NJC’s Strong Message to Gombe

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The Acting CJN, Hon Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed

The position taken by the National Judicial Council against the Gombe State Government in its effort to truncate the seniority hierarchy in the appointment of the state Chief Judge is an indication that it is committed to protecting the sanctity of the judiciary, writes Davidson Iriekpen

The National Judicial Council (NJC) shocked the Gombe State Government last Monday, when it rejected Justice Muazu Pindiga as its nominee for the position of the state Chief Judge.

The rejection, THISDAY gathered, was the second time the highest judicial organ in the country would send the state officials away because of the Judicial Service Commission’s (JSC) refusal to comply with the directives of the council to include the name of Justice Beatrice Lazarus Iliya in the list of nominees being considered for the position being the most senior judge in the state.

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.

Investigation by THISDAY revealed that Justice Iliya’s travails started in August last year, when as the most senior judge in the state, rumours started making the rounds that she would be denied the Chief Judge after the retirement of then chief judge.

But to her surprise, 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, and by the time she thought her name would be sent to the NJC for approval or a renewal of her tenure for another three months as provided by the Constitution, it never happened.

At a meeting on 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 council 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 commission informed them that the NJC Secretary drew his attention to the lack of accompanying documents to the commission’s 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 Governor Yahaya appointed Justice Pindiga in acting capacity on December 4, 2019 and thereafter renewed it on March 4, 2020.

Since then, his appointment in acting capacity has been renewed four times. While Justice Iliya’s tenure in acting capacity was not renewed, 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 JSC headed by Justice Pindiga, on March 19, 2020 had a meeting where the state Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Zubairu Mohammed Umar, who served as pro-tempore Chairman, wrote a memorandum to the commission where 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.

Legal pundits believe that apart from the fact that it was unconstitutional for the Attorney General of 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,” but 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 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 to truncate the seniority hierarchy in the appointment of chief judges.

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.

But a number of organisations have risen in support of Justice Iliya. For instance, the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) has called on the NJC to continue to resist any attempt by the Gombe State Government to prevent her from becoming the substantive Chief Judge of the state on account of her sex and religion.

In its petition 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 JSC, where a female judge has been denied elevation to the chief judge of the state, ostensibly because of her gender and religion.

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.

Also, the Centre for Public Accountability (CPA), has called on the NJC to always stand firm in defence of female judges from perceived discrimination by some state governments, particularly in the appointment of a Chief Judge.

The Executive Director of the group, Mr. Olufemi Lawson, held that while it strongly believes in the council’s commitment towards protecting the sanctity of the judiciary and by extension, Nigeria’s democracy, it was disturbed by the worrying tendency of some state governments to truncate the seniority hierarchy in the appointment of Chief Judges.