Vanguard (Lagos)

11 November 2012

Nigeria: Our New Chief Justice Is Doing Well

opinion

One of the topical issues of the previous week was the refusal of Justice Mariam Aloma-Mukhtar, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) to swear-in one of the newly appointed Justices of the Court of Appeal.

The CJN reportedly based her decision on a petition alleging that the Judge concerned, Justice Jumbo-Ofo did not deserve the appointment on the grounds of State of origin. Many commentators especially politicians have loudly and publicly chastised the CJN for the decision. I disagree with them and commend the CJN for living up to her hard earned reputation.

What the critics have failed to realize is that the refusal of the CJN does not amount to a perpetual stop to Justice Jumbo-Ofo becoming a Justice of the Court of Appeal. The point which needs to be appreciated is that every petition ought to be examined before being endorsed or discarded.

The politicians who are against the stand of the CJN are perhaps inadvertently suggesting that to petition is a wasteful exercise. In other words, the contents of any and every set of grievances should be discountenanced without taking a look at it suggesting that there is no basis for petitioning in society. Of course, that can only happen in utopian societies where there are no claims and counter-claims and where there are no rivals and opponents.

One strong point in the arguments of the pro Jumbo- Ofo analysts is that the petition can affect the sanctity of marriage and indeed discourage family life in Nigeria. I, too, deprecate the rule whereby a woman is not allowed to benefit from a slot reserved for her husband's state of origin but we must not overlook the fact that it is because such a rule exists that people were able to put up the petition.

Therefore, what the critics should have done would have been to decry the rule and call for its abolition and not to expect the CJN to ignore it while it subsists. To do so, is to give room to our CJN to determine which rule she likes and should follow and which rule she dislikes and can ignore. Such a posture which places the determination of issues on the temperament of an operative does not augur well for society. That most people think that a rule is retrogressive does not make the rule to become non-existent.

I would have applauded Aloma's critics especially legislators if they had moved to 'kill' whatever enabled the CJN to take the position she took. After all, ours has been a pro-active legislature that knows what to do even with the critical principle of the "doctrine of necessity".

Rather than do that, public attention was instructively drawn to the attention of S 238(2) which says a person shall become a Justice of the Court of Appeal if he or she is appointed by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC).

It does not seem well thought-out to take the section to mean that nothing else including death can stop such an appointee from holding office. The same is true of the argument that the CJN being the Chairman of the NJC should have ensured that all issues were ironed out before the appointment was made.

This is because the argument takes a posture which suggests that any fresh information that comes to light after the appointment must be shut out forever- a trend which has for sometime now roped the nation in a toga of technical justice.

The provision of Section 285 of our Constitution which says that an appeal from a decision of an election tribunal must be heard and disposed off within 60 days from the date of the judgment of the tribunal is perhaps a good example of how technicality buried the substance in the case of the Adamawa Governorship election.

Our premise is that if a man says his opponent is a thief it is better for our justice system to acquit or convict the accused rather than to say the allegation should have been made earlier or that it was not written in a particular form. We need to go beyond technicalities in criminal matters.

This was why we commended elsewhere, the handling of the allegation that the Jigawa State Governor, Sule Lamido's qualification was fake. The case went up to the Supreme Court and at each level the Governor proved beyond doubt that the allegation was false and he won.

Thereafter, he sued his petitioner for defamation before the latter owned up to his mischief and begged for forgiveness. It was a veritable plus for democracy, justice administration and the rule of law that the judiciary did not use technicality to shield the Governor from the due process of law. If so, why should we crucify the CJN for seeking to investigate a petition? It is indeed naïve to argue that the CJN should have allowed the swearing-in of Jumbo-Ofo simply because the CJN is also a woman.

In other words, the CJN being female should condone any wrong allegedly done by or on behalf of a woman. To do so, is to place morality over a rule. It is heart-warming that Justice Aloma-Mukhtar is once more on the right path by not allowing the emotions of the moment to affect her guiding principles.

Let our politicians who are always jumping into conclusions recognize that whereas everybody can be a politician and hold all sorts of political positions, it is not so with being a judge. Accordingly, that the President appointed Justice Jumbo- Ofo and that she was duly recommended by the NJC; that the allegations against her appointment should have been cleared before the swearing-in day; that we are all desirous of giving women a chance and that Chief Justice Aloma being female should have led in the crusade cannot kill a petition.

Instead, the issues at stake ought to be thoroughly examined and appropriately handled before anyone can support or reject the petition. For now, it is dangerous to put undue pressure on Aloma who has shown at all times that she cannot be compromised. We therefore urge her to hold on to her duties with the diligence inherent in her outstanding virtues.

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