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Nigerian judges and ASUU

By Lasisi Olagunju

While standing before a judge, any judge, you are a ‘petty man’ even if you are a professor of law. I am not being rude. You shouldn’t have any problem getting my drift if you go back and read William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act I, Scene II). You meet Cassius telling nobleman Brutus how imperial Julius Caesar is bestriding “the narrow world like a Colossus;” how Brutus and himself are mere “petty men (who) walk under (Caesar’s) huge legs and peep about to find (for themselves) dishonorable graves.”

Nothing demeans and devalues a ‘real’ man more than knowing how small he is; very small, cheatable, and expendable. When your seed is that disadvantaged, what are you going to do? You struggle and argue with your situation or do you surrender to destiny? Cassius has an idea. He tells Brutus the exact thing realists hold against fate: “Men at some time are masters of their fates…the fault…is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

There is a way in which career choices limit one’s position in life: Doctor; lawyer; teacher; judge. Judges are very privileged people whose word is law, literally. Teachers, from primary to university, are not that blessed. Even if they are professors, they are hardly seen as authority figures. What we see are colossal dwarfs made by Nigeria to walk under giants of iniquity in search of hope and justice. But why? Let us go back to the above scene in ‘Julius Caesar.’ Cassius asks Brutus to pronounce his name ‘Brutus’ and pronounce ‘Caesar’— and then asks his man what is so special about the emperor’s name that the whole world bows at its mention?: “What should be in that ‘Caesar’? Why should that name be sounded more than yours? Write them together, yours is as fair a name; Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well; Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ’em, ‘Brutus’ will start a spirit as soon as ‘Caesar.'” That is an incitement to envy – even to treason. Or what else do you think it is? Now, let me ask: what is it that is in ‘teacher’ which makes its pronunciation rancid, stale, and tasteless?

The last time Nigerian judges had their salaries reviewed was more than a century ago. Their workplace and their personal situation compete with the most appalling in hell. Nigerian public university lecturers and their workplace suffer same fate too, and, because of this, they speak a lot of grammar and have been on strike since February this year. But judges would not go on strike; they cannot. That is what their calling demands of them. They must never be seen saying or doing what ASUU says and does every year. If they ever dream of stopping work, the world will, that day, come to a crashing end. But, because several footpaths lead to the marketplace, impoverished Nigerian judges apparently listened to inciting voices like Cassius’s and possessed their fate. They did self-help – or rather, were helped to prop up their collective destiny by someone who was not even in their confraternity.

A senior lawyer went to court – took judges’ predicament to a judge to redress – and it was done. What else is the dictionary definition of self-help? Three months ago (July 2022), Justice Osatohanmwen Obaseki-Osaghae of the National Industrial Court (NIC), Abuja, in a case brought by a lawyer, held that salaries and allowances of judicial officers in the country were embarrassingly low. She, therefore, ordered a new salary structure for the Nigerian judiciary. She commanded the federal government to commence a monthly payment of N10 million salary to the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN); N9 million to other justices of the Supreme Court.

She ordered that the president of the Court of Appeal should be paid N9 million per month. Every month, N8 million should be the salary of Court of Appeal justices; same for Chief Judges of both federal and state High Courts, President of the National Industrial Court, Grand Khadis, and President of Customary Courts, and N7 million to judges of federal and state High Courts.

In making that order, Justice Obaseki-Osaghae noted that salaries of judges and justices had been stagnated for over 14 years. Her words are particularly sweet to hear: “There is no doubt that from evidence adduced before this court, salaries payable to judges as well as their conditions of service, have been greatly altered to their disadvantage…Judicial officers are daily impoverished by the devaluation of the naira. They have suffered financial hardship and embarrassment owing to their poor pay. It is a shame to the country. In spite of this, our judges have continued to carry out their statutory duties. Justices are themselves victims of a great injustice. What an irony,” she quipped. I understand that the decision has been appealed against and it is before My Lords at the Court of Appeal. It will be so nice to hear what the justices will say in this case which is about their own welfare.

I do not understand why our lecturers have not gone to the same industrial court to benefit from the judges’ self-help. Go there; show the court that the facts are similar; ask the judge to follow their own precedent and give your life a breather too. Would the court say no and thus confirm Nigeria as an iniquitous farm where some animals are more equal than the others? Judges are lions who rule with principles and doctrines. And there are very many of these credos of justice. They talk about precedent; stare decisis; apply the law in the same manner when cases are on all fours with each other; attend to cases with similar facts similarly; hit the gavel with the same force when dealing with similar legal issues. University teachers know so much and teach so much.

