In a recent public outing, a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, sated that the rising culture of lobbying to influence appointments in the judiciary is capable of destroying the integrity of the judiciary if steps were not taken to curb it. Justice Mukhtar described as sad the negative impact of lobbying, favouritism and god-fatherism in the appointment of judicial officers.
Before one begins to wonder if there are no set rules guiding appointments of officers in the judiciary, it is instructive to note that in June 1998, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Commonwealth Legal Education Association, the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association and the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association held a conference at Latimer House, Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom. The conference drew a set of guidelines governing relations between the executive, legislature and the judiciary in the promotion of good governance, the rule of law and human rights.
At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held in Abuja in December 2003, the heads of government fully endorsed the recommendations of their Law Ministers on the Latimer Guidelines, which specify the Commonwealth principles on the accountability of and relationship between the three branches of government.
In Nigeria, the judiciary has assured in several fora that it has made significant progress by not only complying with the Latimer House Principles but also with the Bangalore Principles as well. It insisted that these have formed an important part of the ethical character that underpins the operation of the Nigerian courts. The commitment to higher ideals of impartiality, propriety, diligence and competence, among others, the judiciary boasted, are no longer mere watchwords but actual standards that the nation’s Judges have to attain.
The Latimer House Principles insist that an independent, impartial, honest and competent judiciary is integral to upholding the rule of law, engendering public confidence and dispensing justice. Indeed, Value 6 of the Bangalore Principles states that competence and diligence are prerequisites to the due performance of any judicial office. To secure these aims, judicial appointments should be made on the basis of clearly defined criteria and by a publicly declared process. The process should ensure equality of opportunity for all who are eligible for judicial offices and appointments on merit. Judges should be subjected to suspension or removal only for reasons of incapacity or misbehaviour that clearly renders them unfit to discharge their duties. These are what member countries are expected to imbibe.
The National Judicial Council (NJC), the apex body of the nation’s judiciary, is one of the Federal Executive Bodies created by Section 153 of the 1999 Constitution as amended. The Council is vested with enormous powers and functions, which no such institution in the 1979 Constitution or any other previous Constitution had.
By the provision of Paragraph 21 of Part One of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution, NJC is empowered to recommend to the president or governors from among the list of persons submitted to it by the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), Judicial Service Committee of the FCT and State Judicial Service Commissions, for appointment as Justices, Judges or Kadis of all the superior courts of record in the country. According to the NJC new guidelines on appointments, the council however interviews all candidates, Kadis, Judges, Justices for appointment to all superior courts of record to allow for competition among candidates and transparency in the selection mechanism for judicial appointments.
It is sad that despite all these rules and guidelines, lobbying, favouritism and god-fatherism still play major roles in the appointment of judicial officers in the country. This has been argued to be a norm in pluralistic, ethno-religious and democratic society like Nigeria. This is particularly so because unlike the Executive and Legislature that, in most cases, appoint their personnel and officers solely by themselves, all judicial officers’ appointment involve all the three arms of government.
We agree with Justice Mukhtar that if what held sway in the past must be revived, which is maintaining a strong and competent judiciary, then merit should be the watchword. We share the view for a change in the criteria for the appointment of judicial officers in Nigeria and therefore urge the NJC to begin to implement the 2014 Revised NJC Guidelines and Procedural Rules for the Appointment of Judicial Officers of all Superior Courts of Record in Nigeria.
It is worthy of note that part of the reform of the current CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, who doubles as the chairman of NJC is to ensure that the overall appointment procedure maintains the institutional integrity of the judicial appointment process so that only the most competent persons are elevated.
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