NATIONAL Judicial Council, NJC,is a legal institution saddled with great constitutional responsibilities in the country’s democratic setting for the preservation and dispensation of justice. It has discharged its responsibilities with great caution and impartiality since the return of democracy in 1999 and been commended greatly for doing so.
Some undesirable elements in the society with ulterior motives have in the past years tried to drag the Council into the mud, but were firmly resisted because of the implications of such actions on our fledging democracy.
But some disgruntled elements are at it again, this time in Abia State where they have been doing everything humanly possible to drag the Council into mud over the recent appointment of Justice T.U. Uzokwe as the Acting Chief Judge of the State by Governor Theodore Orji in accordance with the constitutional provisions of the 1999 Constitution as amended. Section 271 sub-section 1-5 of the Constitution spelt out clearly and unambiguously the constitutional roles of the Council, the State Governor and the State House of Assembly in the recommendation, appointment and confirmation of the State Chief Judge. Even to a layman, it is axiomatic that the only constitutional role of the Council in this matter is to recommend one person among those shortlisted and submitted to them by the State Judicial Service Commission and forward such person to the governor for appointment prior to confirmation of the appointment by State Assembly.
This they have done by recommending Justice Ijeoma Offonry whom Governor Orji appointed and had his name forwarded to the House for confirmation, but the House declined to confirm her. She had acted for three months and constitutionally Offonry cannot act for more than three months before the appointment of another Acting Chief Judge to succeed her in that capacity.
That was what Governor Orji did by appointing Justice T.U Uzokwe as Offonry’s successor. But the same forces that had hijacked and impoverished the State for years in the past, but were dismantled and demisytified in the last general elections in the State seem to be prodding the Council to dabble into a clear constitutional process that has been completed before now. This they wanted to achieve by pressuring or cajoling the Council to insist that Offonry, being the most senior judge and their nominee for the position, should be confirmed as the substantive Chief Judge of the State by the House of Assembly.
I am convinced that the Council being made up of men and women of integrity must and should rely on the Constitution as their guide in this time of temptations by power mongers and tribal promoters in the State who are ready and desperate to go extra miles to dent the image of the judiciary in their insatiable desires for power by all means. There is no provision in the Constitution that empowers the Council to reject or insist that their recommended person for the position of Chief Judge of the State must be confirmed by the House of Assembly, or that failure to confirm the nominee by them will trigger the rejection of the Acting State Chief Judge appointed by the governor, thereby creating a vacuum in the system.
Precedents are bound on this matter across the country since the return of democracy and Abia case is not and should not be an exception. In September 2004, the National Judicial Council, NJC, endorsed the candidature of Justice Raphael Agbo (now of the Court of Appeal), who was at any rate the most senior judge in order of rank in Enugu State, to succeed the (then) outgoing Chief Judge of the state, the late Justice J.C.N Ugwu. But two months afterwards, the same NJC withdrew its nomination of Justice Agbo after the House of Assembly refused to confirm him. That paved way for their recommendation and confirmation of his junior, Justice Innocent Umezurike, the present Chief Judge of Enugu State.
With the above scenario and others that have occurred across the country, NJC should and must be very careful in meddling or dabbling into the matter, before some desperate politicians in the State that are determine to destroy the judiciary system for political and selfish reasons messed up the Council. The only constitutional option for the NJC at this point is to allow and co-operate with Uzokwe as Acting Chief Judge of the State for the next three months after which they will recommend another judge for appointment by the Governor and confirmation by the State House of Assembly as State Chief Judge.
The NJC should be mindful that as a sacred institution all eyes are on it and any attempt to act arbitrarily and illegally will spell doom for the system and erase peoples’ confidence on the institution. The Abia State case should not be handled differently from others, because the country operates a uniform judicial system.
Vividly, the tribal jingoists and their paymasters in the State who are beating the drums of war over the issue, even when nothing was done wrong or illegal by Governor Orji or the State House of Assembly in the whole process have a hidden agenda and ulterior motives. Just like mischievous and desperate politicians, when the chips are down on the matter, these tribal jingoists and their paymasters will definitely abandon the Council and run for cover.
BY STANLEY NWANNEBUIKE, a lawyer, wrote from Lagos.