By Idowu Akinlotan

IN recent times, the process of appointment of judicial officers in Nigeria has become unnecessarily untidy and controversial for lack of transparency and integrity. There seems to be a total absence of rules and guidelines on selection and appointment of such officers. Nothing exemplifies this better than the current process of appointment of Justices to the Court of Appeal, a process that is said to have been politicised, ethnicised and unfortunately discredited.

It has ignited condemnation and dismay from a cross-section of the Nigerian legal community, including distinguished legal practitioners and jurists, for lack of transparency and due process. After the FCT High Court’s deplorable and scandalous selection of judges last year, which led to litigations, it was thought that an introspective Nigerian Judiciary would, in future exercises, ensure that such a disastrous outing was not repeated. Regrettably, the ongoing exercise is not anything different, if not worse. Reports suggest that the process has been hijacked by politicians, particularly a few powerful interest groups. A leaked list of shortlisted candidates has been circulating for days, inviting such candidates for interview at the National Judicial Council (NJC). The list has generated both controversy and public outrage.

In recent years, the Nigerian judiciary has come under attack and criticisms. Concern has been expressed about the efficiency, effectiveness and transparency or otherwise of Nigeria’s judicial system. Indeed, the general perception of the public is that the judiciary is corrupt, a sentiment stridently given wing by President Muhammadu Buhari himself in his first year in office. Nigerians were certain he would either institute or encourage reforms that would sanitise the judiciary, particularly the appointment of judges at all levels. No reform has been attempted. Indeed, the problem has worsened. And, gradually but steadily, the confidence of the public in the judicial system is being eroded. Many judges are perceived as incompetent and lacking in integrity. This perception puts the administration of justice in grave danger and calls for urgent rescue efforts. One of the nagging problems militating against the establishment of a credible justice delivery system in the country is clearly the process of appointment of judges. The Nigerian judiciary operates an obsolete and mystifying process that compromises excellence and downplays the critical role of integrity. Mediocrity is thus enthroned. Hard work, integrity and diligence are sacrificed on the altar of expediency, religion, ethnicity and state of origin. A judiciary founded upon such parochial and galling considerations cannot raise its head in the judiciary of the civilized world.

In her desire to eschew the old paradigm, the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem, reportedly set about the task of getting the best hands for the court with a view to repositioning it for effective and efficient justice delivery. A vigorous exercise of screening was consequently embarked upon. The screening exercise at the Court of Appeal, sources say, involved two different committees of eminent jurists supervised by the President of the Court. The outcome of the exercise was the shortlist presented to the Federal Judicial Service Commission, (FJSC), by Justice Dongban-Mensem, in consonance with the established practices and procedure. However, sources said the shortlist was whimsically discarded and capriciously replaced with another list, now in circulation, in total disregard and abhorrence to merit and excellence, under the guise of federal character. The good work done by the eminent jurists of the Court of Appeal, including the Presiding Justices of the Court,was utterly rubbished and discarded with impunity by powerful interests at the FJSC.

It became clear that the FJSC had its own peculiar notion of federal character, which permitted it to brazenly load up its list with candidates from a particular section of the country and religion. From the leaked official document containing the FJSC’s shortlist, in circulation in the past one week, thirteen out of the twenty candidates shortlisted came from the northern part of the country, with three Khadis prominently featuring, while seven came from the South. Most intriguing and unfathomable is that, of the thirteen candidates from the North, none is a Christian. Is the FJSC telling Nigerians that there are no Christian judges in the whole of the North considered fit and proper for elevation to the Court of Appeal? It must worry every patriot that a process of appointment of Justices to a crucial court like the Court of Appeal can degenerate to primordial and debased level in 21st Century Nigeria. It is left to the NJC in its supervisory role of all judicial appointments, if it is as scandalized as the rest of the country, to properly interrogate this element and rectify the plunge to the abyss.

The enormity of the desecration of the process that took place at the FJSC has even attracted the attention of the public, civil rights’ organizations and ethnic nationalities who now call and clamour for the cancellation of the FJSC’s list by the National Judicial Council (NJC), as it is considered a complete deviation from the rules and guidelines prescribed by the Council. The observation of the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum (SMBLF) in faulting the list is poignant. Describing the list as appalling, the Forum noted, “It is quite surprising that, of the 20 candidates on the preferred list, all the candidates picked from the North exclude Christians but include three Khadis for a court that needs experts in various areas of law, including customary law.” The Forum, while threatening a law suit, asserted that “we cannot accept that a multi-ethnic and religious country is being treated in this way. It is therefore demanded that the National Judicial Council (NJC) should trash the FJSC list immediately for the original list prepared by the President of the Court of Appeal.” In its own petition to the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), the Global Integrity Crusade Network (GICN) called for the cancellation of the entire process that produced the controversial list. It remarked: “Our Global Integrity Crusade Network (GICN) is aggrieved to note that the Federal Judicial Service Commission under your leadership has decided to recklessly desecrate the judiciary, which should be the last hope of the common man.”

The importance of transparency in the process of appointment of judicial officers is indispensable. It is a principle that should permeate every stage of the selection and appointment process of judicial officers. This is crucial in order to ensure public confidence and, by extension, the legitimacy of the process. A lack of transparency at any stage leaves the process vulnerable to perceptions of manipulations, improper reasons for the selection of unqualified candidates and similar shortcomings. It is, therefore, a serious challenge to the CJN and the NJC in the ongoing exercise to ensure that henceforth, appointments to the higher bench in the country are based on objective and verifiable factors.They can achieve this by making the judicial appointment process more transparent and merit-based. The process must not only be transparent but manifestly seen to be so. And, of course, the yardsticks of measurement of appointment should include excellence, competence, integrity, special skill, comportment and notable contributions to the advancement of law. The competence and integrity of a judge are basic elements that form the bedrock for the enthronement of justice.

The legal profession, consisting of the bar and bench, provides the exclusive pool from where judges are drawn. But, regardless of where a judge is appointed from, the bar or bench, more attention should be paid to professional competence and personal attributes. High professional and moral qualifications should be viewed as inextricably intertwined, because without doubt diligence, conscientiousness, fairness, responsibility, critical thinking, tolerance and honesty have direct effects on the actions and decisions of a judge. At every point in time, a process of appointment of judicial officers should produce the best the legal profession can offer. The current exercise should not be an exception.

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