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Lawyers raise concern over judicial appointments

Lawyers have expressed concern over the recent nomination of 27 judges for appointment into the appellate court, saying the move smacked of sectionalism and quota rather than merit.

The list of nominees, made up of mainly judges of northern extraction, sparked debate on social media, with observers questioning the modalities for filling vacancies at the court.

Although, the director of information, Nigeria Judicial Council (NJC), Mr. Soji Oye, dismissed the list as fake, some stakeholders argued that the ‘authentic’ version would not be entirely different.

Oye said: “The council wishes to dissociate itself completely from the said list, as nothing of such emanated from it. Members of the public are also advised to discountenance the said list, which is nothing but a figment of the imagination of the authors. In the days ahead, the council will speak more on the ongoing process for the appointment of judges into different cadre of the Nigerian judiciary.”

But Chief Albert Akpomudje (SAN) said “exception” should be made to the use of quota in the appointment of judges “because it is bringing the standard too low for some part of the country. It is very sad. Those who are benefiting from the status quo see it as a birthright and don’t see anything wrong with it.”

He added: “In The Gambia, they have lawyers who could be judges, but because they didn’t merit it by experience and qualification, the chief justice of The Gambia was a Nigerian. The president of the court of appeal of The Gambia was a Nigerian.

“So, if a country like that can take a foreigner to head its judiciary, that means they know it is a special arm of government and nobody should lower the standard. A lot of our judges were chief judges in Botswana. We are trying to be too jealous of ours, thereby lowering the standard. This idea of lowering the standard for the north is not even helping them.”

Prof. Taiwo Osipitan (SAN) also stressed that appointment to the bench should be merit driven, “determined by three factors – past records, integrity and intelligence. What did you do when you were in practice and what did you do when you were at the bench? Then you must be intelligent. And above all, you must have integrity. There must be nothing about corruption on you. You must live a corrupt free life.”

Former attorney general of old Benue State, Chief Mamman Mike Osuman (SAN), however noted that quota is a constitutional clause. “Because it is a constitutional provision, quota system must be applied for judicial officers. But the provision is not qualified in terms of number. It just states that there is going to be a quota system.”

Osuman nevertheless added that the provision, notwithstanding, the NJC and the Federal Judicial Service Commission, which is made up of representatives of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the judiciary and public, must prioritise merit.

The second vice president of the NBA, Monday Ubani, said the appointments were designed to reflect federal character where “they always take from some areas where there are none”.

Abuja-based lawyer, Abubakar Sani, disclosed that the Court of Appeal (amendment) Act 2013 pegged the number of justices at 90 and that vacancies had to be filled according to geographical spread.

He posed a question to proponents of merit, asking: “How do you access the competence of the judge? Is it by the number of his judgments that the apex court affirmed? It is very difficult to measure a judge’s competence because under the constitution, once you are 10 years at the bar, you are qualified to be appointed a judge.”

Former president of the NBA, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), however downplayed the storm, insisting, “There is no controversy.”

He explained: “Beside merit, seniority follows, such that if we have two judges, one as the high court judge for 12 years and another as the high court judge for six years, the one that has stayed for 12 years will have a better chance.”

Noting that a key consideration was balancing appointments to comply with the quota system, he said: “Sometimes you may appoint 14 new justices of the court of appeal, but you find out that some zones don’t get at all because their quotas are full. And the reason why it is different is that resignation, retirement or death might have reduced the quota of a particular zone.

“So, when there are vacancies, you first top up the zones that have nothing. In this particular case, what happened is that the zones without representation are being topped up to meet a zone that already has major representation.”

He added that the clamour over the appointment might have been avoided had the NJC explained the process properly.

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