Abia State Attorney-General, Umeh Kalu
Last week, Chief Justice of Nigeria Aloma Mariam Mukhtar declined to swear in Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofor, one of 12 newly appointed Justices, as a Justice of Appeal Court. The apparent basis was that Justice Jumbo-Ofor could not represent Abia State as she hails from Anambra State. Her husband however hails from Abia State and she has served in the Abia State Judiciary for 14 years. In addition Abia State Governor, Theodore Orji, made spirited efforts to save her nomination as his State’s representative for the Court of Appeal.
The decision has once again raised the vexed issue of the right to freedom from discrimination as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution. It has also once again, redirected focus on the plight of married women in public service whose spouses hail from a state other than theirs. It has also reignited debate on whether federal character or state of origin are still relevant for our times.
As the controversy raged, Tobi Soniyi reached out to Abia State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Umeh Kalu, who expressed confidence in the ability of the CJN to resolve the issue even as he defended the much-criticised deportation of none indigenes of the state…
Can you explain the issues surrounding the refusal of Chief Justice of Nigeria, Aloma Mukhtar, to swear in Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofor a Justice of the Court of Appeal?
The facts surrounding the decision of the Chief Justice of Nigeria not to swear in Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofo with other Judges appointed to the Court of Appeal on Monday, November 5, 2012 remain sketchy. Facts available to us on the matter have mainly been drawn from the realm of public discourse but I can confirm to you that Justice Jombo-Ofo was invited to the Supreme Court the Friday preceding the Monday of the swearing-in, where issues on her state status vis-à-vis her appointment were raised.
The Government and people of Abia State are yet to get the full facts leading to her swearing-in being truncated. Let me quickly add here too that the issue of appointment of Judges basically reside with the various constitutional bodies created by the Constitution to handle such appointments and matters related thereto. The Governor of Abia State has no constitutional role whatsoever, moreso when this is a Federal Judicial appointment.
Having said this, I would advise that you approach either the Federal Judicial Service Commission or the National Judicial Council for the exact answer to your question.
Prior to the swearing-in day, was there any communication between the state and the CJN on the issue?
Correspondence and communication on appointment of Judges as it concerns States is normally handled by the Chief Judge who is the head of the Judiciary in the State. The Executive arm of Government does not interfere or interface with Federal Judicial bodies on appointment of Judges. To that effect, if there was communication between the State and the CJN it would have been handled by the Chief Judge of the State. I can however further add here that when the issue of the controversy over the State status of Justice Jombo-Ofo came to the knowledge of the Governor, he wrote confirming the fact that Justice Jombo-Ofo is a citizen of Abia State by marriage, has worked in Abia State as a Judge for about fourteen years and enjoys all rights and benefits of Abia citizenship. It was a confirmatory letter stating the above facts, made in good faith for the purpose of protecting the interest of a citizen of Abia State in the due discharge of his duty as Governor of the State.
What effort did the state make to resolve the issue before it became a national embarrassment?
From my experience as a member of my State Judicial Service Commission that handles the issue of nomination of Judges for appointment, I am aware that when vacancies are declared it is the duty of the Chief Judge to seek for recommendations from sitting Judges for persons to be appointed Judges. At the close of recommendations from Judges, the Chief Judge shortlists persons based on the recommendations, seeks opinion from the Bar branches and security agencies on the shortlisted candidates and forwards those recommendations with the views expressed on them to the Judicial Service Commission which would then review the shortlisted persons, vote on them on the basis of facts available to them on the suitability of those persons for purposes of their nomination to the National Judicial Council for final consideration and approval.
For Federal Judicial appointments, like that of Court of Appeal which is in issue, it is the Chief Judge that forwards a list to the President of the Court of Appeal and it proceeds from there to the Federal Judicial Service Commission and the National Judicial Council. The State Government, strictly speaking in terms of the Executive, has no input whatsoever and neither is the Judicial Service Commission of the State involved.
The State Government had no knowledge of the list sent by the Chief Judge neither were we aware of the names of Judges of Abia State that were being considered for elevation. The only time we got knowledge was when news filtered out about three weeks ago that the National Judicial Council had approved the elevation of two Judges from Abia State in the persons of Justice Onyekachi Otisi and Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofor to the Court of Appeal.
