing standoff as they can no longer meet their obligations due to nonpayment of their salaries over the last nine months.
Some of the staff members who spoke with our correspondent said they were facing a precarious situation, especially in terms of feeding and access to quality health care service.
A staff of the Kogi State High Court, who pleaded anonymity, told Daily Trust on Sunday that the last time he received salary as a judicial worker was in May, 2018, and since, he has not received a dime.
“We are passing through hell as a result of nonpayment of our salaries. Imagine that every term, I have to plead with the proprietor of my children’s school before three of them are allowed into the school premises,’’ he said.
He lamented that the development had impacted negatively on his health condition and those of his family members as he could not afford money to access health care services. He, therefore, appealed to the state government to look into the plight of the suffering civil servants and resolve the ongoing impasse with the judiciary.
Speaking in a similar vein, a female civil servant in one of the magistrate’s courts in Lokoja, lamented that life had been difficult for her over the last nine months due to nonpayment of salaries. She said she had been borrowing money from friends and family members to keep life going.
“To be frank with you, I’m fed up of meeting people to ask for money. In fact, some of the people would almost be avoiding me once they see me. I feel bad. The governor should please pity us. We are really going through a lot of hardship,’’ she said.
Another male judiciary staff said the nonpayment of salaries was affecting the education of his children, adding that two of them are studying in the university.
Before the Christmas festivities last year, the Kogi State branch of the JUSUN was said to have procured some foodstuff on loan and distributed to members to enable them celebrate.
Meanwhile, the JUSUN has dragged the state governor, Yahaya Bello, the chief judge, Justice Nasiru Ajanah and seven others before the National Industrial Court in Lokoja over the non-remittance of funds to the judiciary.
In the originating summons filed by Chief Moses Enwere, counsel to the union, the JUSUN said it went to court as a last resort. He alleged that the state government did not make any concrete effort towards resolving the impasse that necessitated the strike action.
Other defendants in the matter include the attorney-general of the state, the commissioner for finance, the accountant-general, auditor-general, the grand kadi, the president of the Customary Court of Appeal and the state’s Judicial Service Commission (JSC).
The union is asking the court to, amongst others things, determine “whether the governor and his appointees joined in the suit have the power or right to withhold judiciary’s funds, thereby failing in the payment of monthly salaries, allowances and emoluments of judicial staff.
“Whether the executive arm of government can place such conditions as staff screening, staff data capturing, table payment or any other condition as a prerequisite for the release of the funds without respect for the doctrine of separation of powers as envisaged by the constitution and the Kogi State public finance law.”
The union also urged the court to determine whether the executive arm of government had the powers or constitutional right to usurp the powers of the Judicial Service Commission by “scheming to take over payment of judiciary staff salaries and other emoluments without reference to and approval of the commission.’’
The union, therefore, urged the court to declare that the executive arm of government lacked the power to withhold funds accruing to the judiciary and its continued refusal to remit such funds as unconstitutional, illegal, ultra vires, wrong, null and void and of no effect. It further asked for a perpetual injunction restraining the governor and his agents from further withholding amounts standing to the credit of the state judiciary in the Consolidated Revenue Funds.
Governor Bello blamed the faceoff on the leadership of the judiciary and the JUSUN who refused to present their members of staff for verification, adding that the fund due to the state judiciary was in the banks.
“For months now, I have unsuccessfully pleaded with them to do the needful and spare their innocent members this trauma. The Kogi State House of Assembly has also tried to intervene, only to be stopped by an injunction from the judiciary, curiously obtained while courts claimed to be on strike.
“I have petitioned the Chief Justice of Nigeria to intervene since November last year, but we are yet to receive any feedback.
“We are, therefore, happy that the Chief Judge of Kogi State was also joined in the suit by the JUSUN. We look forward to being educated on how a pay parade across all branches and cadres of our civil service is prejudicial to the independence of the judicial arm, but not the legislature.
“In any case, monies amounting to several months salaries due to Kogi State civil servants working in the judiciary are sitting in the banks. My preoccupation is how to get that money to innocent staffers without breaching applicable service rules or our collective agreement with Labour. I trust the almighty God that reason will prevail, sooner than later,’’ he said.
Credit: Daily Trust