The only constitutional qualification for holding the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) is 15 years post-call practice at the Bar, an Awka, Anambra State-based lawyer, Chuks Nsobundu, has said.
The adoption of factors, such as seniority at the Supreme Court, tradition and ethnic balancing by the National Judicial Council (NJC), in appointing the CJN, according to him, did not make such factors constitutional.
Nsobundu said this while reacting to an Abuja-based lawyer’s views on the propriety of appointing the most-senior Justice of the Supreme Court (Justice W. N. Onnoghen) as the next CJN on the retirement of Justice Mahmoud Mohammed on November 10.
He said: “The Supreme Court of Nigeria and the office of the Chief Justice and Justices of the Supreme Court are created by Section 230 (1), (2) (a) and (b) of the 1999 Constitution.”
The appointment of CJN, he added, is strictly governed by Section 231(1) of the Constitution, which requires the President to do so on the recommendation of the NJC subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.
“On the constitutional qualification to hold the office of CJN, Section 231 (3) of the 1999 Constitution provides: ‘A person shall not be qualified to hold the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria or of a Justice of the Supreme Court, unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been so qualified for a period of not less than fifteen years.’
“Therefore, the only constitutional qualification for holding the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria is 15 years post call at the Bar.
“The makers of the Constitution have never made seniority or tradition one of the qualifications for appointment of the Chief Justice and this has been the position for many years,” Nsobundu said.
He explained that seniority could easily enthrone mediocrity which breeds corruption and ineptitude.
Nsobundu added: “In fact any practicing lawyer with over fifteen years post-call experience is constitutionally qualified to be appointed the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
“I am aware of one precedent. Dr. T. O. Elias was only a Senior Lecturer and not even a Prefessor of Law at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) when he was appointed the Chief Justice of Nigeria and he remained one of the best Chief Justices of Nigeria.”
He argued that it was only in the appointment of an acting CJN that seniority is provided for in Section 231 (4) of the Constitution, adding that by elementary rule of interpretation of statutes, Section 231 (4) does not govern the appointment of a substantive CJN.