The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Mahmud Mohammed was distraught recently, against the forces trying to impose the next CJN, from outside the current panel of Justices of the Supreme Court. Thrusting forward, his shrill, piercing voice and ascetic bearing, the CJN thundered: ‘we shall resist’ the forces trying to subvert the traditional model of succession to the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
His outburst reminds one of the biblical story of Jesus and those who commandeered God’s house for illicit activities. According to Matthew 21v13 (GNB): “It is written in the scriptures that God said, ‘my temple will be called a house of prayer.’ But you are making it a hideout for thieves.” In that encounter, Jesus reportedly scattered the wares of the imposters, upturned the tables of the money changers, and reclaimed the house of God.
From his tone, the CJN is afraid that imposters are about to take over the judiciary. But while the CJN can rebuke the impostors for their effrontery, he lacks the capacity to use a whip to scatter them and upturn their plans. So he warns: ‘we shall resist the attempt’. The CJN also appeals to common sense, as he declared that such act of imposition would open up the position of the CJN to lobbyists with all the implications for our country, which depends on judicial integrity and impartiality.
The learned jurist was speaking at the special court session to mark the beginning of the 2016/17 legal year. He reminded the august gathering that the current legal year would be his last, considering that he is set to retire by November. If the judicial tradition is followed, Justice Samuel Onnoghen, who according to media reports has already been recommended, by the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) to the NJC, would become the next CJN, when Justice Mohammed bows out, after clocking 70 years.
While acknowledging the possibility of appointing a CJN or a Justice of the Supreme Court from outside the bench, the CJN reminds the nation of the prevailing tradition, for the last three decades. He referred to section 231 of the 1999 constitution, as amended, which provides on the procedure for appointing the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
By that provision, a Justice of the Supreme Court or the CJN can only be appointed by the President, on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC), and subject to confirmation by the Senate. With such a clear provision of the constitution, how would those flying the kite of appointing a CJN from the blues hope to achieve their game plan? Or do they not care, about the crisis that would follow such a confrontation?
My take: considering the inability of the executive and the legislature to keep its own house in order, it is dangerous to encourage the President or the National Assembly to attempt to impose their preferred candidate to head the judiciary. Such a revolutionary thrust could have been encouraged were there clear and compelling reasons in our national interest. But of course, I believe there is the need to restructure our judiciary, which I shall come to later.
Now, with the CJN vowing that the judiciary would confront any imposition, and the forces of the imposition pushing their agenda, the fallout may gift us an imbroglio, similar to what happened in Rivers State, few years ago. There, following a disagreement between the NJC and the state government under Rotimi Amaechi over who should be appointed the Chief Judge of the state, the state operated without the judiciary for several months.
Such a recourse would be very damaging to our country in addition to all the challenges we currently face under the recession. So, I advise the President to concentrate his efforts at managing the economic crisis and resist the temptation to open another avenue for confrontation amongst our beleaguered leaders. The best the executive government can do is to transparently use the law enforcement agencies to monitor the judiciary and where appropriate, take necessary steps to enforce a sanction.
For this column, a major challenge facing our legal system, is the centralization of the hierarchy of the courts, viz a viz the issues they adjudicate upon. In my humble view, the jurisdiction of our courts should be unbundled, so that matters which fall within the purview of a state would be treated, exclusively and exhaustively by a hierarchy of state courts. Some people may prefer to call it, federalizing the judicial system.
For instance, it is inefficient for a state to make a basic law on landlord and tenant, stealing, robbery, payment of rates, etc.; and then have federal courts, such as the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court adjudicate on them. Perhaps, if the present government has shown revolutionary tendencies in realigning the judiciary, maybe the CJN and the NJC could be persuaded to support an ‘outsider’, if such a person will clearly bring greater efficiency to our judicial system.
Under such a change agenda, a hierarchy of federal courts would concentrate its judicial efforts on enforcing fundamental human rights, federal laws, laws affecting interstate commerce and businesses, etc. In my view, one of the reasons why the judicial process is too expensive for the majority of ordinary Nigerians is because the appeal process is beyond the reach of that majority. By this I mean, both the costs of prosecuting a case, and the absence of filial interests, on the part of the court personnel, expected to have significant interest in the quick dispensation of the cases.
Conversely, the privileged few get an undue advantage from the bogus court processes, especially when charged for corrupt practices. For instance, under our unworkable judicial process, a person may be accused of stealing the resources of Bayelsa State, or of committing an electoral offence against that state, but he is taken before a court in Abuja, presided over by persons who may have barely heard of Bayelsa State, and who will never bear the effects of the cruel acts of the accused; and we all pretend that it does not matter.
So, under our present judicial system, while some cases concerning the elites make it from the High Court to the Supreme Court within few years, the majority of cases languish on the road to the apex court, for decades. Of course, such languorous processes, are classical examples of justice delayed, which is justice denied. Perhaps, if the present government shows revolutionary enthusiasm in changing these clogs affecting our national development, maybe there will those willing to push for a fire spitting new CJN.
I guess that if you ask those pushing for a CJN from outside the current panel of Justices of the Supreme Court, they would insinuate the need to reinvigorate the fight against corruption, as their reason. Yet, within the present federal executive and the legislative arms, the stories making the rounds about corrupt practices are very disheartening. So, will it be a case of the judiciary yelling at the two other arms of government: ‘physician heal thyself.’ Or, perhaps as the Book of Ecclesiastes, says, there is time for every time, including ‘a time for war’?