By Owei Lakemfa
IN Nigeria, law has become the most dominant profession because many lawyers have managed to portray themselves as the only ‘learned’ people, and denigrated professions like Estate Management. Many lawyers are stupendously wealthy because they are able to compromise standards at the expense of their profession.
They have succeeded so well that when a ‘change’ government berthed in May, 2015, not only were the Vice President and powerful Chief of Staff, lawyers, but ten of the 36 Ministers appointed, were lawyers. They were Ministers in Foreign Affairs, Communication, Information, Sports, Labour, Women, Petroleum, Planning, and of course Justice. In fact, until today, one of them runs the hybrid Ministry of Power, Works and Housing.
So when the Buhari administration moved against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, violating all processes and procedures, abridging the fundamental right to fair hearing, and bulldozing through the constitution; it was not for lack of enough legal minds in government.
All that was necessary to invade the pinnacle of justice in the country, was to find a pliant lawyer, sitting in an inferior court, and working to the answer provided by the Presidency which desperately wanted the CJN out of power. We may yet witness the spectacle of the CJN being brought to a tribunal in handcuffs. It will be easy for some to sing: Hurrah to the masses! The Chief Justice is going to jail!! The law is an ass!!! But if the CJN can be convicted by an inferior court and suspended without even his plea being taken, then the rest of us cannot be safe. If chicks eat the entrails of cocks, what will they not do to cockroaches?
So, somehow, the ‘legal sense’ of many lawyers has caught up with the entire judicial system endangering it and the country. Given the hierarchical culture that has been built into the judicial system, an over anxious, uninspiring, dour gentleman takes over, not for manifest competence, but because, he is the ‘most senior’. How do you elevate a person based on seniority without considering character, competence and suitability?
It is apposite to ask; must the most senior automatically take over? The simple answer is no! And like lawyers are won’t to say, there are precedents. Justice Darnley Arthur Alexander, a naturalised Nigerian who was in 1957 invited from St Lucia by the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, had seniors in the Supreme Court when he was made the CJN in 1975. The authorities then claimed they were interested in a CJN that could best sanitise the system not one who had marked time on the bench moving steps higher with every vacancy. Justice in the country cannot necessarily be served only if we have gerontocrats shuffling their feet in the halls of the Supreme Court with the baggage they may carry. In fact, I think we will have a more independent judiciary if the CJN is appointed not by the President, but by the National Judicial Commission subject to confirmation by the Senate.
Those who cry that CJN Walter Onnoghen should resign to save the image of the judiciary, are merely looking for a sacrificial lamb; a face saving mechanism which will allow the judiciary run in the old way. In truth, what is required are not palliatives, but a rethink of the entire justice system; making the temple of justice a sacred place that will also fence off hawks that want to feast on it.
A beginning might be to seek for a CJN outside the Supreme Court and the entire bench. Can you imagine the late Alao Aka-Bashourun or Gani Fawehinmi been CJN; they would have swept all the cobwebs away, sanitised the system and restored the confidence of the populace in the judiciary. I am sure we have such principled people in our country. Except for age, Mrs. Hairat Aderinsola Balogun, the first female Life Bencher would have filled the bill perfectly. Back in 1986, as Attorney General of Lagos State, she compelled the military rulers to obey the courts in the Ojukwu case. When as a Member of the Transition to Civil Rule Tribunal she realised that no justice will be served, she resigned in protest. When the Council of Legal Education decided to sell the premises of the Law School in Lagos, she took it head on in a legal battle and succeeded in preserving the structures; the Lagos Campus continues to run to this day.
Thinking outside the box as she is wont to do, is part of what we need. For instance, she thinks that law graduates going to the one year practical law school programme is unnecessary; where else will a law graduate acquire practical experience but in chambers and the courts? Her position is that the law graduate should serve one or two years in a law chamber and take a prescribed examination set by the Legal Council of Education just as accountants take the examinations of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria. This will produce better new wigs and save the country the huge resources expended in running the current half a dozen campuses in the country. Principled and great legal minds like Mrs. Balogun or Mrs. Funke Adekoya, SAN, will be far better as CJN than Quota System Supreme Court bureaucrats waiting for their turn and being willing tools of politicians who want to exercise unconstitutional control over an independent arm of government.
A non-judge becoming CJN has precedents. One of the most famous and effective CJNs in Nigerian history, is Professor Taslim Olawale Elias, QC, LLD, CFR, GCON. Called to the Bar in 1947 and earning a Ph.D. from the University of London two years later, Elias was a lecturer in Manchester University, Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi and Legal Adviser to the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons, NCNC, one of the leading political parties in the country. He became Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice in 1960 and was from 1966, Professor and Dean of Law, University of Lagos before his appointment as CJN in 1972. He was so well respected that the United Nations in October, 1975 appointed him into the International Court of Justice, ICJ, rising in 1979 to become the Court’s Vice President, and in 1982, its President. So Elias was never a judge before being appointed CJN.
Also, Article 229 (3) of the Constitution states: “A person shall not be qualified to hold the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria or of a Justice of the Supreme Court, unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been so qualified for a period of not less than 15 years.” That simply means, a non-judge can be CJN.
I rest my case.