Davidson Iriekpen writes that consideration for gender and religion as criteria for appointment of a Chief Judge in states should be discountenanced by the National Judicial Council, before it destroys the judiciary
The International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) last week joined the growing list of persons and organisations drumming support for the erstwhile acting Chief Judge of Gombe State, Justice Beatrice Lazarus Iliya, who was recently denied the position of a substantive Chief Justice of the state by the state government.
Justice Iliya, who is the most senior judge in the state judiciary, served as acting Chief Judge of the state, but instead of confirming her as the substantive Chief Judge upon the expiration of her first three months or re-appointed in acting capacity, her junior was appointed as acting Chief Judge of the state.
FIDA has called on the National Judicial Council (NJC) to resist any attempt by the Gombe State Government to prevent Justice Iliya from becoming the substantive Chief Judge of the state on account of her sex and religion. In a petition to the council, the body of female lawyers lamented what it termed recurring discriminatory actions against female lawyers in parts of the country and vowed to resist the application of such if it is applied in the selection of a substantive Chief Judge for the state.
In a petition forwarded to the NJC and signed by its Country Vice-President, Rhoda Prevail Tyoden, and National Secretary, Evelyn Membere-Asimiea, FIDA drew the attention of the NJC and in particular, its Chairman and Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, to what it described as serious infractions by the state Judicial Service Commission where a female judge is about to be denied elevation to the chief judge of the state, ostensibly because of her gender and religion. The group, a body of female lawyers that also promotes, protects and preserves the rights of women and children, pointed out that several female judges who had been appointed as acting chief judges had been denied the privilege of rising to the pinnacle of being named the substantive chief judge of affected states and urged the council to put a stop to a such discriminatory and frustrating trend. It reminded the NJC “that Justice Iliya who is the most senior judge in the Gombe State Judiciary, and appointed acting chief judge, instead of confirming her as the substantive chief judge upon the expiration of her acting capacity, two other judges have been nominated and a far junior appointed as acting chief judge of the state.”
It also drew the attention of the NJC to the case of Justice Akon Ikpeme of the Cross River State Judiciary who, as the most senior judge was denied the appointment to the pinnacle as chief judge. It insisted that the conditions spelt out in Revised Rule 3(6) of the Procedural Rules of NJC required the consideration of the most senior judge for the position of a chief judge among other requirements, should be followed to the letters.
“The brazen injustice that is gaining grounds in most states against female judges who have worked hard and diligently to deserve an elevation is not in the interest of justice and is tarnishing the reputation of the judiciary. We, therefore, call on your intervention in the case of the appointment of the Chief Judge of Gombe State and stop the gender discriminatory act of the governor and injustice against Justice Iliya of the Gombe State Judiciary,” FIDA concluded.
Before FIDA rose in Justice Iliya’s defence, the judge herself had personally petitioned the NJC over alleged plot by the Gombe State government to scuttle her elevation as Chief Judge of the state. In the petition which was dated April 21, 2020 and titled, ‘Re-Presentation by Hon. Justice Beatrice L. Iliya in Respect of the Appointment of Chief Judge of Gombe State High Court,’ the embattled female judge chronicled series of events and actions of the state government aimed at stopping her from becoming the next chief judge of the state.
Her petition opened a floodgate of similar petitions from some interest groups and community leaders on the issue.
For instance, a community leader and human rights activist, Yakubu Sarma and Magatakadan Bambam, have both informed the NJC that the preferred candidate of the Gombe State Judicial Service Commission, Justice Mua’zu A. Pindiga, is by far a junior judicial officer to Justice Iliya.
Sarma, on his part, pleaded with the NJC under Justice Muhammad, not to accept the anomaly, adding that further credibility burden would be imposed on the judiciary by confirming Justice Pindiga. In his petition dated February 10, 2020 to the NJC, Sarma decried the recommendation of Justice Pindiga in place of Justice Iliya by the state JSC to the NJC for appointment as the chief Judge of the state.
Investigation by THISDAY revealed that Justice Iliya’s travails started August last year when as the most senior judge in the state, rumours started making the rounds that she would be denied the substantive chief judge position of the state, after the retirement of then chief judge.
Through a letter dated September 2, 2019, she was appointed the acting Chief Judge of Gombe State and pursuant to which she was sworn into office on September 4, 2019 in accordance with Section 271(4) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). She served for three month, without a renewal for another three months as provided by the Constitution from September 4, 2019 to December 4, 2019.
At its meeting of August 21, 2019 and by a letter ref. No. JSC/GMS/S/ADM/21/270 dated September 2, 2019, the state JSC shortlisted and forwarded her name as the preferred candidate and that of Justice Muazu Abdulkadir Pindiga, as reserved candidate to the NJC for recommendation to the governor.
