Stemming the resurgence of bad blood in the judiciary echelons
By Vincent Auta
Anger, ill-feelings and recriminations are brewing in the upper echelons of the Nigerian judiciary. Some stakeholders in the judiciary, who are in the know are pointing fingers at the President of the Court of Appeal, Honourable Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa as the architect of the crisis.
Justice Bulkachuwa whose spouse, Alhaji Mohammed Bulkachuwa of the All Progressives Congress (APC) has won the senate seat (Bauchi North) in the last general elections is the first female President of the Court of Appeal. She was appointed President of the Courts of Appeal by former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, who was open and fair to all manner of persons, not minding religious and ethnic inclinations. No stumbling blocks were laid on the way to Bulkachuwa’s elevation to the office of the President to the Court of Appeal.
While being sworn in on April 17, 2014, the then Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar urged Justice Bulkachuwa not to drag the name of the judiciary in the mud. Hopes were therefore, that the Appeal Court, under Bulkachuwa, would see massive transformations. It was expected that she would bring innovations in the court and enhance speedy hearing of appeals from the lower courts and shore up public confidence in the judiciary.
Those who had reservations about impartiality and integrity of Nigerian judges heralded the coming of Bulkachuwa, equating her with the Lady Justice (Iustitia), the allegorical personification of the moral force in the judicial system. Many felt that the first female President of the Court of Appeal would blindfold herself, and with the balance and sword in her hands do what many men have failed to do and give Nigerian judiciary a new name. Whether Bulkachuwa has lived up to the people’s expectations is left to individual judgement.
However, recent happenings in the top hierarchy of the judiciary have elicited questions about governance in the judiciary with the topmost judicial officers – Bulkachuwa and the Acting CJN, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad in focus.
Mohammed who apparently is a Khadi (judge with interest in Sharia) was appointed Acting CJN in controversial circumstances by President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday January 25th, 2019 following abrupt removal of the CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen.
The bad blood in the judiciary escalated two weeks ago when a Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Sidi Bage was named the 17th Emir of the Lafia Emirate, Nasarawa State. Bage’s appointment as emir created a vacuum in the Supreme Court. Filling the space became a subject of high political and religious intrigues.
Lest we forget, the Acting CJN is a Muslim, the President of the Court of Appeal is a Muslim and the Chief judge of the Federal High Court is also a Muslim. Similarly, the security organisations are headed by Muslims. Likewise many para-military heads and other appointments made by the Buhari administration.
Those bothered with the matter have already accused Buhari of being clannish and running a government exclusive of non Muslims. Putting a country like Nigeria with multi religious, ethnic and regional groupings to this kind of treatment would definitely result in suspicion.
The judiciary is now subjected to the spoils by the attempt to remove Justice Bulkachuwa’s potential successor so as to stop her from becoming the President of the Court of Appeal after Justice Bulkachuwa’s retirement next year.
Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem is the next most senior judicial officer to Justice Bulkachuwa and should therefore, take the office of the President of Court of Appeal next year, but the Presidency, as usual would rather have this jurist who was twice refused elevation to the Supreme Court out of the way so the next jurist in rank, who is a Muslim will succeed Justice Bulkachuwa. It is a grand plan to keep only Muslims as heads of the judiciary so they will pander to the bidding of Islamists.
They think they are ingenious and smarter. Immediately Bage was announced Emir of Lafia, Justice Bulkachuwa quickly suggested that her potential successor be “elevation” to the Supreme Court. Curiously, the same Justice Bulkachuwa did not support her in the previous attempts to go to the Supreme Court. In her place, they picked fellow Muslims who were junior to go to the apex court.
I am one of those that would vehemently object to the acclaimed promotion of the Christian woman that is likely to break the Muslim line in the hierarchy of the judiciary. Justice Dongban-Mensem should reject the offer. Yes, going to the Supreme Court can give her satisfaction of reaching the apogee in her career but she should not be unmindful of the evil machination staring us in the face as the judiciary management becomes populated by people who have little or no regard for the common law and non Muslims alike. Majority of us who subscribe to the common law are worried that the judiciary is becoming the hope of the exclusively Muslims.
Though, it has been the tradition to pick justices in the Court of Appeal to fill vacancies in the Supreme Court, it is equally important to remember that the Court of Appeal should not be starved of experienced hands needed to give it the desired leadership. Justice Dongban-Mensem is sure one of the pillars that should be preserved for the Court of Appeal.
We may recall an incident in 2017 when a Nigerian Law School graduate caused near break down of law and order by refusing to take off her religious headscarf during Call to Bar.
Amasa Firdaus Abdulsalam was barred from entering the International Conference Centre (ICC) in Abuja on December 12, 2017 where the call to bar was holding. The Nigerian Law School said she had broken the dress code set by the school as Abdulsalam who was wearing her new gown, insisted on wearing the wig on top of her hijab. It was expected that our leaders would remain resolute, insisting that the young woman did as others did so as to preserve the norms and standards of the learned profession.
Conversely, our Muslim people, including those who should be custodians of the great profession bared their ugly fangs, instigating the lady to be more audacious. In the end, the University of Ilorin law graduate was called to bar in the fashion she designed for herself enjoying widespread support from the Islamic community. With this therefore, it means the Body of Benchers — the professional body concerned with the admission of students into the Nigerian Law School has approved the use of the Islamic apparel for the annual ceremony for new legal profession entrants.
What does this signify? If a worshiper of Sango turns up in their traditional apparel for call to bar, should they be admitted? These are the sort of things that confining leadership in the hands of a given group of people for a society with diversities can cause.
As for the next jurist to enter the Supreme Court, let the process be open. It should be by who desires to be Supreme Court justice, not by coercion. The judiciary has already had so much trouble on its hands especially in the recent past. It is needless stocking new fire at the moment, merely over who replaces a man who has gone to become a traditional/religious leader in his local area.
Justice Bulkachuwa and her associates should remember that Nigeria is a democratic state. People have the freedom to choose what they want and their decisions should be respected. We are watching!