There is urgent need to appoint ‘fit and proper’ persons to the apex court
The retirement of Justice Amina Augie, having reached the mandatory age of 70, has further depleted the number of justices at the Supreme Court to 11. Against the background that the 1999 Constitution (as amended) prescribes 21 Justices as the full complement of the court’s bench, the requisite number now falls short by 10. That has dire implications for the administration of justice and rule of law in Nigeria.
A single drop in the number of justices here brings about a sudden increase in our workload,” the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Olukayode Ariwoola recently lamented.
Speaking at a valedictory session held in her honour, Augie made the same point by decrying the workload that the apex court judges must deal with. She added that a constitutional amendment was needed to limit the cases that come up to the court.
“One remarkable day, we found ourselves entertaining an appeal in an unusual criminal case. Surprisingly, it was not the accused or convict who had filed the appeal. It was the state,” Augie recalled as she painted a pathetic picture of how the apex court is now being bogged down by all manner of frivolous cases. “The case involved an incident of arson where 12 goats were set ablaze.” When the Supreme Court of a country begins to sit over goats, then there is a problem.
As we have consistently argued on this page, beyond the issue of depletion in number, there are several concerns about justice administration in Nigeria that should be addressed.
While the National Judicial Commission (NJC) must ensure that the apex court is fully constituted with 21 Justices in line with the provision of the Constitution, we suggest a quick return to the glorious era of the Court when it comprised of vibrant judges appointed from the high court and court of appeal as well as from among law lecturers and lawyers in legal practice.
The apex court is the ultimate determinant of questions of justice in the land. Beyond it, the next level of appeal is to God! Therefore, the right of every citizen to justice, the entire principle of rule of law and equality before the law which are fundamental to the existence of a democratic order reside in the apex court.
Minimally then, those who are appointed must inspire in the citizenry and the international community a certain confidence derivable from the meritocratic rigour of their selection process.
Initiating the process for appointments into the court is the prerogative of the NJC. But many have also observed that the process is flawed ab initio. The first consideration is geopolitics, which is about where such nominees come from. After that comes the practice of elevating only justices of the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court.
The argument has always been that senior lawyers with pedigree and respected academics should be appointed to the Supreme Court to make it more virile. Furthermore, this may be the time to restructure the NJC in such a manner that removes it from being an appendage of the CJN.
Meanwhile, when the list of nominees is finally submitted to the Senate, the lawmakers must also recognise the enormity of their responsibility especially when it comes to the confirmation hearings.
The object of these hearings is first to reassure the public that persons nominated to become Supreme Court Justices meet the criterion of ‘fit and proper persons.’ In addition, such nominees must possess the appropriate requisite qualifications in a proven manner.
Reducing such hearings to the banality of ‘take a bow’ or asking questions that require no rigour will be nothing but a gross disservice to the administration of justice in Nigeria.