I must confess to you that our joy knew no bounds on the receipt of this cheering news as Abia State has for long been short changed in the appointment of Federal Judicial officers. It might interest you to know that prior to this appointment Abia remained the only state with only one Justice sitting at the Court of Appeal in the person of Justice Chidi Nwaoma Uwa while some states have as many as four and even five Justices.
So talking about efforts made by the State to resolve the issue before it turned into a national embarrassment, the State only got knowledge of the controversy as stated earlier two days to the scheduled date for the swearing-in and like I equally said earlier, the sketchy information we had was that clarification was needed on her status as an Abia citizen. This clarification the Governor availed without hesitation. The reason and wisdom underlying the Governor’s prompt action can be deduced from the many years of marginalising Abia State in Judicial appointments and we obviously did not want this opportunity to elude us.
How does the Abia State Government feel when the Chief Justice of Nigeria declined to swear in Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofor as a Justice of the Court of Appeal?
What happened on Monday during the swearing-in does not call for clinking of glasses for the Government of Abia State having come to Abuja to collect two trophies and ending up collecting one. In any event we are happy with the swearing-in of Justice Onyekachi Otisi and still hopeful that the remaining one slot which the appointing authorities in their wisdom and sense of justice, which I must say is commendable, gave to Abia State is still open to us and would come our way in no distant time.
Our feeling for the CJN remains that of utmost respect, unquantifiable love and prayers for her success in her job. The CJN, Justice Aloma Mukhtar, is a great jurist, a woman of acclaimed integrity and a respecter of rules. We trust in her sense of judgment and that of the revered members of the National Judicial Council. As a lawyer, I know it is not proper to jump to conclusions on issues especially when you do not have the full details and have not heard from all parties. As we speak, I am sure you will agree with me that the National Judicial Council of which the honourable CJN is the chairman and even the Federal Judicial Service Commission have not spoken.
The interest of our Government in all this remains that of the protection of all that is rightly due to the State and its citizens and nothing more.
Apparently, the CJN is not the appointing authority; does she have the power to refuse to allow Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofor to take her judicial oath when all formalities regarding her appointment have been formalised?
The appointment of a Judge whether at the High Court, the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court is a process that commences with recommendations, shortlisting, nomination, appointment, swearing-in and assumption of office. There are bodies and individuals entrusted with constitutional roles in all this. The office of the CJN is a highly revered one all over the world, Nigeria inclusive. I am equally an adherent to the tenets of maintaining the independence of the Judiciary and will not lend voice to any attempt in whatever guise to desecrate the Judiciary, its institutions and officials.
Like I said earlier, the facts leading to what happened on November 5, 2012 have not been fully made available to us and would therefore not want to join in the ongoing discourse in the public domain till we get the full facts.
It is common knowledge that Justice Mary Peter Odili used the South East to get appointed to the Supreme Court even though she had been using the South South before this. Nobody asked her to step down. Are there different rules for different people?
I do not have Justice Mary Peter Odili’s records and therefore am not in a position to know under which slot she got appointed either to the Court of Appeal or to the Supreme Court. I would advise you approach the National Judicial Council or the Federal Judicial Service Commission if you consider that useful. The issue of one’s official records are solid facts which can be gotten from relevant institutions. I do not want to indulge in unnecessary speculation.
Is there any justification, legally and morally, for the action of the CJN?
As earlier stated, I do not have facts leading to the CJN’s action and as such cannot comment on the justification or otherwise of her said action. I am equally not in a position to demand reasons from the CJN but I am sure in the course of time the CJN and the other institutions that she represents involved in the referenced appointment will avail the public the reasons for their action from where I will benefit.
Specifically, what does the Constitution say regarding the appointment of a person as a Justice of the Court of Appeal?
The relevant sections of our Constitution on the appointment of a person as a Justice of the Court of Appeal are Section 238(2) and 238(3). Section 238(2) places the burden of appointment on the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which appointment must be made on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council. Section 238(3) talks about qualification to hold the office and gives twelve years post call experience as a qualified legal practitioner as the minimum qualification.
As things stand now, it appears women's progress is being retarded because they marry outside their states. Should women be allowed to suffer on this basis?
