When The Chief Justice Brings The Judiciary To Ridicule

When The Chief Justice Brings The Judiciary To Ridicule

 By Chidi Odinkalu

The appeal by the JRP against this judgement has been pending since November 24, 2020. Meanwhile, for his efforts, Okon Abang got elevated to the Court of Appeal in October 2023 along with the nephew of the Chief Justice.

ON February 27, 2024, Nigeria’s National Judicial Institute, NJI, in Abuja opened a continuing education course for judges. The opening featured an address by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Olukayode Ariwoola, who invited the participants to eschew “unethical conduct that could expose the judiciary to ridicule.” Beneath his text, it seemed as if the Chief Justice desired to warn the participants to stay away from interfering with a brief that he has chosen to make entirely his own. Under his watch, judicial appointments in Nigeria have become farcical.

 The fortnight before this address, it emerged that the CJN’s daughter-in-law, Oluwakemi, was at the top of a list of 12 nominees to fill judicial vacancies in the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, FCT. In the preceding six months, he had also appointed his son, Kayode Jr., as a judge of the Federal High Court; elevated his nephew, Lateef, to become a Justice of the Court of Appeal; and made his own blood brother, Adebayo, the auditor of the National Judicial Council, NJC, which he chairs in his capacity as the CJN. With this CJN’s retirement from office due on August 22, 2024, the concerted effort to anoint his daughter-in-law to the bench would presumably showcase his credentials for gender equity within his family. Let’s not digress though.

  That these appointments have occurred when they did is no coincidence. They are spoils of office for the CJN. Nor is it any coincidence that the same list that proposes the CJN’s daughter-in-law for appointment as a judge of the High Court of the FCT also contains the names of the daughters of the Chief Judge of the FCT, Hussaini Baba-Yusuf; and of Ariwoola’s predecessor in the office of the CJN, Ibrahim Muhammad Tanko.

 As a federal institution, however, section 14(3) of Nigeria’s Constitution requires that appointments to the High Court of the FCT “shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity, and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from a few State or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that Government or in any of its agencies.” If these nominations in favour of the children of the Chief Judge of the FCT and the CJN were to be implemented, then their respective states, Kogi and Oyo, will have three judges on the bench of the court while a state like Ebonyi would have none.

 It requires no original insight to understand that this kind of outcome is hardly compatible with the requirements of Federal Character. Sadly, the senior judges who are supposed to protect this high constitutional value are the people willfully endangering it.

  Last month, Azubuike Oko, a lawyer from Ebonyi State, sued accusing the CJN and the Chief Judge of the FCT High Court of unconscionable insider-dealing in judicial appointments. In response to the suit, the CJN and his satrap in the FCT High Court did not bother to confront the serious allegations levelled against them. Instead, they sought to disqualify Mr. Oko from litigating the issue by arguing that he lacked the standing to sue, claiming, contrary to a long line of relevant jurisprudence, that he had not suffered any personal injury.

 On March 15, the Federal High Court in Abuja presided over by Inyang Ekwo, upheld these shameful objections by the CJN and the Chief Judge of the FCT High Court. According to the judge, in order to establish standing to question this high racketeering in judicial office by the two officials responsible for stopping it, Mr. Oko needed to show “how the appointment being considered by the defendants has affected him as a person…. This, he would have done, by showing that he applied to be considered by the defendants for appointment but he was ‘routinely excluded and marginalized.” How he was supposed to show this in a situation in which the CJN and the heads of courts who work under him will not allow a fair and credible process of judicial recruitment, only the judge can tell.

 This is the latest in a line of cases in which senior judges use their offices to steal judicial appointments for their children or mistresses and then use lower court judges to make it legal. In 2020, the Justice Reform Project, JRP, an entity comprising several Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SANs, sued to restrain former President, Muhammadu Buhari, from going forward with the appointment of 21 persons to the bench of the High Court of the FCT who, according to the JRP, “failed to meet the mandatory requirements under the NJC Procedural Rules.” That round of hires, like the latest, was bounty for judicial insiders. On September 30, 2020, Okon Abang, then a judge of the Federal High Court, ruled that the “JRP lacked the legal right to challenge the NJC’s actions and that the National Industrial Court and not the Federal High Court was the proper court to approach as it was an employment-related case.”

The appeal by the JRP against this judgement has been pending since November 24, 2020. Meanwhile, for his efforts, Okon Abang got elevated to the Court of Appeal in October 2023 along with the nephew of the Chief Justice.

  The JRP are not the only SANs openly scandalised by what the CJN and his colleagues are doing with judicial appointments. In January 2024, seven SANS from Kogi State sued the State Chief Judge, Josiah Majebi, and the Kogi State Judicial Service Commission, alleging egregious perversions in the nominations into high court vacancies in the state, including the nomination of a wife of the then outgoing governor of the State, Amina, whose only claim to the nomination appeared to be her marital relationship with the then incumbent in the office of the Governor. The SANs effectively claimed that the effort by the Chief Judge of Kogi State and the Judicial Service which he chairs, to nominate Amina Bello as a judge of the Kogi High Court was meant as a parting gift to the state governor, who was term-limited, making it clear that this was not a lawful or relevant factor in the exercise of powers of judicial appointment.

  While this case is pending, the NJC has suspended the process of appointment of new judges in Kogi State. In neighbouring Edo State, however, the appointment of new judges is suspended by the ego of Governor Godwin Obaseki. In June 2023, the NJC approved the appointment of eight new judges to the High Court of Edo State. Over eight months later, the Governor has refused to consent to their appointment or to swear them in. Adaze Emwanta, a former Commissioner in Governor Obaseki’s cabinet, sued late last year seeking to compel the Governor to formalise these appointments.

  A manifestly unwilling Governor Obaseki has chosen instead to use the case as his excuse for refusing to appoint them. While the case pends, these judicial nominees waste. Because they have been nominated as judges, they can no longer undertake legal work to subsist or earn. But because they have not yet been formally appointed as judges, they cannot be paid in that role. In effect, Governor Obaseki does more than merely choose not to appoint them as judges. He has chosen to destitute them and ruin their lives.

  While all these scandals unfold, the leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, under the presidency of Yakubu Maikyau, SAN, has chosen to toe the path of eloquent silence. The president of the NBA is a member of the National Judicial Council and he is entitled to nominate three other representatives of the Association into that body. For the record, the stated motto of the NBA supposedly is “promoting the rule of law”.

A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at chidi.odinkalu@tufts.edu

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