They teach law; they teach logic; they teach economics and psychology and everything a man needs to escape the snares of the fowler. But our knowledgeable university lecturers hardly benefit from their knowledge. If there was an agreement with the government and the government breached that agreement, where else should the cheated go to demand performance of the duties imposed by what they signed? The court is the place to go, not the renegotiation table, ASUU’s favourite solution room. Let the court pronounce the government as the wrong party which must make restitution or be damned. But no. Whenever heaven offers our teachers a rose, they always insist on their ancestral cabbage of undying old habits. They still have not seen the wisdom in grabbing the divine lifeline that the judges’ salary case provides. If I were ASUU, I would ask the goose of the judiciary to do for my gander what it has done for itself. But the court is not a Father Christmas; it gives only to him who demands.

What do you call a person who does not keep his word? Someone asked that question and he got quite interesting answers. One responder said ‘reneger’; another said ‘traitor’; one bad person said ‘politician.’ Nigerian lecturers may be stuck in the last century; their nemesis are very up-to-date and that is because those ones live by breaking covenants. And you must not tell the unfaithful that they are dishonest; the way to get them is by setting the law to get them. That is the wisdom embraced by the judges through a lawyer. That wisdom has eluded the ivory tower.

It is an irony that the deer of the pact-breaking Nigerian government now pursues the hunter of ASUU. Two months after issuing the order for new pay packages for judges, the same National Industrial Court (not the same judge) on 21 September, 2022 ordered “impoverished” striking university teachers to go back to work empty-handed “in the interest of the nation.” Justice Polycarp Hamman made the order while delivering a ruling in an interlocutory injunction motion brought by the Federal Government. The order, according to the judge, was made in line with the provisions of Section 18 of the Trade Dispute Act which empowers the court to make such order in the interest of the nation. Justice Hamman, in ordering the lecturers back to the classroom, held that students had a fundamental right to education which needed to be protected from ASUU’s interminable no-work action. Do not blame the court; it acted on what was brought before it. Where was ASUU before the devil took the initiative of approaching the court first? Dissatisfied ASUU sought a leave of the Court of Appeal to appeal that ruling. It also filed an application for a stay of execution of the trial court’s ruling and then withdrew the application last Friday. The Appeal Court’s response to the applications was a grant of the leave sternly conditioned with an order that the union should, with effect from that moment, obey the order of the Industrial Court by going back to work. ASUU has not obeyed that order of the Court of Appeal. And the order is final.

The Nigerian government and its operatives are lustrous gods of vengeance. They may be lost in the maze of ineptitude but they competently protect their space with uncommon rage and passion. They may have no answer to questions from their victims but they know how to dip ASUU’s stubborn ass in hot water. Almost simultaneous with the legal challenge, two rival unions have been registered to contest the universities with ASUU. But the questions won’t go away: When is this long night of strikes ending? The tragedy that has robbed our children of one whole year of their lives, where is the plot taking us? How many acts are we destined to witness in this ASUU-Government tragedy? The plot lengthens daily with unconventional acts. A perfect Aristotelian tragedy has a character who moves from prosperity to perdition; from grace to grass – there is no road to redemption. Aristotle wrote about desis and lysis (binding and unbinding; complication and denouement) as the acts of a play. Some other critics think the act of drama should have more than just a problem and a resolution. The Nigerian tragedy has catastrophe as the final act of its drama.

A friend reminded me that the strike won’t resolve the issues in the sector even if it lasts till the end of the world. He was insistent that the education sector was not different from all other sectors in Nigeria. I agree. Nigeria is too damaged to be remodeled or repaired by forces locked up in isolated silos. Because we were born as free as their Caesar, we can and should tackle the winter induced by the Nigerian Caesar. We are asking existential questions about Nigeria. ASUU has worked hard, fought, and won many battles since its birth. It should now leave its compartment and join in asking those global questions we ask about Nigeria and its future. Medical and environmental historians tell us of the human ancestors who moved north from the warm African heartland almost 24,000 years ago. The ancestors left their zone of comfort and ran into the killing chill of the ice age; they had their existence threatened. Then they used their brain, adapted and “devised rudimentary clothing”, fought off the big freeze, and consequently lived to preserve their branch of creation. Nigeria’s current reality is the political version of the ice age. Its inclement sheet kills and it will kill. It will take big brains and a lot of adaptation and maneuvering to survive it.

However this season ends, the trial of ASUU teaches a lesson: The baby sired by the world is what the world carries (omo tí ayé bí ni ayé n pòn). That is an ancestral counsel on pragmatism. Achebe’s “Eneke the bird says that since men have learnt to shoot without missing, he has learnt to fly without perching.” If Eneke had taken his survival lessons from ASUU and had predictably sat on same branch from morning to morning, he would have been long dead.

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