In recent years, the National Judicial Council (NJC) has had to put its foot down to compel states to adhere to the rules guiding judicial appointments. It has not always had as much success at the federal level as it has had at state level, and is probably not unaware of the depth of politicization wreaking havoc in the third arm of government, but it has admirably stuck to the rules and very often made the right calls. In the matter of the controversial appointment of the Chief Judge of Gombe State, in which the name of Justice Beatrice Iliya was omitted from the list forwarded to the NJC, the NJC has insisted the right thing be done and the list redrawn. The rules are clear about how the list should be drawn. Why did Gombe defy the rule? Ethnicity, religion, gender? The state is not speaking up, nor, reassuringly, is the NJC interested in excuses.
Clearly, at many levels of government, the wrong, immature, visionless and prejudiced politicians have found themselves in office without possessing the requisite character and qualifications for high or public office. They have thus not found it difficult to undermine or pervert the rules, defy the constitution, and promote injustice, often against gender and minorities. Gombe is not alone in undermining the independence of the judiciary, though a few northern states have by their open biases given a clear indication as to how religion, gender and ethnicity are motivating their unjust and unconstitutional actions and appointments. One of the rules guiding judicial appointments states that the most senior judge in the state judiciary should be included in any succession consideration, but governors in some of these states have often preferred candidates of their choice.
Some six or seven years ago, Rivers State also politicized the appointment of its chief judge by shunning the rules and dictating the governor’s preference. The ensuing controversy, which lasted more than two years, was only ended in 2015 when a new governor reverted to the rules and okayed the appointment of the most senior judge, Justice Daisy W. Okocha. Uninterested in learning any lesson from the Rivers debacle, Cross River State early this year also declined to recommend Justice Akon Ikpeme for appointment as chief judge despite her satisfying the criteria set by the NJC. Kebbi State’s subversion of judicial independence was even more telling. In nearly two years of maneuvering beginning from 2017 when Justice Bala Mairiga retired as chief judge, the state government forestalled the confirmation of Justice Elizabeth Karatu, the next most senior judge, as the chief judge on the grounds of certificate alteration. She retired soon after, insisting that she was discriminated against on grounds of religion, thereby paving the way for the appointment of another judge, Justice Suleiman Ambursa.
Other states have found cleverer ways of doing the same shameful thing by backing the promotion to the Court of Appeal of a disfavoured candidate in order to free the candidate of their choice to lawfully become the state chief judge. Despite the best intentions and resistance of the NJC, the trend of subversion is likely to continue. This is because the Buhari administration itself has not set a good and inspiring example, given the way it surreptitiously calculates who should occupy what seat in the judiciary and when. It took a lot of manoeuvering for Justice John Tsoho to be confirmed Chief Judge of the Federal High Court. It also took a lot of pressures for Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem to be confirmed President of the Court of Appeal, not to talk of Justice Walter Onnoghen himself for the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) position. Was their religion the issue, in contrast to Justice Mohammad Tanko’s smooth confirmation? It is not clear to what extent the pressures have strengthened or weakened the hands of the justices. And after unlawfully unseating Justice Onnoghen, few were surprised that the Buhari administration delayed the appointment of some justices to the Supreme Court until a favoured candidate was brazenly and crudely positioned for the CJN job in future.
Given the abhorrent politicization of the judiciary, it is a miracle that a semblance of justice still issues from the courts. The independence of the judiciary has unfortunately been considerably compromised, and will continue to be so compromised in the foreseeable future for political, religious and ethnic reasons. In addition, the dispensation of justice itself will continue to be badly hamstrung mostly by the appointment of incompetent and subservient judges flawed by character defects. With the continuing subjection of the executive branch to the mediocrity principle due to a faulty political system and perverted electoral process, and the inundation of the legislature by incompetent lawmakers almost universally weakened by and suffering from character defects, and a judiciary contaminated by an equally diseased and shortsighted executive branch, it should surprise no one that the country is tearing itself apart. No one in high office, it is clear, is keeping his senses. No one has been to the mountaintop to see beyond the immediate, to see into the day after tomorrow.
Before you Run (1)
“Whatever political level you have laced up to run for: presidential, governorship, senatorial, house, local government, or ward, before you run, hear now what you are coming in to run or govern.”