The Senate Wednesday added its voice to the mounting condemnation of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Aloma Mukthar, over her refusal to swear in the Abia State nominee to the Court of Appeal, Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofo, on the grounds that Abia is not her state of origin.
Following a debate on the issue, the Senate resolved that Justice Mukthar must swear in Justice Jombo-Ofo as a judge of the Court of Appeal without delay, having satisfied all due process for such appointment.
However, THISDAYlearnt that Justice Mukthar, in refusing to swear in Justice Jombo-Ofor, may have relied on an arcane clause in the Federal Character Commission Act, which provides that a married woman shall continue to claim her state of origin for the purpose of implementation of the federal character formula at the national level.
Senate President David Mark said the Senate arrived at the decision after a thorough consideration of the motion in plenary, brought to the upper chamber by the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu.
Speaking on the motion, which had the support of 109 senators, Mark said: "As far as there is no legal impediment to her taking the oath of office, she should be sworn in without delay.
"I think that we should do whatever we can to make sure that this woman is sworn in and to encourage other women to continue to remain married and continue to claim their husband's place of origin."
Senator Mark stated that the basis of her refusal to be sworn in on account of her state of origin was not tenable.
He said: "Truly marriage is for better and for worse, so if there is anything good in the husband's place and we say that the wife cannot take it, I think it is unfortunate.
"But more importantly, the sanctity of marriage could be destroyed by this act if we allow it to go," adding that it was the duty of the Senate to encourage professional women to maintain their jobs and keep their marriages.
He said the incident had provided an avenue for women to choose between their professions and marriages, which could have a negative impact on family values in the country.
Continuing, Mark said the CJN was crying louder than the bereaved, because Abia State had not complained about Justice Jombo-Ofo's nomination.
"If Abia State submitted her name, why should anybody else come and say she is taking Abia's slot?" he asked.
Senator Ekweremadu, who led the debate, said the CJN by her action, contravened Section 42 (1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
He said: "The above scenario put Nigerian women in very hopeless situations and most importantly contravene certain sections of the constitution."
While still expressing his displeasure, he said: "The practical implication of the decision by the CJN is that Nigerian women have lost all they have struggled for over the years and Nigeria will be taken aback 100 years."
He added that there are Nigerian women who have taken judicial, executive and legislative appointments representing the states of their husbands while they were in service.
"If this is allowed to stand, if care is not taken, these women may lose their jobs in the future," he said.
In his contribution, the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba (SAN), while seconding the motion, said what has happened had real life practical implications for him because his wife is an Igbo woman.
He cited the case of Justice Kanu Anya, who was the chief judge of Borno State alongside a Yoruba man as the Attorney General of that state, while the secretary to the state government at that time was also a non-indigene.
According to him, this was many years ago when he was a youth corps member, recounting: "Here, we are being told that an Igbo woman cannot have the opportunity in another part of Igbo land, in the same country where years ago an Igbo man could be CJ of a Northern state of Nigeria."
He said this development showed that the country was retrogressing, especially for the women and especially at a time when a woman is also the CJN.
Citing Section 238 of the constitution, he said: "The appointment of a person to the office of the Court of Appeal shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC)."
Senator Ndoma-Egba said Justice Jombo-Ofo should not only be sworn in but that her seniority should also be restored to her.
Commenting, Senator Uche Chukwumerije said he was sad because the victimised woman come from the same senatorial district as his.
He said: "This to me is a most ironic twist that it is under the captainship of a woman in the judiciary that a woman in the judiciary has suffered the most severe and most crude discrimination."
He said the rights of married women were as old as time, sanctioned by the constitution, conventions and traditional laws.
According to him, Chapter 18 of the African Charter provides for the protection of women's rights, "while here in the country, a married woman who is most qualified, is being deprived of such rights." He said the action of the CJN must not be allowed to stand.
Meanwhile, more facts emerged yesterday as to why Justice Mukthar refused to allow Justice Jombo-Ofor take the oath of office.
Investigations by THISDAY showed that the CJN was bent on ensuring that each state of the federation was represented in the appointment of justices.
According to a legal practitioner, she consequently relied on the guidelines under the Federal Character Commission Act called the "Guiding Principles and Formulae for the Distribution of all Cadres of Posts", which was developed in pursuance of the Federal Character Commission (Establishment, etc) Decree (1996 No 34).
Under Part 11, Clause 11 provides: "A married women shall continue to lay claim to her state of origin for the purpose of implementation of the federal character
at national level." This policy is also contained in Official Gazette No 74, Vol 84.
Justice Jombo-Ofor was said to have failed to state that she hailed from Anambra State and had put Abia State as her state of origin.
The representation by Justice Jombo-Ofor, THISDAY learnt, was discovered following a petition written to the CJN. When the petition was investigated (her file with the NJC was checked), it was discovered that she was from Anambra State and not Abia State as stated by the justice.
The CJN consequently found herself in an uncomfortable situation because the president had already approved the appointment and at the same time two other female justices had been screened out on the same grounds.
Justice Mukthar, thus, came to the conclusion that Justice Jombo-Ofor deliberately concealed vital information and should not be allowed to take the judicial oath.
The CJN was said to have been irritated by the fact that the NJC did not crosscheck the claim by Justice Jombo-Ofor, especially so, when two other female justices recommended for appointment into the Appeal Court bench were dropped for the same reason.
Justice Mukthar reportedly came to the conclusion that if two female justices were dropped on similar grounds, Justice Jombo-Ofor's case should not be different.
Investigations further revealed that Anambra State already has three justices of the Court of Appeal, while Abia has one, and to allow Justice Jombo-Ofor's appointment, would have been unfair, because Anambra would have ended up with four justices of the Court of Appeal while Abia would have had one.
Such an arrangement would have violated the "Guiding Principles and Formulae for the Distribution of all Cadres of Posts", a source explained.
Investigations also revealed that Justice Mukthar wanted to correct the imbalance in the appointment of judges, so that no state would be deprived of its fair representation in the nation's judiciary.
Irrespective, many have questioned the legality of the refusal by the CJN to swear in Justice Jombo-Ofor, calling it unconstitutional and discriminatory.