The battle for financial freedom for state judiciaries and legislatures entered a fresh phase on Monday with the Senate and the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), saying the independence of the judiciary is not negotiable.
Perhaps taking a cue from the stance of these bodies, state governors backed down on Monday, accepting to implement the financial autonomy granted their judicial and legislative arms by the 1999 Constitution as altered in May.
Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) Chairman and Governor of Ekiti State, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, told journalists on Monday at the State House, Abuja, after a meeting with the Chief of Staff to the President, Prof. Ibrahim Gambari, that he and his colleagues were in principle not opposed to financial autonomy for both the judiciaries and legislatures in the 36 states of the federation.
The governors’ commitment came against the backdrop of the ongoing indefinite strike by judicial workers pressing for financial autonomy for state judiciaries as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution, as amended, and the Executive Order 10 signed by President Muhammadu Buhari to strengthen the enforcement of the constitutional provisions for financial autonomy for state judiciaries and legislatures.
As part of efforts at ending the judicial workers’ strike, which began on April 6, the Minister for Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, will today meet with the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) and the Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria (PASAN), which is also on strike over demands for better welfare.
The industrial dispute in the judiciary also worsened on Monday with lawyers marching on the National Assembly in solidarity with JUSUN members.
The lawyers, under the aegis of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), also cautioned the federal government and the National Assembly against negotiating with the governors on the independence of the judiciary.
The Senate also supported the clamour for an financial autonomy for the judiciary, saying that the independence of the judiciary is not negotiable.
Fayemi, after the meeting with Gambari and others to discuss a proposal on how to end the logjam over financial autonomy for state judiciaries and legislatures, said: “But for us, we’re here for legislative and judicial autonomy and the governors, the speakers and the judges are on the same page, as far as this issue is concerned.
“We just emerged from a meeting with the Solicitor-General of the Federation, the representatives of the judiciary, the representatives of the Conference of Speakers and House of Representatives and we are on all fours. An agreement has been reached.”
According to him, the implementation of financial autonomy has been finally resolved at Monday’s meeting and is to begin latest by the end of May once the final copy of the implementation document is ready.
“First, the issue is about implementation. There has been no objection from governors on judicial and legislative autonomies; as a matter of fact, it would not have passed if governors were not in support in the first instance, in the state Assemblies.
“So, that issue has been fully and holistically addressed; but we don’t just want to agree to something on paper without working out the modalities for implementation. “Thankfully, the meeting we have just emerged from, with the Chief of Staff to the President chairing, has worked out the modalities to the satisfaction of all parties.
“As soon as the final document that is being cleaned up emerges, that is preparatory to implementation. “We’re not going to put a timeframe in the air, but it will be implemented as soon as possible, definitely no later than the end of May 2021,” he stated.
Fayemi was in the company of Governors Aminu Waziri Tambuwal (Sokoto); Simon Lalong (Plateau); Atiku Bagudu (Kebbi); Chairman, Conference of Speakers of States Assembly, Hon. Abubakar Suleiman of Bauchi State House of Assembly; Solicitor General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, Mr. Dayo Akpata; and Special Assistant to the President on Niger Delta, Senator Ita Enang.
The Ekiti State governor advised the striking judicial workers to call off their strike in the nation’s interest as the issues raised by JUSUN has been addressed by all the parties concerned .
“In the interest of the nation, we believe that the striking workers should return to their offices because as far as this has gone, we have met with all the parties concerned. The president, through the chief of staff, has also been insisting on this matter and has been monitoring what has been happening and I think we’re basically at a position where whether you speak to the Conference of Speakers’ chairperson or you speak to me or you speak to the representative of the judiciary or you speak to the Solicitor-General of the Federation, you will hear that we’re speaking with one voice on the implementation and not later than May, you will start seeing the implementation of the agreement that we’ve reached,” he added.
Asked why the NGF has not commented on the controversy generated by a claim by Edo State Governor, Mr. Godwin Obaseki, accusing the federal government of printing N60 billion to augment allocation to states, Fayemi said it did not require the governors’ response.
He said: “It’s because for us, this is not an issue that requires a statement from the governors. The Minister of Finance has dealt with it and the issue is out there for you to deal with.”
The Minister for Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, will on Tuesday meet with the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) and the Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria (PASAN).
A notice of the meeting issued by the Deputy Director in charge of Press at the ministry, Mr. Charles Akpan said the reconciliatory meeting was aimed at resolving the grievances of the two unions.
