Senators, Reps, SANs tackle CJN

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By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor, Abdallah Wahab, Henry Umoru, Ikechukwu Nnochiri & Bartholomew Madukwe
LAGOS — OUTRAGE, yesterday, greeted Monday’s refusal by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Maryam Alooma-Mukhtar to swear in Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofo into the Court of Appeal on the basis of her inter-state marriage, just as it emerged that her appointment was duly approved by the National Judicial Council, NJC.

While lawyers and legislators condemned the development, it emerged that the NJC approved the appointment of Justice Jombo-Ofo as a replacement for the South-East geopolitical zone and not necessarily as a nominee of Abia State.

All three senators from Abia State, after an emergency meeting, yesterday, were set to present a motion today in the Senate on the issue.

Also in the House of Representatives, yesterday, a bill, “Women and Child Advancement Bill” seeking to, among others, stop discrimination of married women using the state of indigene factor passed through first reading. This came as female members including Rep. Abike Dabiri and Nkoyo Toyo flayed the development in the appellate court.

Also yesterday, the Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP) flayed the decision not to inaugurate Justice Jombo-Ofo.

Justice Jombo-Ofo, a 14-year veteran of the Abia State judiciary, nominated by the Abia State Government to the Court of Appeal was on Monday side-stepped during the inauguration of the other judges appointed to the appellate court based on the policy that she did not come through her state of birth. Justice Jombo-Ofo originally from Anambra State is married to a man from Abia State, where she has served for the past 14 years.

She should be sworn-in — NJC

Monday’s rejection of Justice Jombo-Ofo was surprising to a member of the National Judicial Council, NJC, who claimed that some members were not happy because the CJN was part of the meeting which approved the list of nominees to the appellate court.

“The main qualification of the lady is that she is filling the vacancy in the South-East because each zone produced two each. So, it does not really matter which state she is from whether Anambra, Imo or whatever.

“In any case, none of those states is complaining. So, as I said, most of us in the NJC are very unhappy over the action.”

Following a meeting of the three senators from Abia State, yesterday, it was resolved to bring up the issue through a motion on the senate floor today.

Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, PDP Abia South told Vanguard, yesterday, that the nominee was endorsed by the three senators from the state as he rejected the reason for denying her a seat on the Court of Appeal.

Describing the refusal to administer the oath on the nominee as “unfortunate, not right and must be corrected”, he said that Justice Mary Odili of the Supreme Court is an example of a married woman who rose through the appellate court without being negatively affected by her marriage outside her native Imo State.

According to him, the action is “not in consonance with the law, the law states that a woman can benefit from both her state of origin and where she got married to; it is not a right decision. The Senate will look at the matter in form of a motion tomorrow (today). It is not right, it is unfortunate and it must be corrected. All the Senators from Abia are supporting her, we don’t know where this is coming from.”

The House of Representatives, yesterday, passed through first reading, a bill aimed at stopping discrimination of women. The bill titled: “Women and Girls Advancement Bill” is sponsored by Rep. Abike Dabiri, Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Diaspora.

Speaking to Vanguard yesterday, Dabiri expressed concern over the fate meted to Justice Jombo-Ofo, saying that her bill aims to address such practices in the future.

Rep. Nkoyo Toyo, PDP, Cross River, herself also a lawyer, condemned the policy which she said must be reviewed, describing it as a clash of civilizations.

While noting the difficulties of the Chief Justice who she claimed was simply adhering to the rules, Toyo said: “It is actually a sort of clash of two civilizations as they say, the old order and new order are clashing. In some states they allow women married into the states to assume whatever position, in others they do not. Even within the judiciary itself, there is an extant policy that says all female judges must come from their states of origin and they must occupy the slots that have to do with their states of origin.

“Let me say for the avoidance of doubt that there is something definitely wrong with that policy but that is the policy as it exists today. We also know that in the past that that rule had been abused by previous CJNs and previous heads of the judiciary.

“What the present CJN is trying to do is to be rule-based and she now resurrected this rule particularly as she was confronted with petitions from the state in question. So, she was faced with a decision and it has been said that the action of swearing in is an administrative action and not a judicial action.

“Whereas the rule is a problem, the CJN was applying the rule as it were, where she was applying a rule that is problematic, where she was trying to uphold the rule of law as it exists today and therefore, she played on the wrong foot indirectly.

“What has happened is very unjust, very unjust. If she deserves it based on her competence, why not? We are now sacrificing competence on the altar of where you come from. It is a big problem.

“This amounts to discrimination on the grounds of her sex and the question is when does a person become a member of a state,” she asked.

