Top lawyers including a one-time President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), OCJ Okocha (SAN) and an erstwhile Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Omotunde Ilori at the weekend expressed worry over the delay by President Muhammadu Buhari to send to the senate for confirmation the list of four Supreme Court justice-nominees recommended by the National Judicial Council for appointment into the apex bench.
The respected legal practitioners are contending that the delay in acting on the list is not only unprecedented since democracy birthed in 1999 but that it is also having negative impact on the administration of justice in the country.
Apart from Okocha (SAN) and Justice Ilori, others who spoke with our correspondent are former Attorney-General of Abia State, Prof Awa Kalu (SAN), a former Attorney-General of Osun State, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN) and a fiery human rights activist, Mr Ebun Olu Adegboruwa(SAN).
They all spoke with one voice that romancing the list by the NJC on the appointment of judges for nine months was too long and consequently appealed to Mr President to urgently act on the names to reduce the burden of the judiciary.
The Supreme Court presently has 12 serving justices, nine short of the 21 recommended by Section 230(1) of the 1999 Constitution.
News On The Go reports that in June 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari, through his spokesman, Garba Shehu, wrote Justice Tanko Muhammad, who was then the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), on the need to appoint five additional Justices at the Supreme Court.
He said: ”Pursuant to the provisions of Section 230(2) a&b of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), I am pleased to request that you initiate in earnest the process of appointing five additional Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria to make the full complement of 21 Justices as provided by the aforementioned provisions of the constitution, the president wrote.
”This is in line with the government’s agenda of repositioning the Judiciary in general and Supreme Court in particular for greater efficiency, with a view to reducing the backlogs of appeals pending at the Supreme Court.”
In response to the President’s request, the CJN, through the National Judicial Council (NJC) commenced the process of recruiting new Justices for the apex court’s bench, a process that materialised on October 23, 2019 when the NJC announced that it had recommended to the President, the elevation of four Justices of the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court.
Those recommended are Justices Adamu Jauro (from North-East), Emmanuel Agim (South-South), C. Oseji (South-South) and Helen Ogunwumiju (South-West).
The practice has always been that once NJC makes such recommendation to the President, he (the President) is required to forward names of those so recommended for appointment, to the Senate for screening and confirmation
The Senate will, in turn, write to the President on its position, following which the President will then convey his approval of NJC recommended appointments to it for the final inauguration.
But in the instant case, the list has been on Mr President’s table since October 23, 2019 and it is yet to be forwarded to the senate.
On enquiry, senior officials of the Supreme Court and the National Judicial Council (NJC) said both institutions have no say in the matter.
“Having forwarded its recommendation to him (the President), the NJC is functus officio (it has concluded its role). The most it can do is to send a reminder and await his action. Beside that, there is nothing either the Supreme Court or the NJC can do to fast track the process,” an official of the NJC said.
It was however learnt that Mr President could not act on the list immediately because he allegedly sent the names to the Department of State Service (DSS) for a thorough background checks.
But the unprecedented delay to fill the vacancies at the apex court, has triggered concerns in the judiciary, News On The Go investigation has revealed.
According to Chief Awomolo (SAN), “I hold the view that once the National Judicial Council has made its recommendations, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria does not have the powers howsoever, to further investigate the candidate; to further interrogate the qualification; to further examine the qualification or suitability or capacity or capability of a judicial officer.
“Tell me: What measure does he use? The president is not a lawyer. The Attorney General is not a judge. Even, if the president is a lawyer, he is not qualified to assess the capacity, capability and qualification of a judge. No. It is the judges at the NJC who can do that.
“But the dishonourable way our judges are being treated started with this regime in 2015. Before 2015, judicial officers are not treated in such a dishonourable way that they are being treated now. It is dishonourable for a man who has reached the peak of his career at the Court of Appeal aspiring to go to the Supreme Court only for somebody who does not even understand the law , who does not have the powers under the Constitution to sit on such recommendation of the National Judicial Council.
“We are now in the era of anything goes. Anything goes. After all, the Chief Justice of Nigeria was removed by an exparte order in the night which was declared to be illegal and unlawful by the Court of Appeal, yet the ex-parte order stands.
“Judicial officers are treated like ordinary civil servants like deputy directors and directors in the ministry. They are kidnapped, day and night and nobody cares about them.
“I believe that we have seen the worst of the treatment to the judiciary. And I believe that they should not go further. I am just wondering to myself what is the basis for not approving the appointment of the justices of the Supreme Court? What is the basis after their appointment by the NJC?
“Yes the Attorney-General of the Federation sometimes ago said the President was trying to investigate the credibility, the capacity or rather the security, suitability of judges. I disagree. That is the process that comes before NJC recommendation. And that will also come before senate approval. Why are we demeaning our judges? Why are we demeaning them? It is demeaning and frustrating,” he said.
Toeing a similar path, Ebun Adegboruwa (SAN) said: “It is rather unfortunate that this particular administration seems to delay in judicial appointments. It was the same experience we had with the former Chief Justice Onnoghen, whose tenure expired and was not renewed; it was the same experience we had with the present President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Dongbam Mesem. It took the intervention of outrage of Nigerians and lawyers before the appointment was confirmed.
“Now justices have been recommended for appointment to the Supreme Court for nine months now, and you know the consequences of that action is that, based on the decision in Orji Kalu’s case, they have to be careful with the kind of cases they do once a judge is already recommended for elevation.
“So, I think it is for all of us to appeal to Mr President in the interest of justice in order to decongest the court, the Supreme Court, in particular, to fast-track the process of judicial appointment.
“Once the NJC has sent the recommended list of nomination, it should not take more than a week for the President to pass it to the National Assembly or senate for confirmation. I think it is impacting negatively on the administration of the nation’s justice system.
“And I call on the Honourable Attorney General and Minister of Justice and the Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Affairs to ensure that the justices that have been recommended, their names are forwarded to the senate for confirmation in order to lessen the burden of the few justices there,
“It is important that we find a way to clear the backlog. As we speak now, the Supreme Court is currently hearing cases of 2008 and 2010 because of lack of manpower. I think this kind of delay is totally uncalled for,” he said
In his own contribution, Okocha (SAN): ”The constitutional provision as it is (on the appointment of judges) is adequate. Everybody expects that a responsible president will act on anything sent to him concerning the judiciary at the earliest opportunity and not delay the process because any delay will affect negatively the administration of justice which is expected to be speedy, efficient and effective.
“But the provisions on judges appointment in the constitution are okay. I think we should exercise a little patience. Nobody knows what is the internal workings of the Presidency and why the president has not acted. There is no time limit. All they want is the president’s confirmation. And it will come when it will come.
Also contributing, Justice Omotunde Ilori said the issue is simple.
His words: “It is not difficult. The CJN should see Mr President. He should book an appointment with him and discuss with him person to person. It is quite simple. The CJN can see Mr President anytime, then discuss it. I am sure the president will do something thereafter,” he rang off.
Corroborating Justice Ilori’s view, Prof Awa Kalu (SAN) also said “What I think should happen is that it is the Chief Justice as the head of the judicial arm who should now interface with the head of the executive arm and say: Look, this court cannot function. It is a matter of engineering an understanding.
“So, I have not heard that the Chief Justice discussed with the president and he refused. Even from what we read in the press, there are certain things on the president’s table that it takes some amount of time for it to come out. So, let us try out the technique of persuasion first.
“In my own view, if the legislature has some difficulty with Mr President, they pay him a visit. Is that not so? I think the judicial branch should also have some persuasive discussion with Mr President.