by Maduka Onwukeme,
On the Monday the 3rd of January, 2015 the members of the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) had swooped on all courts in Nigeria and shut them down in an illegal strike action. JUSUN’s grouse was the refusal of state governments to obey the judgment of the Federal High Court, Abuja delivered on 13th January, 2014 in Suit No. FHC/ABJ/CS/66/2013.
In the suit, JUSUN had successfully sued the state governments and other agencies for the continued violation of the independence of the judiciary through direct funding of the judiciary instead of allowing the judiciary as the third arm of government to draw its fund directly from the consolidated revenue fund as constitutionally provided.
On the strength of that judgment, JUSUN had purporting to cry more than the bereaved embarked on that ill fated, ill advised and illegal strike action that crippled the nation’s entire machinery of justice at the inception of 2015, and in most states for a better part of 2015.
The different chapters of JUSUN in various states across the country also resorted to incessant strike actions over the slightest trade dispute or in some cases political or constitutional issues that had no bearing to the welfare or working conditions of its members.
The loss that arises from the shutting down of the courts is unquantifiable either monetary terms or otherwise and it is not only desirable that JUSUN is called to order but also made to behave responsibly.
In the first instance, JUSUN’s ill advised strike action it welcomed Nigerians into the New Year in January, 2015 on what was clearly a constitutional issue and not a trade dispute was illegal. The law is clear that all the powers exercisable by trade unions including strike and pickets must be exercised only with respect to trade disputes.
The Trade Disputes Act defines a “trade dispute” in section 47 as:
“Any dispute between employers and workers or between workers and workers, which is connected with the employment or non-employment, or the terms of employment and physical conditions of work of any person”.
JUSUN was aware that the dispute in question was clearly constitutional but yet illegally chose to cry more than the bereaved, stating their intention as trying “to free the judiciary from the captives, strangulations and imprisonments by the state governors”.
Justice Roseline Ukeje before her retirement as the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court had in Suit No. FHC/ABJ/CS/52/2004 restrained the Nigerian Labour Congress from embarking on strike actions over the increase in the pump price of petroleum products. Her Lordship had upheld the claim of the Obasanjo led government that “fuel hikes were not in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute as provided under the Trade Dispute Act”.
JUSUN therefore clearly got away with blue murder last year as it crippled the machinery of justice illegally and brazenly usurped the powers of the Federal High Court to enforce its judgment, as if the courts had lost their powers to enforce their own judgments.
On 4th January, 2016 the Anambra State Chapter of JUSUN called off its nearly 3 months old strike. Their counterparts in Imo State had downed tools in the last quarter of 2015 too. I mentioned the JUSUN strikes of these two states as the action of JUSUN there had deprived me and many other Nigerians of our constitutional rights to seek redress for wrongs done to us.
A thousand more had their cases unnecessarily delayed. Many incarcerated suspects were denied the constitutional rights to a speedy trial. Anarchy was let loose as people resorted to self help to settle disputes, law enforcement agents violated people’s rights indiscriminately as there was no courts to run to for refuge.
I will not fail to mention the loss of revenue suffered by lawyers which ran into millions of Naira. Funny enough, the striking workers still collected their salaries for doing no work while the lawyers bore the brunt of their action.
Rule 30 of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007 states that a lawyer is an officer of the court and thus mandates lawyers “not to do any act or conduct himself in any manner that may obstruct, delay or adversely affect the administration of justice”.
I believe a similar code should regulate the conduct of judiciary workers who are also officers of the court but have continued to constitute a clog in the wheel of the justice system with their penchant for incessant strike actions.
The Trade Dispute Act and the Trade Unions Act bars certain providers of essential services such as law enforcement agents from forming trade unions or embarking on strike actions and I believe judiciary workers should be added to the list of providers of essential services.
The judiciary workers might have some genuine grievances in some of their actions but then, the courts must never be closed down for any reason whatsoever. If the police, Army, Custom and Prison services are barred from forming trade unions or going on strike due to the security implications of same, why do we allow courts workers the unfettered privilege to shut down the courts as they would shut the doors of their houses?
Have we considered the danger of the politicization of JUSUN and what doom that would spell for our democracy if the courts can be shut down to satisfy the whims of certain individual for political reasons? As a matter of fact, there were allegations and counter allegations amongst JUSUN members on the true reasons for the January 2015 strike.
The union executives had no tangible defence to the allegations that JUSUN was used to shut down the courts to stop the hearing of suits filed against Goodluck Jonathan’s candidacy in the 2015 Elections.
The allegations against the JUSUN leaders seemed to find credence when the union called of the strike at the federal courts at the point of the Buhari certificate controversy. The courts were needed then to stop Buhari at that time it was alleged, to save Jonathan from a trouncing at the polls. The fact that JUSUN unilaterally called of the strike at the Federal Courts on the same January 26, 2015 when the first suit challenging the Buhari’s eligibility to contest the polls was filed cannot be wished away as mere coincidence.
The Nigerian National Assembly should as a matter of urgency amend the Trade Disputes Act and the Trade Unions Act to include judiciary workers in the category of workers that can neither form trade unions nor embark on strike actions for the overall public interest.
At the 2015 edition of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Annual General Conference held in Abuja in August last year, lawyers from Rivers State had narrated the descent of Rivers State into anarchy with the closure of the courts over political squabbles. It was alleged over 52 prison inmates lost their lives as they could not get court orders to enable them get treatments outside the prison clinics for life threatening ailments the prison clinics could not handle. Lawyers were worse hit as they could not practice their craft for over a year.
Nearly every lawyer from Rivers State agreed that it was the worst thing that could happen to any state.
I hope we see the need to stop JUSUN’s slow but gradual interment of the justice system and the rights of Nigerians to access the court with its penchant to close the court at the flimsiest excuses or no excuses at all. I rest my case.