Justice dispensation in Nigeria is like a shipwreck. And the reasons for this calamity are obvious to the stakeholders. A former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mariam Aloma-Mukhtar, decried in Abuja recently the prevalence of lobbying and favouritism in judicial appointments, instead of being merit-driven.
Her observation is a knock-out on the judiciary. These base criteria, she noted, have led to a decline in standards, weakening of the judiciary and enthronement of incompetent judicial officers. With the “rising culture” label she attached to it, it is obvious that the tumour has been with the system for long. Politicians of note are involved in this racket. In a highly corrupt country like ours, this is tragic. As someone who chaired the National Judicial Council until 2014 when she retired, revealing what she did to tame the scourge would have made more sense. However, she was right in stressing that “these practices negate the principles of justice and breed indiscipline.”
Globally, the values of a judge define the quality of the bench. The position is magisterial, reserved only for men and women of distinction – with integrity, honour and high intellect – given the fact that they are expected to deliver justice to all; and hold the power to decide matters of life and death over fellow human beings.
Aloma-Mukhtar is not the only judicial personage to lament the self-immolation of our judiciary. Her successor, Mahmud Mohammed, in fact, initiated a new recruitment process aimed at eliminating the plague. He proposed the advertisement of vacancies in the media, to attract interested applicants. The CJN, serving and retired; serving and retired Justices of the Supreme Court; President of Court of Appeal, serving and retired; other heads of courts and President of the Nigerian Bar Association would be required to nominate candidates.
The method will “ensure that only fit and proper persons and the most intellectually astute, morally sound, meritorious and deserving candidates are appointed as judges of courts. It is the best way to proceed in reforming our judiciary,” Mohammed had intoned.
But Aloma-Mukhtar’s recent misgiving simply means that Mohammed’s reform was either ineffective or it never took off. The dominant practice has been for the Federal/States Judicial Service Commissions to prepare a list of nominees. The NJC screens and successful candidates are then forwarded to either the president or the governor for eventual appointment.
If mundane considerations, as outlined by the ex-CJN, still mess up judges’ selection process, it means then that the NJC deserves a big hit. Its incumbent chairman and CJN, Walter Onnoghen, should now hit the bull’s-eye. Undoubtedly, the extant procedure or Mohammed’s template is open to abuse. For instance, if a CJN once arrested a judgement of an election petition, or tried to influence its outcome in the past, then such a figure cannot be trusted with the responsibility of nominating an upright candidate to the position of a judge. Again, a retired President of the Court of Appeal, Ayo Salami, a few years ago, took the lid off the disgraceful post-retirement misconduct of some retired senior judges who intimidated judges handling cases at Election Petitions Tribunals, funnelling bribes to them on behalf of their desperate “clients” who wanted to win at all costs.
Therefore, the selection process should be broadened to involve the larger society. It will beget public confidence for our beleaguered judiciary. This works in Kenya, Canada and Australia. In Canada, a Supreme Court nominee submits an application to a screening committee comprising judges, lawyers, government officials and members of the public.
A former Chief Justice of Australia, Anthony Mason, now a law professor at the University of Cambridge, the United Kingdom, says higher courts appointments are made with the public knowing the procedures that are followed. The process, he emphasises, involves consultation and enquiry with professional groups and people who can speak for the public interest.
The racketeering in Nigeria’s judiciary and high-level of indiscipline on the bench have become too rampant and laughable: Judges from courts of coordinate jurisdictions still give conflicting judgements; it is doubtful if granting of ex parte motions, relief not sought, interlocutory injunctions, perpetual injunctions, use of other discretionary powers have been abandoned by the judges who traffic in them. These are abuses driven by graft.
Instructively, the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015, which prescribes procedures for speedy trials and is meant to address these concerns, is being undermined by judges in many ways, which include giving ruling on interlocutory applications, instead of doing so while delivering judgement in the substantive case. The abuse, says a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Itse Sagay, constitutes “gross misconduct deserving of sanctions by the NJC.”
It is an unworthy judge that waits for the life-span of a legislative tenure to end, before delivering judgement on a pre-election matter. These and more justify the demand for a paradigm shift in judicial personnel recruitment. Those entrusted with the task have woefully failed the country.
While Aloma-Mukhtar and Mohammed may have expressed their anxieties, which others share, howling over the matter does not solve the problem. The beneficiaries of such flawed appointments should be fished out and sent packing. It is just like the efforts by states to cleanse their payroll by sacking workers who got into the civil service through the back door.
This remedial step makes sense. The depravity should not be like the “billionaire judges” the late jurist, Kayode Eso, bemoaned; or the corrupt judges that a SAN, Femi Falana, says information on them freely circulates within lawyers circles. The country should abort this rot by ensuring that judges pass through the furnace before their appointment, for a better society.