Tade, Hassan, and Chidiebube (not real names) have been languishing in detention since Oct., 2020 for participating in the #ENDSARS protest against police brutality. They were arrested by officers of the Nigeria Police.
They are remanded in one of the correctional centres in Ogun State, Southwest Nigeria. They were charged for offenses ranging from stealing to arson. And months of adjournments and strike actions by judiciary workers have ensured they continue to stay in detention.
Festus Ogun, a human rights lawyer and counsel to the three detainees laments the frustrating and slow-paced justice system in the country.
Ogun explained that the trio are already subjected to prolonged detention by the system “which is fashioned in a way that the poor may not be able to get justice.”
“A strike action by the state judiciary workers has added salt to the injury,” he added. “We have people languishing in detentions for offenses that are trivial; for offenses that are fictional. What they call a correctional center is not correcting anything.”
“If the courts were open, some of these people that are locked up would have been enjoying the breath of freedom by now.”
Impact of strike by judiciary workers
Many of those languishing in prisons in many parts of Nigeria would probably have been freed but incessant strikes by court workers is one of the reasons their arrests are elongated and indefinite.
On Aug. 11, 2021, the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN), Ogun State chapter embarked on an indefinite strike over alleged short payment of salaries by the state government. Edun Tajudeen, the state Chairman of JUSUN explained that the strike was the union’s last resort after a series of meetings with the government representatives ended in deadlock.
“We have been on the issue for a long time; that is why we asked all members of the JUSUN to sit at home until our request is granted,” Tajudeen said. “This strike is indefinite because on Feb. 24, there was an ultimatum given to the government for the payment of full salary before the nationwide strike on autonomy commenced.”
“And after the suspension of that strike, our meeting continued with the government which is not yielding any result,” Edun explained while announcing the strike in the state.
HumAngle gathered that many litigants are stranded over pending court cases, while some in correctional centers and police cells are unable to secure bail in courts.
Kayode Aderemi, a litigation lawyer, explained that apart from pending cases of his clients, he receives calls daily from persons arrested by the Police for criminal offenses but many of them would remain in police detention as courts are closed in Ogun State.
A litigant who spoke with HumAngle explained that his divorce proceeding, which began since Oct. 2020, has been stalled as a result of the ongoing strike.
“It’s almost a year now; since early October last year. The case was first stalled by the federal strike which lasted for about two weeks. After they resumed, they said the judges went for their annual leave,” the man said, pleading for anonymity.
“My Lawyer assured me that we’ll have our day in court in September but when I discussed it with him early this week; he was telling me that court workers are on strike again. Personally it has really affected me, because I need to move on and do some other things. In normal climes, this should not take more than two months, but here we are for about a year.”
Many in police cells unable to access bail
While the strike persists, many suspects in police custody are unable to access bail, the human rights lawyer said. “Under section 35 that provides for personal liberty, it provides that a suspect cannot be detained for more than 24 or 48 hours without a court order,” Ogun said. “I can tell you for free that our police stations are filled with suspects who could have secured bail.”
But he exonerates the police of complicity in prolonged detention of suspects in this case. “In a way, you cannot blame the police, because the police have a duty to charge them to court but the courts are not open and the people cannot get justice.”
“Thousands of people are currently incarcerated in prison, and their liberties are in danger. They could have been charged to court and the court could have granted them bail.”
Judicial Autonomy suffers setback, as governors control funds
Meanwhile, there have been controversies on the degree of autonomy enjoyed by the judiciary in Nigeria, as it lacks financial independence from the executive. Many commentators opine that the inability of the judiciary to control its fund makes it dependent on the other arm of the government. Many describe it as a mockery of the separation of power, a key principle of democracy.
Although there are constitutional provisions and court orders upholding financial autonomy for the judiciary, state governors continue to hold the judiciary in their respective states to ransom through delayed payment or reduced salaries, as alleged in Ogun State.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in May, 2020, issued an Executive Order granting financial autonomy to the legislature and the judiciary across the 36 states of the country.
The order mandates the Accountant-General of the Federation to deduct from source amount due to state legislatures and judiciaries from the monthly allocation to each state for states that refuse to grant such autonomy.
However, this order, albeit in accordance with provisions of the 1999 constitution, was not implemented, forcing the Judiciary Staff Union (JUSUN) to embark on a 64-day-long nationwide strike between April and June, 2021.
The union demanded that funds meant for the state judiciaries must be deducted directly from the Federation Account and paid to the heads of courts through the National Judiciary Council (NJC). It stressed that the provisions of the constitution “cannot be negotiated, doctored, manipulated and therefore must be obeyed.”
Closure of courts is a breach of fundamental rights – Lawyers
Months after the nationwide strike was suspended, Dapo Abiodun, Governor of Ogun State has been accused of paying half salaries to judiciary workers in the state, hence the shutdown of judicial activities by the state chapter of JUSUN.
Legal experts who spoke with HumAngle, say closure of courts is an affront to democracy and constitutes a breach of citizens’ fundamental rights.
Kolawole Oluwadare, deputy director of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) opined that the closure of courts constitutes denial of justice and breach of fundamental human rights.
“If the culpability and liability of individuals cannot be determined, and they have to spend longer time either in detention or police custody because the judiciary is on strike, it does not help democracy at all and it is not in tandem with the principles of rule of law,” Oluwadare said.
For Festus Ogun, the judiciary can only be independent when it has control over its funds. He berated the state governor over the allegation of paying half salaries to the judiciary workers, stressing that “no arm of government is greater than another.”
“You cannot be talking of democracy where the doors of courts are closed. That is an affront to a democratic society. Do we have at any time where the governor is paid half salary? Or where the commissioners are paid half salaries? But workers of the Judiciary who are responsible for protecting the liberty of our people are being subjected to shame.”
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