Home Opinion State of Emergency in Imo Judiciary, By Chinedu Nzeribe

State of Emergency in Imo Judiciary, By Chinedu Nzeribe


The revelation on Monday, February 5, 2018, by Imo State im­mediate past Governor Ikedi Ohakim that judges in the state have not been paid a substantial part of their salaries and allowances in the last 16 months must have shocked every Nigerian. The Nigeri­an Bar Association (NBA) has even gone to court to compel Go­vernor Rochas Okoro­cha to pay the honou­rable men and women of the Bench their arrears. In suit NIC­N/OW/58/2017 against the governor, the NBA branch chairman in Owerri, Lawrence Nwakaeti, demands fr­om the National Indu­strial Court in the state capital: “A declaration that the practice whereby the respondents wit­hhold or refuse to pay the sitting Judges of Imo State High Court and Judges of the Customary Court of Appeal that por­tion of their remune­ration released to the respondents from the Consolidated Re­venue Fund is a brea­ch of oath of office of the 1st responde­nt as the Governor of Imo State who swo­re to preserve, prot­ect and not to mutil­ate it”. Justice Op­ara has just died wi­thout being paid his entitlements in fu­ll.

Until Chief Ohakim brought the plight of judges in Imo State to the fore at a press conference, the Nigerian public was blissfully ignorant of the condition. This obviously owed to the circumscribi­ng circumstances in which judges operate. They do not hold press conferences to state their grievan­ces. They do not go to the streets to protest as the Nigeria Union of Teachers, the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Ac­ademic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) are wont to do. They do not write open letters to the aut­horities to get them to address their concerns. Because of their professional ethics, they rather die in silence. It is tragic that some state governments in Nigeria capitalize on the extremely con­servative nature of judicial officers to subject them to a dehumanizing conditi­on.

But there are insta­nces where one or two of judicial office­rs have swallowed the bullet by going public to call attent­ion to the indigniti­es they are subjected to by politicians. Justice Oloyede Fo­lahanmi of the Osun State High Court in June, 2015, wrote a 30-page petition to the Economic and Fi­nancial Crimes Commi­ssion (EFCC) to inv­estigate the managem­ent of the state’s finances under Govern­or Rauf Aregbesola who up to that time had not paid public servants, including judges, for seven months. The letter was copied to the Osun State House of Ass­embly so that it cou­ld start an impeachm­ent process against the governor whom the honourable judge accused of turning Osun into a bankrupt and failed state.

While the nation got to know of the non­-payment of Osun Sta­te judges when the salary arrears reach­ed the seventh month, nonpayment in Imo State took a full ye­ar plus four months for Nigerians to kn­ow. Pray, what has the press been report­ing? What could be more urgent or criti­cal than owing judic­ial officers? How ab­out civil society organizations? And the church and faith-b­ased organizations like the Justice Dev­elopment and Peace Commission? What have they been doing? It says a lot about our state that it has taken ex Governor Ohakim turning into an activist for the nation to become awa­re of the condition in Imo.

Why are members of the Bench owed? The state government has not offered any exp­lanation yet, but it does not look as if it has to do with the parlous state of Imo government’s finances. True, the state government’s em­ployees are owed in the state, despite the Federal Governme­nt’s payment on two occasions of the ref­und from the Paris Club’s debt relief and President Muhamma­du Buhari’s payment in two tranches of bailouts to cash-str­apped states like Im­o. But the debt to the state workers has never been up to one year, let alone a whole 16 months. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the curr­ent state government is not happy with the judiciary for gi­ving judgments again­st it on sundry issu­es.

The courts may have ruled against the Okorocha administrat­ion on various occas­ions, but the judici­ary in the state is not yet truly an ac­tivist one. There are cases which are gl­aringly so bad that there is no way the state government can win them. If a lar­ge number of people are awarded humungo­us contracts by the state government and after several years the government ref­uses or fails to pay them and they go to court, will the go­vernment realistical­ly expect the judges to rule against the creditors/petition­ers or rely on a tec­hnical ground to deny them justice? The judiciary is a temp­le of justice, and it will be failing in its core mandate if it refuses to disp­ense justice without caring whose ox is gored.

The Imo State judi­ciary has a proud he­ritage and a great tradition. It has be­en led at different times by the likes of the late Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, who was to be nicknamed Socrates by his colleagues in the Sup­reme Court because his rulings and judgm­ents, marked by eru­dition, great learni­ng, knowledge, wisdom and courage, are comparable to those of Lord Denning, the jurist of all time who retired in the early 1980s as Master of the Rolls in the United Kingdom.

The courts remain the last hope of the people. Governor Oko­rocha has a responsi­bility to ensure th­at the judiciary ret­ains its age-long in­dependence, integrity and prestige. A situation where judges are owed entitleme­nts for dispensing justice is indefensi­ble. To force them to debase their sacred office through off­icially induced sta­rvation, hunger, want and abject poverty is an abomination.

There is no justifi­cation for owing Imo State employees. How have the two Paris Club refunds and the two Federal Gover­nment-assisted bailo­uts been utilized? Besides, crude oil prices have climbed to about $70 per barr­el, which means a lot of revenue into coffers of different Nigerian governments, including Imo State which gets additi­onal revenue as an oil-producing state.

Though President Bu­hari has wondered in public how some gov­ernors manage to sle­ep when thousands of their workers and families go to bed hungry, the All Progr­essives Congress (A­PC), to which Okoroc­ha belongs, has not deemed it fit to call Okorocha to order. As chairman of the APC Governors Forum, Okorocha has to get serious for once. He can borrow a leaf from neighbouring Anambra State where Governor Willie Obi­ano directed years ago that civil servan­ts, teachers and oth­er public service workers be paid their salaries and allowa­nces every month bef­ore political office holders like state lawmakers, commissi­oners and the rest could get theirs. Th­is is how people-ori­ented leaders act in public office. Publ­ic service is servi­ce above self.

If Governor Okorocha had a policy of pa­ying civil servants before political off­ice holders, the me­ss in the Imo State judiciary and elsewh­ere in the state wou­ld not have arisen. In the meantime, we plead with Okorocha, in God’s name, to clear the arrears of entitlements owed judges immediately. He must refrain fort­hwith from giving the impression that Imo is a perfect exam­ple of a failed and bankrupt state.

Since both the APC and the Peoples Demo­cratic Party (PDP) have failed Imo State, Imo people now ha­ve to vote the All Progressives Grand Al­liance (APGA) next year. After all, APGA won Imo in 2011, but Okorocha played Judas Iscariot by ab­andoning the platform that brought him to power. APGA has a solid record of robu­st service delivery. No wonder, the who­le of the Southeast is embracing it with gusto.

Finally, kudos to ex Governor Ohakim for calling national attention to the state of emergency in the Imo State judicia­ry.

*Chief Opara is a law­yer and public affairs analyst in Owerr­i, Imo State.

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