Both JUSUN and PASAN are currently agitating for the federal government to to enforce the constitutional provisions granting financial autonomy to the judiciary and legislature.
Ngige had earlier met with the judiciary workers last week at the onset of their strike and appealed to them to suspend their action to allow for peaceful resolution of the dispute.
Meanwhile, the NBA has cautioned the federal government and the National Assembly against negotiating with state governors on the independence of the judiciary.
It said it was aware of plans by the governors to meet with the federal government and the leadership of the National Assembly, adding that both the executive and legislature lacked the rights to negotiate on constitutional provisions.
Speaking during a protest march in solidarity with JUSUN, the NBA First Vice President, Mr. John Aikpokpo-Martins, said it would be in the best interest of the nation for the governors to obey the laws.
He said all over the country, NBA branches were meeting with governors to urge them to comply with the constitutional provisions on the financial autonomy for the judiciary.
He added that they were at the National Assembly to also urge lawmakers to speak with the executive to prevail on the governors to comply just like the federal government.
“We are aware that governors are seeking to negotiate; we are against it. We want to pass a message across that you have no right to negotiate provisions of the constitution,” he stated.
Aikpokpo-Martins said the governors should obey the constitution and judgments of the courts which were not appealed against or vacated.
He said Executive Order 10 was a product of an all-inclusive meeting of all stakeholders in the judiciary, including the governors, before Buhari signed it into law last year.
According to him, the parties at the meeting then agreed that the Accountant General of the Federation should pay directly to the heads of court without recourse to the governors.
Aikpokpo-Martins urged the federal government to garnishee accounts of state governments and pay directly to respective state judiciaries allocations due to them from funds due to states from the Federation Account.
He said failure to do so would not only amount to betrayal of the people but would portray them as accomplice with the governors.
Aikpokpo-Martins also criticised the leadership of the National Assembly for failing to receive them in spite of their earlier letter informing them of their visit.
He described as shocking the conduct of the National Assembly, saying he was unable to understand why they should be shut out.
Earlier, the protesting lawyers had blocked the entrance of the National Assembly owing to the refusal of security operatives at the gate to grant them access.
Meanwhile, the judicial workers yesterday embarked on a nationwide protest, adding that they will not call off their strike and protest until their demands are met.
National Treasurer of the Union, Jimoh Alonge, said in Abuja at the commencement of their nationwide protest against the refusal of states to implement financial autonomy for state judiciaries that they resorted to protest in addition to their ongoing strike due to a botched meeting with the governors.
Alonge told reporters that although the judiciary is confronted with many problems, once the issue of financial autonomy is addressed, others would be taken care of.
He warned the National Assembly against passing a bill on etate judicial councils because it is not in the interest of justice and the judiciary.
He added that passing the could leave the state judiciaries at the mercy of the governors.
The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele, has said that the independence of the judiciary is not negotiable.
Bamidele spoke Monday against the background of a rally at the National Assembly by members of the NBA.
He stated that the federal parliament had made a law that would guarantee full autonomy to the judiciary at the federal level and therefore called on state Houses of Assembly to pass a similar law to give full autonomy to the state judiciaries.
He said: “The National Assembly does not make laws for the states; such power resides in the state Houses of Assembly. Judiciary at the Federal Capital Territory is independent because we have done what we are supposed to do. What is next is for the state Houses of Assembly to do what they are supposed to do.
“As a principle, as a policy, members of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, have tried not to call on those who are protesting to stop such protests. We do not want protests but definitely, we would rather talk more to state governors, Houses of Assembly and other stakeholders to do the needful in the overriding public interest.
“We cannot continue to call on the judiciary to give peace a chance when we know the conditions under which they work cannot guarantee a passionate and enhanced delivery of justice. We are talking about judicial reform, we are talking about the need for justice sector reforms. This is central and crucial to the independence of the judiciary in this country.
“We must be left behind by the rest of the civilised world. Nobody stands to lose anything by granting independence to judiciary at the state level since it has been done at the national level. The fact that workers and staff of federal judiciary are joining the protest is only in solidarity with their colleagues at the state levels. It is a union matter and we do not have a control over it.
“We are hereby calling on the state governors to do the needful because the independence of the judiciary is non-negotiable. No democracy can survive without being founded on the rule of law and independent judiciary.”