Safiya Iyeh Ashipu, Chief Magistrate in Odukpani, Cross River State, has staged a peaceful protest with her two children over nonpayment of her salaries by Governor Ben Ayade for two years.

The magistrate, who went to the state Government House, Calabar on Monday, claimed the action of the governor had caused her family untold hardship.

SaharaReporters gathered that Ashipu and 28 other magistrates in the state have not been paid by Ayade who had removed their names from government payroll in 2019.

One of the affected magistrates, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “We have not been paid since September 2019. On February 1, 2019, a total of 46 new magistrates were duly appointed and sworn into office by the then Chief Judge of Cross River State, Hon. Justice Michael Edem (now retired).

“The appointment followed a due process involving screening, interview, and necessary documentation exercises conducted by the State Judicial Service Commission (JSC), being the body statutorily empowered to employ and exercise disciplinary control over judicial officers of the magistracy cadre in Cross River State.

“Since then, all the magistrates have undergone necessary professional training, including a two months attachment to courts and a mandatory induction course at the National Judicial Institute (NJI), Abuja. Also, magistrates have since been posted/assigned to various magistrates’ courts across the state where they are still working and discharging their responsibilities till date, yet none of them has been paid.

"It is important to note though parenthetically that the JSC is created under section 202 of the 1999 constitution and also its independence is statutorily guaranteed. Therefore, in exercising its power to appoint magistrates and exercise disciplinary control over them, the JSC is not subject to control by any other authority or person, including the governor. With reference to Section 9 of the Judicial Service Commission Law, Cap J2 Vol.3 Laws of Cross River State of Nigeria 2004.

“Another twist is that out of the total of 46 new Magistrates, only about 30 are fresh appointments, the rest were already civil servants whose names were already on the payroll but merely transferred their services to the Judiciary as magistrates.”

The source noted that this is allowed and has always been done in the past, so it was not the first time.

“In April 2020, the state Judicial Service Commission, in a bid to pander to the yearning of His Excellency, conducted a screening exercise where they attempted to reduce the number of the new magistrates to 19 and further recommended the return of all those on transfer back to the various MDAs where they came from. Yet the governor has refused to pay even one person till date,” the source told SaharaReporters.

The source further alleged that the governor in September 2019, acting on advice of his Special Adviser on Payroll, John Odey, “illegally, unjustifiably and unceremoniously” removed the names of over 2,000 civil servants from government payroll.

"According to John Odey, the removal was to enable the governor to authenticate the process of employment of the affected staff members and restore only those who were genuinely employed. The governor has refused to call for the so-called verification exercise till date.

“Those removed from the payroll include about 40 law officers (state counsel) from the Ministry of Justice and some of the magistrates appointed under the category of transfer of service. Note that these are staff members who were properly employed in 2016, issued with letters of appointments and after two years of satisfactory and meritorious service, further issued with letters of confirmation of appointments, only for their salaries to be stopped unceremoniously without any established case of misconduct, neither were they issued with disengagement letters.

“A group of six magistrates among those whose names were removed from the payroll have since filed a case at the National Industrial Court of Nigeria, Calabar Division in Suit No. NICN/CA/46/2019 where they are challenging the wrongful and illegal removal of their names from government payroll. About 33 law officers from the Ministry of Justice are also in court challenging the wrongful removal of their names from the payroll."

On Monday, Ashipu and her two sons were with placards stating her demands.

A report made available to SaharaReporters expressed concern that her appointment could be terminated for the protest under the Rules of Professional Conduct and Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers.

Her placard read, "Your excellency, I am a single mother of two. I have not been paid for two years, please pay me."

SaharaReporters learnt that Ashipu presides over both criminal and civil matters and has a child who is seriously ill and in need of medical attention.

The obviously ill boy's placard read, "Your excellency, my governor, please help me to complete my ENT (Eyes, Nose and Throat) treatment. Please pay my mother her two years’ salary."

The statement partly read, "She presides over both criminal and civil matters and she is expected to deliver justice without prejudice.

"She is expected to be the last hope of the common man with hunger in her stomach.

"She is expected not to collect bribes with a son really ill and in need of serious medical attention and yet with no salary.

"She might be sacked for protesting over hunger and starvation under the disguise of ‘Rules of Professional Conduct’ and "Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers. Please let’s do what we can to protect her."

SaharaReporters also gathered that 28 other magistrates are yet to be paid their salaries for the same period of time.

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