However, while she was acting as chief judge, during her inaugural meeting on September 30, 2019 at the JSC, the Secretary of the JSC informed them that the NJC Secretary drew his attention to lack of accompanying documents to the JSC letter dated September 2, 2019, which nominated and forwarded the names, contrary to the NJC Guidelines and Procedural Rules, 2014.
The missing requirements were the comments of the Chairman of the NBA Gombe Branch, comments of former/retired heads of Court in Gombe State, report of the Department of State Service (DSS), Certificate of Medical Fitness and signed Curriculum Vitae of the candidates.
This led the state JSC to by a letter dated October 2, 2019, withdraw the nomination with a view to rectifying the anomalies before re-submitting the names. While all these were going on, her tenure in acting capacity was not renewed as the state Governor, Muhammad Inuwa Yahaya, appointed Justice Muazu A. Pindiga in acting capacity on December 4, 2019. and thereafter renewed on March 4, 2020.
She was shocked and surprised to discover that while she was waiting for the re-presentation of her name after satisfying all the requirements of the NJC guidelines, the state JSC headed by Justice Pindiga, on March 19, 2020 had a meeting where the state Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice, Zubairu Mohammed Umar, who served as pro-tempore Chairman, wrote a memorandum to the JSC whereby he excluded her name as a candidate to be re-submitted to the NJC.
Umar based his decision for removing her name on a petition written against her by an unnamed grain merchant complaining to the state governor. He also faulted her administrative skills, which he said was not at par with that of Justice Pindiga. The AG further contended that seniority is not a constitutional requirement for appointment of substantive chief judge, but a convention.
Based on this, the state JSC removed her name and shortlisted Justice Pindiga as the preferred candidate, and Justice Joseph A. Awak, as the reserved candidate without regard to the totality of the provisions of Section 271 of the Constitution read holistically.
Analysts believe that apart from the fact that it was unconstitutional for the Attorney General or the state or JSC to sit over a petition against Justice Iliya without giving her fair hearing, they argued that the powers of supervising, assessing and discipline of a judicial officer are strictly that of the NJC and not a political appointee or the JSC.
Section 271 and its subsections state unequivocally the modalities for appointment of a chief judge of a state. For instance, subsection 1 states “The appointment of a person to the office of a Chief Judge of a state shall be made by the Governor of the state on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council subject to the confirmation by the House of Assembly of the state.”
While subsection 2 states that “the appointment of a person of the office of the chief judge of a state shall be made by the governor of the state acting on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council,” subsection 3 states that “A person shall not be qualified to hold office of a judge of a High Court of a state unless he is qualified to practise as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been so qualified for a period of not less than 10 years.”
The icing on the cake is Subsection 4 which states that “If the office of the chief judge of a state is vacant or if the person holding the office is for any reason unable to perform the functions of the office, then until a person has been appointed to and has assumed the functions of that office, or until the person holding the office has resumed those functions the governor of the state shall appoint the most senior judge of the High Court to perform those functions.”
So the question begging for answer is where did AG Umar derive the powers to intervene in the process for selecting a chief judge from?
Justice Iliya is the most senior judge in the Gombe State Judiciary. She was called to the Bar in 1981, while Justice Joseph A. Awak and Justice Muazu A. Pindiga, were called to the Bar in 1983 and 1988 respectively. Information available to THISDAY revealed that the reason why Justice Iliya is being denied the position of Chief Judge is for being a female. Another reason is that Justice Iliya is a minority Christian.
Lately, it is becoming a norm in some states for the state governors to truncate the seniority hierarchy in the appointment of chief judges.
For instance, recently in Kebbi State, a female judge and former acting Chief Judge of Kebbi State, Elizabeth Karatu, was prevented by a Civil Defence operative attached to the state High Court from gaining access to her courtroom. The judge, who was billed to retire on July 5, 2019, was supposed to rule on cases on July 4, her last day in office.
Justice Karatu, until her retirement, was the most senior judge in Kebbi State judiciary, but was controversially denied confirmation as the substantive chief judge on the grounds that she is a Christian.
In Cross River State recently, the state government rejected the appointment of Justice Akon Ikpeme as the substantive Chief Judge on the grounds that she is not an indigene of the state even when she has lived all her life in the state, went to school in the state and married an indigene of the state.
Unlike the past when the NJC under Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar stood firmly against such actions, the council under Justice Tanko Muhammad has left these women vulnerable to the political manipulations and machinations of their state governors.
the question begging for answer is where did AG Umar derive the powers to intervene in the process for selecting a chief judge from? Justice Iliya is the most senior judge in the Gombe State Judiciary. She was called to the Bar in 1981, while Justice Joseph A. Awak and Justice Muazu A. Pindiga, were called to the Bar in 1983 and 1988 respectively. Information available to THISDAY revealed that the reason why Justice Iliya is being denied the position of Chief Judge is for being a female. Another reason is that Justice Iliya is a minority Christian. Lately, it is becoming a norm in some states for the state governors to truncate the seniority hierarchy in the appointment of chief judges