The buildings housing the High Court and the Magistrate Court were located on Ona Ara. That is Ara Ekiti Road, from Ikole Ekiti. The road also leads to so many farmlands. The occupants of the buildings were held in high esteem. So awesome was the respect for them that even on Saturdays when they did not sit, farmers rolled their motorcycles quietly until they passed the complex. Nobody dared disturb the courts. Two magistrates were particularly popular in Ikole Judicial Division in the 80s: Magistrates Kowe and Adojutelegan. The mere mention of their names struck terror. One of them, I cannot recollect specifically now, jailed one notorious Debo of Ikole. Debo was a serial burglar. He boasted several times that nobody could jail him. He was caught in an illicit activity one day and charged to court, accordingly. One of the Magistrates sentenced Debo to a three-year jail term. No option of fine. The news reverberated in the entire Ekiti Oke (Ekiti North). The respect or fear for His Worship increased. We only heard about their names, I cannot boast of ever seeing them in public. They rode in Peugeot 504 which every other commuter avoided reverentially.
We had mistakenly hit Magistrate Kowe’s car with our football one day. We abandoned that open space for weeks. We believed the man would come back for us. Whereas, he did not even notice what happened. Magistrates and Judges were next to the gods in the 80s. They drew their salaries from the consolidated funds. Nobody raided their homes at the dead of night.
Now, take your minds off the 80s or even early 90s and picture the Magistrates, 29 of them, who thronged the streets of Calabar, on Monday, January 4, through Tuesday, January 5, 2021, in their full regalia, protesting the non-payment of their salaries for two full years by Governor Ben Ayade. Cast your mind to the pitiable picture of Her Worship, Safiya Iyeh Ashipu, the Chief Magistrate at the Odukpani, who led her two sons to the gate of the Governor’s office, to protest against her unpaid salaries for more than 24 months. What you get is a clear picture of Nigeria going to the dogs: a picture, a very wretched one, of a once decent profession, going down the sewage because a new set of lords and slave masters is in power. The protest in Calabar is a reflection of the rot in Nigeria’s judicial system. We only saw Calabar last week, but I will safely take a bet on it that same scenario is replicated in all the States of the federation, where chief judges thank their Excellencies, the “Executive Governors” for their support for the judiciary.
The judiciary is no longer the third Arm of Government, but an appendage of the Executive Arm. As a matter of fact, the Executive Arm has in recent times become the executor of the other two Arms of Government. Except we just want to be modest, governance is a one-legged monster in this part of the world. The executive, as the only arm which controls the patrimony, dictates what happens to the other two almost non-existent arms, thereby strangling them at will.
The pictures of Ashipu and her two sons, for a long time to come, will haunt not only the imperial Governor Ayade, who, in the last two years, refused to pay her and her 28 other colleagues, but also assail our collective sensibility as we wonder how we got to this low ebb. If anyone had predicted that a day would come when Judges or Magistrates would take to the streets to protest non-payment of their salaries, I would have asked the diviner to throw the divination objects to the bottomless pit. But it happened and we all witnessed it. We witnessed Magistrate Ashipu on the street pleading: “Your Excellency, I am a single mother of two. I have not been paid for two years. Please pay me.” We saw her first son begging: “Your Excellency, my Governor, you have the power to help us and change our lives for the better. Please pay my mother.” We heard the second son who has an ear, nose and throat challenge, crying: “Your Excellency, my Governor, please help me to complete my treatment. Please pay my mother her two-year salary.”
The following day, we woke up to see 28 others on the streets begging to be paid for two years of services rendered but not paid for. One of them, His Worship, Richard Bassey, collapsed under the weight of hunger. While he was being revived, the Deputy Governor, Professor Ivara Esu, drove past. Well, he drove past. Just before we shouted abomination, Ayade came talking. The Magistrates were irregularly employed. Ayade spoke through his mouthpiece, Christian Ita: “The process of engaging them was not followed through. Even if the Governor gave the other that they should be employed, after employing them, you still have to go back to the Governor to sign so that they can be enrolled on the payroll.” Then the Acting Chief Judge, Justice Eyo Effiom Ita, added his voice. Only Ayade could determine the fate of the Magistrates. Ita’s alibi was: “I was appointed Acting Chief Judge two and a half months ago. I heard that some Magistrates were appointed but the Governor said he did not give clearance for their appointment and so will not pay them.”
Judges are philosophers of sort. My Lord Justice Ita should be familiar with the eternal words of Elie Wisel, author of the trilogy: Night, Dawn and Day, thus: “Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies.” Three months is long enough for the Acting Chief Judge to get familiar with the nuances of the job. Ikun, the deaf squirrel, says despite its deafness, it cannot miss out in the gist of where the nearest groundnut plantation is. How long will it take Ita to know the rot in the system he superintends?
Then the number one Law Officer of the State, the Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Tanko Ashang, capped it all. “Your recruitment is fraudulent,” he told the bewildered Magistrates and went ahead to threaten a lawsuit. He was angry that the Magistrates, “illegal” as they were, took to the streets to embarrass the Governor. Again, Wisel’s philosophy that “there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice but there must never be a time when we fail to protest” makes no meaning to him. But all hope is not lost, Ashang assured. He would go back to the Governor “hoping that Governor Ayade will exercise his usual deep humanity and give approval to regularise their employment.” But if Ayade’s ‘humanity’ is not as ‘deep’ as we hope, the Magistrates could as well kiss their emoluments goodbye!
Analyse the arguments by Ayade and his aides. 29 Magistrates were ‘irregularly’ employed two years ago. They were assigned to different Magisterial jurisdictions. Someone assigned cases to them. Lawyers and litigants appeared in their courts. Accused persons answered charges in those courts. Quite a number of accused persons were found guilty and jailed! Some lucky ones were discharged and acquitted. Civil matters were determined and cost or damages awarded. Yet the Magistrates, by law and the whims and caprices of Ayade, are not supposed to be on the Bench. Don’t’ forget that the Governor is very much aware that 29 vacant Magisterial divisions needed to be filled. He gave the go ahead, but did not sign off. Yet he never got any report that cases were piling up because there were no Magistrates to attend to them. The same Ayade who wept bitterly on national television because he was deeply pained that he could not provide the basic amenities for the Bakassi people! How do you reconcile that?
Ayade is a professor, a lawyer and a former Senator. He is a brilliant dude, in case you don’t know. He produced the ‘Best Doctoral Dissertation in Environmental Microbiology,’ University of Ibadan, 1994. He is also fortunate to have another professor as his deputy. But what do you get? Imagine the collateral damage that must have been done when a terribly hungry Magistrate presides over a matter. Think about those among them, who before leaving their houses, got visited by their landlords. They owe rents, utility bills and others. Consider the Ashipus among them who have hospital bills to pick alongside other expenses. Then place these side by side the corrupt members of the public, the moneybags and the irredeemable politicians coming around the courts with wads of currency to buy justice. Without any intention to impugn the character and integrity of Their Worships, one can safely imagine the level of temptation and ability to resist, when hunger comes in contact with temptation. Only a few rock-solid individuals will have a sick baby at home and still close their eyes to the corrupt lifelines dangling in their faces. Justice gets derailed when the Magistrate gets deprived. The French political philosopher, Montesquieu, must surely be weeping in his grave seeing the mess the Calabar experience is making of his theory of separation of power.
Tuesday Flat Out is a column on Tribune Online fed by Mr. Suyi Ayodele, South South Editor.
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