The list of 22 justices of the Court of Appeal recommended for elevation to the Bench of the Supreme Court is generating controversy among senior lawyers and stakeholders in the Nigerian judiciary.
LEADERSHIP gathered that the list is already on the table of the chief justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, awaiting the next step. Sources in the National Judicial Council (NJC) and the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) confirmed this development to our correspondent. The source in the NJC further said the council members would meet before the end of the month to deliberate on the issue.
Already, some very senior lawyers have called on the National Judicial Council to consider merit in the selection of the final 11 justices that would be chosen from the 22-man list made public last week. Last week, this newspaper reported that the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) had nominated 22 Court of Appeal Justices to the National Judicial Council (NJC) for elevation to the Supreme Court Bench.
There have, however, been divergent views about the list among senior lawyers and stakeholders in the judiciary. For example, there are issues about the representatives of the South West on the Bench of the apex court. Until last year, there were two justices from Lagos State on the Supreme Court Bench. After Justice Bode Rhodes Vivour retired, Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun is left on the bench. Now there is another nominee from Lagos on the list released last week, Justice Adewale Abiru.
There has been outcry over the fresh list with many stakeholders saying that Lagos alone does not make the South West. But a senior advocate of Nigeria, Dr Ahmed Raji, said no issue should be made out of having more than one nominee from a particular state.
Saying that merit should be considered, he, however, admitted that there is an unwritten code in the selection of the justices: that each region should have three representatives on the Supreme Court Bench. Dr Raji said, “There is nothing strange in a state producing more than one candidate from a particular region. Justice Bode Rhodes Vivour used to be there with Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun and nothing happened.
“You take the best from each region whether they are from Lagos, Abia or Kano. Two former CJNs, Justice Mariam Aloma Mukhtar and Justice Dahiru Musdapher, used to be there and they are all from Kano; what matters is merit and competence.” Another senior lawyer, Abdul Balogun, agreed with Dr Raji that merit should have preference over any other consideration; other considerations for the appointment should be secondary because these are people that will determine the fate of Nigerians one way or the other.
He called on the NJC members not to allow anyone to influence their decision in selecting the best for the country. “At this point, among the NJC members, I know the pressure will be much on them to consider a particular candidate or the other, but I want to say that they should look at the larger interest of the country to pick the best that can further advance the interest of the justice system in the country.
“These justices that have been nominated will have the opportunity to decide the fate of some Nigerians, therefore, the NJC cannot afford not to get it right. They must not allow external pressure to determine the outcome of their selection. They should not forget that any mistake in getting it right in the selection of the best among the 22 will rub off negatively on the justice system in the country,” he said.
Constitutional lawyer, Barrister Paul Omoluabi, said there is nothing wrong in having all the justices from a state in a particular region; however, the appointment should be balanced because of the peculiarities of the country. He said the NJC should be totally independent in order to choose the best among the 22 justices nominated for the appointment.
Omoluabi said, “In the appointment of the justices of the Supreme Court, they give considerations to the geo-political zones, experience and other things. The Constitution has clearly provided for the appointment of justices of the Supreme Court and the NJC has a major role to play in the appointment of these justices. “The council has several roles to play because they have to consider their qualifications, federal character and, most importantly, their service years at the Court of Appeal. It is in this court that you can have those with rich experience who can be elevated to the apex court.
“After all these are done by the NJC, they can now make recommendations to the president who will now send the names to the Senate for confirmation. “The NJC should be independent enough to make recommendations on the appointments. The president still has so much power with him overseeing the activities of the judiciary and we talk about the doctrine of Separation of Powers. But basically, it is the duty of the NJC to search for the CVs of those who are qualified and also look at their years of experience, political zones; and in considering geo-political zones, each region should be well represented because of the peculiarity of the country we are – all of them cannot come from one zone. “If we have all the justices from one zone, it doesn’t really matter because we are trained to be lawyers but because they are human and can easily be influenced by where they come from, we should find a way to balance it.”