By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
Justice Mary Odili last, Thursday made history as the third woman to ascend to the referred bench of the Supreme Court since 1963 when the Federal Republic of Nigeria was proclaimed Hitherto to 1963, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, JCPC, served as the highest court of the land and sat on appeal over any disputed judgment of the Federal Supreme Court, which existed at that time.
Following the abolition of the JCPC, the Supreme Court became the highest court in Nigeria while the Court of Appeal which was originally known as the Federal Court of Appeal, came into existence in 1976 to entertain appeals from the High Courts of each of 36 states of the federation.
The Supreme Court in its current form was shaped by the Supreme Court Act of 1990 and by Chapter VII of the 1999 constitution of Nigeria.
Under the 1999 constitution, the Supreme Court has both original and appellate jurisdiction over all lower federal courts and States high court.
Decisions rendered by the court are binding on all courts in Nigeria except the Supreme Court itself.
It has the original jurisdiction in any dispute between the Federation and a state or between states and also has original jurisdiction to hear and determine appeals from the Court of Appeal.
Statutorily, the apex court consist of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, and such number of Justices not exceeding twenty-one, as may be prescribed by an Act of the National Assembly. However, since inception, only three women have been able to make it to the apex court bench.
Whereas the first female jurist in the annals of the country, Hon. Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, was sworn-in on June 8, 2005, it took four years for the second lady, Justice Olufunlola Oyelola Adekeye, to get the attention of the National Judicial Council, NJC, which has the responsibility of recommending qualified judicial officers for the position.
Meantime, the NJC which is headed by the CJN, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu,
while acting in-line with its statutory mandate, recently discovered a disparity in the current bench of the apex court, in the sense that the slot of two major geo-political zones in the country, the South East and the South West, were vacant owing to the retirement of the justices that previously represented the zones.
Consequently, it commenced a search operation with a view to identifying judicial officers from these zones with the requisite resume to occupy the vacant seats that were left behind by the retired jurists.
Those that bowed out of active judicial service after clocking the mandatory 65 years retirement age were Justices G. A. Oguntade, J.O. Ogebe, Niki Tobi and I.F. Ogbuagu.
Sequel to the vacuum created by their absence, legal eggheads like the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Isa Ayo Salami and Justice O. Ariwoola were tipped to fill up the South West slot, while Justice Mary Odili and Justice N. S Ngwuta were nominated for the South East zone.
While the PCA, Salami, promptly declined the offer which he described as an “unholy Greek gift”, Justice Ariwoola on the other hand was subsequently rejected by the Senate on the ground that his official conduct at the election tribunal that sacked former governors Segun Oni and Olagunsoya Oyinola, of Ekiti and Osun states, was currently under scrutiny by a 5-man NJC probe panel.
Though Justice Ngwuta nomination’s was not challenged many legal pundits on the other hand, objected to the nomination of the wife of the former governor of Rivers state, Justice Odili, insisting that she was not qualified to take the slot of the South East.
They faulted her appointment on the ground that not only was she among the low ranking judges at the appellate court, but also the fact that she is married to a South South person and therefore not qualified to be regarded as a South Easterner despite that she was originally from Mbaise in Imo state.
Neverthless, the CJN, in his bid to quell the controversy, insisted that the decision to elevate her on the slot of the South East was taken with a view to meeting the 35% affirmative action that was promised to women by President Goodluck Jonathan.
While administering oath of office on the new appointees, the CJN maintained that the action had “no doubt met the yearning and aspirations of women in Nigeria and indeed the world over”.
According to him, “This day is indeed significant because we have just witnessed the swearing-in of another female Justice of this Honorable court, Hon. Justice Mary Peter-Odili. This brings to three the number of female Justices in the Supreme Court of Nigeria. You may wish to recall that on the 8th day of June, 2005, the first female Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar was sworn-in”.
While tasking the new justices to shun every form of judicial malpractice, the
CJN said he was confident that they would discharge their duties in accordance with the oath of office they subscribed to on June 23.
“The work of the Supreme Court as you all know is very demanding and at the same time very challenging. I am pretty sure you are equal to the task. It therefore behoves you to join hands with your brother justices of this court in order to continue to sustain the confidence of the general public “The code of conduct for judicial officers is there always to guide you.
I have every confidence that you will not fail this court and the nation. I urge you to thrive hard to discharge your duties in accordance with the oath of office you have subscribed to, having the fear of Almighty God in your hearts and always following the dictates of your conscience”, he added.
Prior to their appointment, the duo had served as justices of the Appeal Court.
Their appointment has increased the total number of justices at the apex court bench to 15.
Aside the controversy, the event which was held at the Supreme Court complex in Abuja, attracted creme de la creme of the society, among whom were governors Rotimi Amechi, Adams
Oshiomole, Timipreye Silva, former governors Peter Odili, Attahiru Bafarawa, Diepreye Alamiesagha, former Attorney Generals of the federation, Mohammed Adoke Bello, SAN, Micheal Kaase Aondoakaa, former Senate President, Ken Nnamai, retired and serving Supreme and Appeal Court justices among several other dignitaries.