In trying to answer this question, one may place reliance on the comments credited to Justice Adekeye JSC (rtd) made at her valedictory court session widely reported in the media where she alluded to the difficulties women judicial officers encounter in promotions as a result of a policy in the Judiciary where married women are considered for elevation through their state of ancestry or birth as opposed to their state of marriage. This appears equally to be playing out in the emerging scenario in the present case under consideration. Since Justice Adekeye from facts available to me was a Magistrate and rose from the lower bench up to the highest Court in the land - the Supreme Court, I believe she is most competent to comment on the said policy and possibly proffer advice on the review.
On a personal view, a policy that will ascribe a lady’s state of origin to her place of birth in considering her for elevation in fulfilment of our federal character equation policy against her state of marriage would likely work hardship on the lady. This is because at the point of marriage, the lady departs her state of birth for all times and purposes, except in the event of divorce, for her husband’s place and stays there till death and even thereafter as most if not all get buried there. It is equally easier to assess such ladies for capability for such offices from the states where they have spent all their adult life, which often times is their husband’s state.
Without prejudice to the foregoing, there are rules and regulations guiding institutions and bodies and persons who subscribe to such institutions and bodies must subscribe to those set rules and regulations. This however does not foreclose the need for a review of those rules and regulations where there is need to do so. I know that there are so many female organisations championing the interest of women even in the legal profession. They are better placed to appraise this policy and even others that are of interest to the women folk in the Judiciary and other arms of Government.
In your own view what is the best way out of this situation?
The Federal Judicial Service Commission and more especially, the National Judicial Council will address satisfactorily all the issues emanating out of the situation. It is entirely within their domain and they have the capacity to handle it. For us in Abia, our prayer remains that Abia be not denied that Court of Appeal slot in the interest of justice and in order to get us closer to those states that have four and even five.
Do you foresee the issue being resolved in favour of Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofo?
We remain prayerful on this and have committed our fate into God’s hands and the decision of the wise men of the National Judicial Council. Our interest remains irrevocably Abia State.
Could the refusal to swear in Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofo be seen as a fallout of the Abia State Government's policy of sending people back to their state of origin?
I am unable to find a nexus between the refusal to swear in Justice Jombo-Ofo and the State Government’s policy on state of origin. The appointment to the Court of Appeal which is a Federal Court is in the realm of federal appointments and has nothing to do with the State Government.
Maybe this question would afford me an opportunity to clear certain issues once more on the Abia State Government’s policy of trans-loading certain calibre of civil servants to their states of origin. Firstly, that policy was intended to reciprocate past policies of other states within the South East geo-political region to transfer Abia State indigenes working in those States back to Abia State. Enugu State was the first to send back Abia citizens, followed by Anambra and then Imo and Ebonyi. Imo State which is our sister State even sent back files of pensioners. Cross River State equally sent back Abia citizens. All these are verifiable.
Reciprocity is acceptable in international relations and even relations amongst States especially when one realises that Nigeria remains a federation with each State having some modicum of independence as permitted by the Constitution. This explains the federal character clauses in our Constitution and even the recognition of the geo-political zones. Federal allocations and even appointments at the federal level are based on states and zones. While the transfer of Abia citizens in other states to Abia was holistic ours was with a human face and born out of our desire at self preservation. Abia daughters married to non-indigenes were excluded, the disabled were excluded, wives of clergymen were excluded and other special cases. The said transfer equally was only in the civil service of the state and no more and the idea was to enable us reduce the workforce which was over-bloated as a result of returnees from other states into our service in order to have funds to pay the N19,000 minimum wage in Abia State.
The truth remains that the reciprocal action of sending back civil servants from Enugu, Anambra, Imo and Ebonyi would have long been done when these states sent back our indigenes to us but for the inordinate and obviously unachievable ambition of our immediate past Governor, Orji Uzor Kalu, to rule Nigeria thereby fallaciously masquerading as an Igbo leader and nationalist.
Will the state stand by Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofor or will another nomination be made to replace her?
It is not for the state Government to make nominations. It is entirely a matter for the Judiciary and by that I mean from the desk of the Chief Judge of the state through the President of the Court of Appeal, through the National Judicial Council and up to the appointing authority. Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofor is married to a prominent Abia son, has lived most of her adult life here and worked here as a Judge in the Abia State Judiciary for about fourteen years now. She is one of us.