OPINION: Politics and the Court of Appeal, By Reuben Abati
The Court of Appeal is too important in the hierarchy of courts to become a playground for public prejudice and suspicion.
ADVERTISEMENTThe judiciary must stay above dirty politics; very far away from it. Its gates must be locked against politicians by all means possible. Nigeria already suffers from too much politics: The politics of ethnicity, religion, difference and mischief… there is cause for worry when the third arm of government, under the doctrine of the separation of powers, becomes a pawn in the hands of politicians…
It is most unfortunate that the proposed appointment of new judges for Nigeria’s Court of Appeal has been controversial since the announcement of a shortlist in December 2020. The President of the Court of Appeal,Justice Monica Dongban-Mensemhas now found herself in an uncomfortable situation where she has to defend the integrity of her Court and the process that led to the emergence of a list of 20 preferred candidates and another list of additional 20 reserved candidates. To have the judiciary dragged in the mud of Nigerian politics, and the usual culprits – ethnicity, religion, Federal Character and nepotism – playing a prominent role in the matter, is disheartening. Why is it so difficult in Nigeria to have at least one sacred institution, a special symbol, that no one can desecrate? As it is, that seems increasingly impossible.
I asked this question as I read a statement attributed to the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Dongban-Mensem over the weekend, in which she had cause to protest that persons who have been complaining about the alleged manipulation of the ongoing process of appointing judges for her Court, are seeking to destabilise and scandalise the judiciary. She argued that the appointment process has so far followed “due and usual process” and that the allegation of “favouritism” is a false campaign of calumny: “A total of 80 nominees were shortlisted and recommended for the appointment of 20 Justices to fill the existing vacancies. I state on my honour that any of the 80 nominees could be appointed”, she wrote. “It is unfortunate that some people have elected to go to the press without hard evidence which are readily available to those who seek to know. I hereby state that the current recommendation pending determination by the National Judicial Council was done without any preference for tribe, creed or association.” headtopics.com
The problem here is that many stakeholders and interested parties do not think so, Mi’Lord. Shortly after the list was made public, the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum (SMBLF) was one of the first groups to cry out in protest. The group alleged that the published list favours only Muslims from the North and does not in any way reflect the fact that Nigeria is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. Thirteen out of the 20 preferred judges are from the North, including three Sharia judges. The SMBLF asked to know if there is no Christian at all from the North and the Middle Belt, who can be considered good enough to be a judge of the Appellate Court! Along the same lines, a civil society group, the Global Integrity Crusade Network (GCIN) petitioned the Chief Justice of Nigeria to ask that the National Judicial Council should not go ahead to approve the “fraudulent” list before it. Stakeholders from the South East of Nigeria also cried foul. In a petition to the President of Nigeria and the Chief Justice of the Federation, the Alaigbo Development Foundation led by Professor Uzodinnma Nwala pointed out that the proposed list of new Court of Appeal Justices is meant to deny the South East its quota in the Court of Appeal on the basis of the principles of Federal Character as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution.
The ADF puts the matter thus: “…it is very unjust and unfair for only one Justice to be appointed from the South East out of twenty (20) justices that are being appointed from the six geo-political zones, whereas the other zones were allocated as follows: North West (8), North East (3), North Central (2) South West (4), South South (2)”. Before the ADF, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) also found it necessary to express “ïts feelings of sadness, disgust and anger at the insensitivity demonstrated by the FJSC in compiling the list. It seems undeniable that the recklessness displayed by the FJSC suggests a steady and gradual descend (sic) to a process of Islamising the Judiciary of Nigeria…”
It is possible to dismiss all of these as rather too familiar: The typical Nigerian response to appointments and processes in the public sector but it must be noted that protests such as this speak to a major crisis that Nigeria is now grappling with on a daily basis: The menace of ethnicity, religion and geography. For this reason, nobody believes that the country is fair to anybody. There is a crisis of trust between the government and the people, and among the people themselves. More than 60 years after independence, Nigerians have reduced every institution of state to the politics of proximity and advantage. There is a prolonged and unending struggle over who gets what, and who controls power. The effect is that this dominant tendency brings out the worst in all of us. The educated man in the North who is a first-class intellect is likely to defend a bandit who kills and maims just because he thinks that by doing so, he is protecting his kinsman against other Nigerians of different ethnic and religious extraction, who are insisting that justice must be done. Similarly, a Southerner of the same pedigree would defend his own kinsman against the Northerner for no reason other than the fact that they both speak the same language or belong to the same region or religion.
What is disturbing is that the judiciary, the last refuge of the common man, and the expected bastion of the rule of law, has now been dragged into the crisis of nationhood in a manner previously unseen. Before now, the Nigerian judiciary faced the challenge of military rule and the abbreviation of its constitutional rights. headtopics.com
This is the ugly drama being played out in Nigeria. It is not new but the melodrama is now tragic. What is disturbing is that the judiciary, the last refuge of the common man, and the expected bastion of the rule of law, has now been dragged into the crisis of nationhood in a manner previously unseen. Before now, the Nigerian judiciary faced the challenge of military rule and the abbreviation of its constitutional rights. It survived. Today, the same judiciary is now accused of everything from nepotism, to mediocrity, corruption, incompetence, complicity in the Nigerian mess and, if care is not taken, eventual irrelevance. The last point is the main reason why caution is advisable.
The judiciary must stay above dirty politics; very far away from it. Its gates must be locked against politicians by all means possible. Nigeria already suffers from too much politics: The politics of ethnicity, religion, difference and mischief. But whereas the involvement of the legislative and executive arms of government in cut-throat, dirty politics may be excused on the grounds that these two arms of government are dominated, unavoidably, by products of partisan politics, there is cause for worry when the third arm of government, under the doctrine of the separation of powers, becomes a pawn in the hands of politicians, or becomes even so openly mired in politics that its neutrality becomes a subject of analysis, speculation, and even protest. It is worse when the judiciary is accused of partisanship and desperately so. The court, the work-place of the judiciary, is expected to be a temple of justice and everyone who works therein, an honest, untainted officer.
It is the duty of the judiciary to interpret the law and ensure justice, and provide a refuge for all persons whose rights may have been violated, and at the same time, punish according to the law, those errant characters in society who violate the public order and return society by their conduct to the state of nature as defined by Thomas Hobbes. The law exists, therefore, to restrain animal conduct and remind all of us of the need to be human. The judex are at the apex of the ladder. Given the privileged position that they occupy, they are expected to be above board, unimpeachable in terms of integrity, most deserving of their positions and of such moral and professional competence to be able to deliver justice without prejudice. When the judiciary, however, becomes a target, subject, victim of partisan politics, or rank emotionalism, this goal cannot be achieved. A politicised and compromised judiciary is a threat to the same rule of law that it is required to uphold and enforce.Read more: Premium Times »
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