Why El-Rufai’s position on appointment of Judges is an imbroglio to the NJC

At the heat of the nationwide lockdown, the National Judicial Council, NJC, under the Chairmanship of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad held its 91st Meeting via virtual conferencing, where it among other proceedings, considered and made recommendations on the list of candidates presented by its Interview Committee. 

Seventy successful candidates were recommended to their respective state Governors for appointment as Heads of Courts and other judicial offices.

The NJC shortly after the listing of the new Judges, noted that all the recommended candidates would be sworn-in only after approval by President Muhammadu Buhari, and the respective state governors and subsequent confirmation by the respective State Houses of Assembly.

Among the Judges recommended were Justices Amina Bello, Ambo John, Rabi Oladoja and Andow Edward, whose names were sent by the Kaduna state Governor, Nasiru El-Rufai for the state. 

While performing the swearing in ceremony of the new Judges, El-Rufai suggested that the appointment of high court judges at the state level should not be within the purview of the NJC. 

He said the bottlenecks in the process are the NJC’s bureaucracy, which unduly delays appointment of judges.

“Though, only four were appointed, the state requires about 20 judges to compliment the current ones, who are overworked. Each of our High Courts in the state has a minimum of 200 cases, which is too much for them to handle and therefore, affect the administration of Justice.

“To this end, the State needs more judges as we have the capacity to make their work easier with the provision of housing and vehicles, among other necessary things to make their stay memorable.

“In my opinion, the NJC should only select judges for the appellate and Federal courts and leave the selection of judges for State high courts to an equivalent Council at the State level, either the State Judicial Service Commission which now appoints Magistrate or the State Judicial Council which select judges. We are trying to operate a unitary judiciary when we have a Federal Executive and Legislature, this needs to be corrected,” he suggested.
But the Kaduna governor was wrong in his own words. He may have merely made that suggestion from his ambiance at the time. 

The NJC as a legal body, with its procedural rules for appointment of Judges, makes for a carefully designed process which is indispensable in achieving an efficient and independent judiciary capable of commanding public confidence in the administration of justice, as well as promoting and protecting the rule of law and human rights. 

The judicial policy of the council ensures that appointment process is mostly transparent, merit-based and skill-based.

While rule two of the procedural rules for appointment of Judges implies that notice shall be given to state governorsconcerned stating the number of judicial officers to be appointed, the final powers for the selection process lies with the NJC. 

Every candidate who is shortlisted shall undergo compulsory interview to be conducted by the NJC to ascertain their suitability for the judicial office sought. The mode of the interview is determined by the Council, and the result shall form a major part of the decision on the candidate’s suitability. Hence, a candidate who is unsuccessful at the interview shall not be recommended for appointment by the Council.

“Whenever the Chairman of a State Judicial Service Commission proposes to embark on the process for appointment of candidates or a candidate to Judicial Office in the State, notice shall be given to the Governor of the State concerned stating the number of Judicial Officers intended to be appointed.

“A copy of the notice sent to the Governor or, as the case may be, to the Chief Justice/Chairman of the Federal Judicial Service Commission/National Judicial Council, shall be forwarded to the Secretary at the same time as such notice is given to the Governor or, as the case may be to the Chief Justice/Chairman of the Federal Judicial Service Commission/National Judicial Council as provided in Rule 2(1) or Rule 2(2).

“The Secretary shall upon receipt of the notice, advise the Chief Justice/Chairman of the National Judicial Council in regard to the number of Judicial Officers that can be appointed pursuant to the notice, having regard to relevant budgetary provision in the budget of the Council for the year. Upon consideration of the advice, the Chief Justice/Chairman of the National Judicial Council shall notify the Chairman of the State Judicial Service Commission/Committee or, as the case may be, the Head of the Court concerned that the exercise may (i)be proceeded with; or, (ii) not to be proceeded with; or, (iii) may be proceeded with, but with a specified reduction in the number of Judicial Officers proposed to be appointed.

“The decision of the Chief Justice/Chairman of the National Judicial Council shall be communicated in writing to the Chairman of the Judicial Service Commission/Committee, or as the case may be, the Head of Court and shall be final unless the Head of Court shows grounds to the satisfaction of the Chief Justice/Chairman of the National Judicial Council why it should be reviewed.

“A copy of the notice given pursuant to Rule 2(1) and the Governor’s response thereto shall be served on each Member of the Judicial Service Commission/Committee concerned. Candidate for the high office of Judicial Officers of the Superior Courts of Record including Court of Appeal and Supreme Court of Nigeria, shall be disqualified and shall not be recommended for appointment if found to have been involved in:- canvassing or lobbying for the appointment directly or indirectly in any form and/or through any person or persons, such as but not limited to, politicians, traditional rulers, public officers or other Judicial Officers… influence peddling, part of the procedural rules read.

But in justifying itself, the NJC must ensure that the entire selection process is transparent and merit-based. 
Commendably enough, the NJC has never failed in the nomination, appointment and dismissal of Judges.

Recently when the NJC released a shortlist of officers approved for appointment as Judges for the Federal Capital Territory, FCT High Court and other Courts, several lawyers lashed out in condemnation against what they described as injustice and a skewed selection process.

After, a wonderful job by the NJC, petitions were written against the council, to president Muhammadu Buhari, conderming the nomination of some Lawyers as FCT High court Judges.

The petitions generated unnessarary reactions.

Justifying the decision of the NJC, was  reactions to the  controversial  petition ,in the form of a suit filed by some Abuja-based lawyers to oppose the petition sent to Buhari by the Open Bar Initiative.

The plaintiffs, Tochukwu Ohazuruike and Clement Chkwuemeka, who is the Chairman of the Bwari, Abuja branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, asked the Federal High Court in Abuja, where they instituted the suit to stop both the President and the Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr Abubakar Malami (SAN), from acting on the petition sent by the OBI.

The plaintiffs, through their lawyer, Okoro Nkemakolam, described the petition as “mendacious, mischievous, malicious, divisive, calculated to denigrate the integrity of the National Judicial Council.”

They urged the court to issue an order of perpetual injunction, restraining members of the group,  from taking further steps “to impugn, disparage, and or criticise” the 33 persons on the NJC’s list.

Like OBI, another group, Stand for Rights Initiative, has demanded the cancellation of the list of 33 nominees.

The group filed a suit, also, at the Federal High Court in Abuja seeking an order nullifying the list on the grounds  that the process of arriving at the list of 33 candidates was marred by the exclusion of lawyers from Akwa Ibom State.

The plaintiff, through its team of lawyers led by Chief Sunday Essienekak, contended in the suit  filed on May 13, 2020, that the exclusion of names of candidates from Akwa Ibom State from the list was a violation of the Constitution, the Federal Character principle and the provision of Section 2 of the High Court of the FCT (names of judges) Act 2003 (as amended).

The respondents to the suit are the President, the Federal Government, the NJC, NJC’s Chairman, Chief Judge of the FCT High Court and the FCT Judicial Service Committee respectively.

To this end, the National Judicial Council, NJC, for now its doing a great service to the Nigerian judicial system and need not to be distracted by anyone.


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