LEDAP condemns action

Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP) in its reaction argued that the refusal to swear her in was arbitrary and unfair, and inconsistent with previous instances in which a number of female justices have been appointed, promoted or elevated on slots from their states of marriage rather than states of birth.

LEDAP in a statement by Chino Obiagwu expressed worry that “such practice of denying a married woman judicial appointment because of her state of marriage negates the principles of fairness and would be detrimental to women in judicial service”

Femi Falana, SAN

 “As soon as the appointment was made by President Goodluck Jonathan in line with Section 238(2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, the former High Court judges became Justices of the Court of Appeal in line with the Supreme Court decision of Ogbuyiga v. Okudo (1979) 1 All NLR. Having not been removed as a Justice of the Court of Appeal by the appointing authority, the refusal of the Chief Honourable Justice to administer the oath of office on the Honourable Justice Ifeoma Jumbo-Ofo cannot be justified in law.

“Since the appointment of the Honourable Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofo has not been validly set aside, she should not have been subjected to any embarrassment on the basis of a belated petition that sought to challenge the appointment on the ground that she is not an indigene of Abia State. In other words, the petition ought to have been discountenanced as it violates section 42 of the Constitution which has prohibited discrimination arising from circumstances of birth or sex.

“May we remind those who are opposed to the appointment of the Honourable Justice Ifeoma Jumbo-Ofo of the case of Augustine Mojekwu v. Caroline Mojekwu (1997) 7 NWLR (PT 512) 283 where Tobi JCA (as he then was) held inter alia: “All human beings – male and female- are born into a free world and are expected to participate freely, without any inhibition on grounds of sex, and that is constitutional. Any form of societal discrimination on grounds of sex, apart from being unconstitutional, is antithesis to a society built on the tents of democracy which we have freely chosen as a people.

“In the light of the foregoing, the Honourable Chief Justice of Nigeria should swear in the Honourable Ifeoma Jombo-Ofo without any further delay in the interest of justice and fair play.”

Professor Itse Sagay, SAN said, “I am very unpleasantly surprised. It is a narrow minded conduct. Where the person is working is where the person is contributing. It is very shocking, primitive, backward, uncivilized and totally unacceptable.

“I have a high regard for the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, but her conduct has shaken my confidence in her.”

Sebastian, SAN

 “Personally, I think that the CJN should review that policy immediately. It is rather unfortunate that the judiciary has been using its own limitations to restrict appointment of its otherwise qualified personnel on the bench. It is not in doubt that in the Nigerian society, once a lady is married, she automatically transfers her origin to her husband’s community. Morover from media reports, I learnt that she duly transferred her service from Anambra to Abia state after her marriage and has been working there since.  I will suggest that the CJN, with due respect, do a review of that policy. In the first place, she was qualified for the position. The onus is on the CJN to ensure that the discriminatory policy is reviewed, being a woman herself.  Such discrimination should not be meted against ladies who are eminently qualified to take up positions on the Bench.”

Festus Ogwuche

 “Denying her the position on grounds of indegeneship will be the height of injustice and highly unconstitutional. In fact it will amount to a violation of her right under chapter 4 and section 42 of the 1999 constitution which forbids discriminatory tendencies on the basis of state of origin or religion. Suspending her elevation on the basis of such frivolous petition is unacceptable and should not be allowed to prevail in the 21st century especially in a democratic setting. There is no law or procedure that stipulates that judicial appointment should be made on the basis of state of origin, cultural affiliation or religious inclination. Such barriers should not be considered at all for such sensitive positions. Or is she going to the bench to represent the interest of any state or to serve Nigerians?  The only ground she can be denied the position is on the basis of Chapter 2 of the constitution, where the Federal Character Commission, challenge the appointment on the premise that it may occasion the dominance of a particular section of the country or affect ethnic balance, but this is not the case here.”

Tani Molajo (SAN)

I think it is unfortunate for the woman not to have been informed before today. I mean, it must have been quite embarrassing for her to have turned up at her swearing in, only for her to be asked to vacate her seat. I think she ought to have been informed in advance of that day. I hope that the matter will be sorted out in a way which I think is most reputable.

My information is that she had transferred her civil service to her husband’s state, which is Abia State. And that she has infact served there, according to reports available to us, for 14 years. In my view, she ought to have been considered as qualified to represent the judiciary of that state, in the Court of Appeal. I am hopeful that it would be resolved ultimately in her favour and she would be sworn in as a justice of the Court of Appeal.

The CJN took the decision that is most appropriate in my view, in accordance with the law. My complain is that the candidate for swear-in was not informed well in advance of yesterday (Monday), so to avert the embarrassment it must have caused her and her family, in turning up for a swearing-in which was not to take place.

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