Striking judiciary staff locked up premises of Federal courts around the country yesterday, preventing judges and lawyers from accessing courtrooms, on day one of a national strike called to protest low wages.
In Abuja, premises of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, Federal High Court and FCT High Court were barricaded by the aggrieved workers, who carried placards and chanted solidarity songs.
The strike disrupted court proceedings, including the scheduled delivery of judgement at the Federal High Court in Abuja in a suit seeking the re-instatement of suspended President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Isa Salami.
The Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) began the strike after the elapse of a 21-day notice over the non-implementation of the Consolidated Salary Structure for Judiciary Workers (CONJUSS), which will raise the minimum monthly salary in the sector to N35,000 from N17,000.
At about 8am yesterday, staff padlocked the gates of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, FCT High Court and the Federal High Court in Abuja.
Judges and lawyers scheduled to be in the courtrooms were locked out.
Some reports said the Chief Justice of Nigeria Maryam Aloma Mukhtar was among the justices who were locked out, but a senior staff of the Supreme Court said she had found her way into the premises before the gates were locked as she lived within the Three Arms Zones where the court is located. Daily Trust could not confirm this.
At the gate of the Court of Appeal, JUSUN members sang solidarity songs and carried placards with inscriptions like 'Denial of CONJUSS is denial of justice', 'Denial of CONJUSS is aiding corruption in the temple of justice,' 'We support your transformation agenda save us Mr. President,' 'Hon. CJN save us-JUSUN,' and 'Our Mummy CJN save us.'
At the headquarters of the FCT judiciary in Maitama and the various Magistrate Courts in the territory, the gates were locked while staff were seen loitering around the premises.
Some of the staff decried the inability of the government to implement the N35, 000 minimum wage since 2012 and vowed to continue with the strike until they receive bank pay alerts through their phones.
Speaking on the first day of the strike, JUSUN president Marwan Mustapha Adamu said it was the duty of the Chief Justice of Nigeria not to allow the strike action to drag on.
"The Federal Government had agreed to increase the minimum wage of the judiciary worker to N37,000 from the present N17,000 but have refused to release a circular to that effect," he said.
"A total of 32 states have implemented the agreement since 2012, the Federal Government has not taken steps to implement it. We are not happy that the situation turned out like this. In fact, we gave enough warning but the authority was adamant.
"The office of the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation has not done enough to convince the Federal Government to abide by the agreement it entered into with us since 2009."
Also speaking, deputy president of the union Samuel Adesanya told Daily Trust the strike would continue until the government meets their demand.
The courts listed by JUSUN as those to be affected by the strike are Supreme Court, Courts of Appeal, Federal High Court, FCT High Court, Judicial Service Committee of the FCT, Customary Court of Appeal, Sharia Court of Appeal Abuja and National Industrial Courts.
Meanwhile, lawyers have given varying reactions to the strike. Mr. Ahmed Raji, SAN said the government should look into the grievances of the workers. He said the strike would affect the justice sector as the courts cannot sit without the staff.
Bassy Akpan, a human rights lawyer, expressed disgust over the non-implementation of the agreement the Federal Government entered into with the union since 2009.
"This strike is a genuine action but I have reservation in the shutting of the courts gates against My Lords, the judges," he said.
"Judges should have been allowed access to their offices as the period could be used to write rulings and judgments."
At the Federal High Court in Ikoyi, the guards shut the entry and exit points into the court premises in compliance with the strike directive.
"We've been told to shut the gates for business today in compliance with the strike," one of the guards told our correspondent.
Litigants who were unaware of the industrial action were apparently disappointed when their cases could not be heard.
The Court of Appeal in Igbosere was also closed.
Daily Trust reports that the strike may affect sitting in the case involving Mr. Jimoh Ibrahim and former directors of Newswatch, as well as the case of the Anosike brothers and the one on My Pikin teething medicine.
But Deputy Chief Registrar of the Federal High Court in Lagos, Mr Bello Okandeji, told the News Agency of Nigeria that the inactivity in the court was not due to the strike but the ongoing conference of judges in Abuja.
"As far as I am concerned, activities of the Lagos Division of this court are disrupted due to the absence of our judges who are attending a conference in Abuja," he said.
"Although, I will not deny having knowledge of the strike by JUSUN, I cannot categorically say it is the reason the courts are empty. Whether there is an ongoing industrial action or not, I am yet to officially receive instructions to that effect. Until I receive directives from management, I cannot assume and act on my own accord."
NAN reports that in Lagos, only Justice Okechukwu Okeke heard a case involving the alleged importation of arms and explosives to Nigeria. He reserved judgement in the case for April 30.
In Sokoto, the Court of Appeal and Federal High Court they were locked and deserted. JUSUN chairman in the state Abdulnasir Mohammed said they may not return to work until the new salary structure was implemented.
Also in Port Harcourt, there was full compliance with the strike. There were no official activities taking place at the Federal High Court and Court of Appeal when our reporter visited. Workers were seen in groups discussing the strike.
In Kano, the judiciary staff also stayed away from work. The entrance to the Federal High Court was seen locked and a branch of tree hung, signifying the strike was on.
For their part, workers of federal courts in Kaduna staged a peaceful protest in front of the Court of Appeal to signal the start of the strike.
A staff of the Federal High Court said workers at the state courts were being paid higher wages than their counterparts in federal courts.
He said, "How can a level 7 officer be collecting N40,000 and he/she is a Federal Government staff while his/her state counterpart is collecting much more than that and we are happy working for the Federal Government?"
FG moves to end strike
Meanwhile, Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, Mr Sunday Olorundahunsi, has appealed to the striking workers to return to work as their grievances were being addressed.
He said the Chief Justice of Nigeria was highly committed to solving the dispute but that the problem was not within the purview of the judiciary alone to resolve.
Olorundahunsi assured that the on-going discussions between the authorities and the Nigeria Labour Congress will resolve the matter for good.
Daily Trust learnt that leaders of JUSUN have been invited for an emergency meeting with Labour Minister Emeka Wogu today as part of efforts to resolve the dispute.
Adelanwa Bamgboye, John Chucks Azu (abuja), Rakiya A. Muhammad (sokoto), Mohammed Shosanya (lagos), Maryam Ahmadu-Suka (kaduna), Victor Edozie (port Harcourt), Clement Oloyede & Salisu Magaji (kano)