Benue State judiciary is not on first-line charge, the workers’ union has said, countering a claim by the state’s Commissioner for Finance, David Olofu.

Mr Olofu had told our reporter that the state’s judiciary was on first-line charge, in his reaction to a PREMIUM TIMES’ report which turned the spotlight on the handling of the judiciary’s salaries in Benue State and three others.

The Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) , which recently ended an over-two-month-old strike, had accused the state’s governor, Samuel Ortom, and his counterparts in Plateau, Kaduna, and Bayelsa States, of withholding or deducting the judiciary’s salaries.

JUSUN had embarked on a nationwide strike on April 6 to press for the implementation of constitutional provision placing the judiciary on first-line charge in the budgets of the various states.

Placing the judiciary on the first-line charge as demanded by the union will enable it to receive its funds directly from the Federation Account and ultimately make it independent of the executive arm of government.

After a series of meetings with officials and an agreement signed with the state governors, the union, on June 9, suspended the strike which had crippled courts across the country for 64 days.

The courts finally reopened on Monday.

In its communique announcing the suspension of the strike, JUSUN accused four states, including Benue, of allegedly withholding or deducting the salaries of judiciary workers.

Recall that PREMIUM TIMES got across to each of the states, consisting of Benue, Plateau, Kaduna and Bayelsa, to react to JUSUN’s claim.

When contacted by our reporter, Benue State’s finance commissioner, Mr Olofu, declined to speak on the issue, but when pressed further, told our reporter to “ask the Chief Judge, (Benue State) if the judiciary’s salaries are being withheld or not.”

Following our report on the JUSUN’s claim which reflected the reactions and attempts by our reporter to get the comments of the representatives of the four states, Mr Olofu, called our reporter to say, “I meant to say that the judiciary, since we came on board, has been receiving their allocations as first-line charge.”

But the chairperson of the Benue State chapter of JUSUN, Aba Terlumun, denied the commissioner’s claim.

“Mr Olofu’s claim is only on paper,” Mr Terlumun told our reporter in a phone interview.

The union leader lamented that the judicial arm of government was in dire financial straits in the state.

He said, “We have not been paid till now. Now we are approaching another FAAC (Federal Account Allocation Committee) meeting, yet we have not been paid our salaries for the month of May.

“The overhead fund for the daily running of the judiciary is not being paid. It’s painful.”

He said the efforts by the union to meet with the finance commissioner and the governor to find a solution to the crisis had been futile.

“It is only the Accountant General of the state that gives us an audience as to what efforts he is making at his end towards getting the judiciary paid.

“The assertion that Benue state judiciary is on first-line charge is only on paper,” Mr Terlumun said.

He added, “The Chief Judge has nothing to do with salaries of judiciary workers. It is the Chief Registrar that receives the alert of payment and onward disbursement to workers.”

A top official of the Benue State judiciary , who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak on the matter, also denied the claim that the state judiciary was already on a first-line charge.

The official said the “overhead” released to the state for the daily running of the judiciary “has been irregular and meagre.”

“So, if anyone says we are being placed on a first line charge, the person is lying!” the official said, adding, “We don’t know when we will receive our May salary.”

Another official , who also pleaded not to be named, said, “The payment of overheads is not regular.”

He said with 23 judges, two chief registrars, and a number of magistrates, chief magistrates, and directors, the judiciary usually finds it hard to cope with its financial constraints.

“The money is between N13 million and N15 million,” he said.

He added, “The overhead is used to run offices; from call cards, cable television subscriptions, sitting allowances, traveling expenses of judges, vehicle repairs and so many other official responsibilities.

“Sometimes, for two months, it won’t be given. Then the government would skip and pay for the third month.”

All efforts to speak with the Benue State Commissioner for Finance, Mr Olofu, were unsuccessful as calls placed to his phone since Monday rang out.

As of the time of filing this report on Tuesday, Mr Olofu had not responded to a text message sent to his phone requesting his comment on the counter-claims of JUSUN and the judiciary officials.

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