IT was an unusual sight. Thirty magistrates from the 18 local government areas of Cross River State on January 4 and 5 staged protests at the governor’s office in Calabar, demanding payment of 24 months salaries allegedly owed them by the state government. They were employed in 2019. Dressed in their official regalia, the protesting magistrates carried placards lamenting their plight, as most of them have been reportedly unable to pay their house rents or school fees for their children, among other obligations.
Apparently pushed to the wall, Safiya Iyeh Ashipu of the Chief Magistrate’s Court in Odukpani, a single mother, reportedly started the protest in a one-man demonstration in front of the governor’s office, demanding payment of her outstanding salaries, with her two young sons accompanying her and also carrying placards pleading with the state governor, Professor Ben Ayade, to address their mother’s plight. This spurred other magistrates to join in drawing public attention to their dilemma.
Despite the well-known laxity and complacency with which public sector employers in particular treat workers’ welfare in Nigeria, necessitating incessant industrial disputes and strikes by labour unions, judicial officers have tended to have their salaries and other entitlements paid as and when due, thus making protests or strikes by magistrates and judges virtually unheard of. This is probably due to the realisation of the vital nature of the responsibilities of this category of public officers.
This is why it is strange that duly employed magistrates by the Cross River State government have been performing their duties for two years without being remunerated. Surely, officers in the temple of justice do not deserve to be subjected to such injustice. A chief magistrate in the state articulated the plight of the affected magistrates thus, “It is strange because this is the first time something of this nature will be happening…Imagine hearing criminal cases, #EndSARS cases, looting cases and for two years you are not paid salaries. I don’t think there is anywhere in Nigeria where magistrates have protested for their salaries before”.
It is indeed to their credit that the aggrieved magistrates carried out their duties for 24 months before being forced to protest in pursuit of their rights. They claim to have written severally to the attorney- general of the state, the Federal Government and the National Judicial Council (NJC) on the issue, without a positive response. Surely, if the state judiciary enjoyed the financial autonomy being clamoured for, this type of situation would be unlikely to occur. The magistrates claim that since their employment, they have been subjected to four screening exercises at the end of which they still remained unpaid.
The reaction of the state’s acting chief judge, Justice Eyo Effiom-Itah, to the issue is baffling, to say the least. Saying that he did not know for how many months the magistrates had not been paid, he told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that “I was appointed Acting Chief Judge two and a half months ago and I heard that some magistrates were appointed but the governor said he did not give clearance for their appointments and would not pay them. Until Governor Ben Ayade changes his disposition, there is nothing anybody can do”. But then, somebody must have sanctioned the employment of the magistrates and also assigned responsibilities to them, which they have been carrying out for two years. It is wrong to punish them for a situation that is not of their making.
Describing the reasons given for the non-payment of the magistrates as untenable, President of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Olumide Akpata, has threatened that the association may sue the state government on the matter. We urge the NBA leadership to meet the state governor urgently, as dialogue should be able to speedily resolve issues in the interest of justice and human compassion.