Nigeria: Cross Rivers' Unpaid Magistrates

22 January 2021

The recent protest by some aggrieved magistrates in Cross River State has again underscored the need to critically look at the welfare of the nation's judicial officers in view of the crucial roles they play in ensuring peace and order.

In what could best be described as the shame of a nation, the magistrates in Cross River State barricaded the entrance to the governor's office in Calabar to protest 24-month unpaid salaries.

The aggrieved members of the Bench from the 18 local government areas of the state who assembled at the governor's office are worried that for two years running, the state government deliberately refused to pay their salaries.

Even though the magistrates have in the last two years been holding court proceedings and performing other judicial functions, they are said to have not been properly employed because Governor Benedict Ayade did not approve their recruitment.

The refusal to pay some judicial officers as witnessed in Cross River State, leading to the protest, is just one of the many challenges confronting the nation's judiciary, with the overall negative effect on the administration of justice.

The judicial sector is bogged down with so many issues, including poor funding, dilapidated court rooms, lack of modern working equipment, low remuneration and absence of training. This has been largely responsible for the corruption which permeates the justice sector.

Only recently, a report by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) revealed that an estimated N9.4billion was exchanged in a bribe-for-judgment scheme in Nigeria's judicial sector between 2018 and 2020.

It is trite that there is a clear nexus between sound justice delivery system and the existence of law and order. Once a people lose faith in the judicial system, the tendencies for them to resort to self-help which could ultimately lead to anarchy are high.

As a newspaper, we believe that to have a functional judiciary a nation must be ready to take with utmost seriousness issues that pertain to the welfare of the judicial officers. Denying them their salaries as witnessed in Cross River State is certainly not one of the ways of addressing the welfare of judicial officers.

We note, rather sadly, that the Cross River State scenario is just a tip of the iceberg as far as the challenges confronting the nation's judiciary are concerned.

Seeking justice through the Nigerian court can be herculean owing to different factors, including undue delay. It is a legal aphorism that justice delayed is justice denied. Even though the right to a fair trial in Nigeria is guaranteed by the Constitution, trials in Nigeria are never speedy.

This is due to the congestion in the courts, which manifests itself through the high number of pending cases. But of course, this is as a result of inadequate infrastructure such as deteriorating and ill-equipped facilities.

Court facilities are overcrowded, badly equipped and under-funded. Infrastructural deficiencies in the courts, as should be expected, undermine the search for a fair trial in several ways, including having a telling impact on the administration of justice in the country.

Available evidence suggests that Nigerian judges are among the least paid judicial officers in the Commonwealth, just as they belong to the class of the least paid in the world.

To say the least in the mildest way, these factors are part of the reasons responsible for the alarming rate of corrupt practices in the justice sector. And to stem the tide, government must prioritise funding of the judiciary.

While we are not in any way justifying the alarming spate of corruption and other corrupt practices allegedly perpetrated by some persons in the judicial sector, it is our considered opinion that government must do the needful so as not to create an impetus for corruption to thrive in this all-important sector.

The demonstration by the Calabar magistrates' is, in our view, an embarrassment to the state, stakeholders in the justice sector and the nation at large.

There is absolutely no reason whatsoever for Governor Ayade to withhold their salaries. It is something that is avoidable and ought not to have been allowed to take place at all.

Magistrates, like all other judicial officials, are not supposed to be exposed to that pitiable, reprehensible and, indeed, undignifying situation whereby they are left with no choice than to storm the street to protest.

It appears some state governors are taking their penchant to owe workers to an utterly ridiculous level not minding the implications on the effective functioning of their workforce.

The holy books of the two dominant religions in Nigeria - Bible and Quran - emphasise the need to pay the labourer even before his sweat dries up.

Sadly, even though virtually all the state governors, including those who have earned notoriety for owing workers, professed to either Islam or Christianity, most of them tend to observe the admonition on prompt payment of salaries in breach.

Governor Ayade must do the needful and ensure necessary measures are put in place to avoid a repeat of this embarrassing scenario.

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