By Henry Ojelu & Onozure Dania
Last week, the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Mr Olumide Akpata raised concerns over the poor screening of candidates enlisted for appointment as Court of Appeal justices. Narrating his disappointment with the entire screening exercise, Akpata was reported to have told members of the NBA National Executive Committee, NBA-NEC at their quarterly meeting in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State that the screening exercise was akin to ‘an old schoolboys meeting.’
Akpata was quoted to have said: “What I saw and experienced at the NJC meeting on the appointment of justices to the Court of Appeal left me aghast. At a point, I, as a “Johnny Just Come’ (new attendee), had to ask, ‘Are these people really going to the Court of Appeal?’ Important legal issues that were occasionally put to the nominees could not be answered.
“The whole proceedings appeared more of an old schoolboys meeting.
“When I wondered at this, I heard things like: ‘They will learn on the job.’ We were to interview 20 nominees at a point but only two hours allocated for this important exercise. That meant six minutes only for each nominee. What is this? Let me assure you that the NBA will never be a rubber stamp participant at such bodies. You can quote me.”
Law and Human Rights gathered that of the 20 candidates nominated for the appointment, two were dropped due to their inability to answer basic legal questions.
Meanwhile, Akpata’s observations appear to have resonated with many senior lawyers who believe that the screening process for judicial officers should be immediately reviewed.
Dahiru Musdapher recommendation must be followed —Agbakoba, SAN
Former NBA President, Dr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, believes that the only way to ensure that judicial officers are properly screened is the adoption of the retired Chief Justice Dahiru Musdapher Committee’s recommendation.
He said: “I understand that there was a lot of controversy relating to the recent list of Court of Appeal Justices. In order to remove these challenges, simply make the appointment process fully transparent as recommended by the high-level committee set up by Chief Justice Dahiru Musdapher. The committee comprehensively reviewed the justice sector and recommended a root and branch transformation of the judicial process. I was very honoured and privileged to be part of that committee. Unfortunately, on the voluntary retirement of Mr Justice Dahiru Musdapher, who became one of the great reformers, everything came to a screeching halt. My suggestion is that the Dahiru Musdapher recommendations be implemented immediately.”
Shoddy Bench tantamount to shoddy justice —Ozekhome, SAN
Warning of the implication of having a shoddy screening exercise, Dr Mike Ozekhome said: “A shoddy screening of applicants for any position in the Judiciary leads to shoddy results. Shoddy results lead to a shoddy Bench. A shoddy Bench leads to a shoddy justice delivery system. A shoddy justice delivery system leads to miscarriage of justice. Miscarriage of justice leads to injustice. Injustice leads to anger.
Anger leads to violence. Violence leads to destruction. Destruction leads to insecurity. With insecurity, our dear nation is imperilled. It’s a never-ending cycle of misfortune that can be avoided by doing the right thing.
Screen applicants vigorously and rigorously and let the best emerge. That will lead to the enthronement of a virile, independent and courageous Judiciary, peopled with men and women of courage, integrity, honour and dignity.
The process must be transparent, open —Prof Ojukwu, SAN
Law professor, Ernest Ojukwu insists that for the best hands to be appointed as judicial officers, the process from shortlisting to final appointment must be transparent and open. He said: “The flagging of NJC’s shoddy appointment process by NBA President is an honest, important and bold call. We have been expecting past Bar Presidents and representatives at NJC to have made such calls for too long but only Akpata has shown that honesty and boldness. The only reason the membership of such bodies were made to include members of the Bar and the public is to raise the standard and accountability. We should take the appointment of judges in Nigeria as one of the most critical democratic projects and challenges facing the nation.
“The judiciary and justice system and the entire platform of rule of law and governance will collapse unless we appoint our best in terms of competence and ethical values as judges, kadis and magistrates. The process of appointment of judges and magistrates must be made totally open and transparent to the public from the time people indicate interest to be appointed judges and magistrates, to the stages of shortlisting, and recommendation. Right now, the process is anything but transparent. We don’t have our majority on the bench as our best in terms of competence and integrity.
Screening must focus on character, credibility —Pedro, SAN
Former Lagos State Solicitor-General, Mr Lawal Pedro, SAN, is of the opinion that the screening of judicial officers should focus more on the character and credibility of candidates.
According to him: “The elevation of judges to the Court of Appeal and Justices to the Supreme Court is a promotion in the Judiciary and I see nothing wrong with that. In my respectful view, the screening is more on the character and credibility of the candidates because having spent the number of required years on the lower bench and nominated, he/she is qualified for elevation. The Concern of NBA President is not new but only underscores the need to review the whole judiciary architecture in the country if we want changes and positive development in that arm of government for the more effective and efficient administration of justice.”
Akpata’s observation must be taken seriously —Sowemimo, SAN
Underscoring the seriousness of Akpata’s observation, Seyi Sowemimo SAN, said: “As president of the NBA, Mr Akpata’s observations deserve to be taken seriously. If the quality of Judges being elevated is low, then we should be prepared to live with a lacklustre judiciary that will be performing below expectations. It’s a great pity that we are not committed to building enduring institutions in this country.
Legal profession needs a total overhaul—Ojo
Law lecturer, Gbenga Ojo believes the problem identified by Akpata is a reflection of the decay in the Nigerian justice system. He suggested a holistic reform of the legal system. He said: “You will be shocked by the quality of judgments coming from our courts including Appellate courts. Some of them are lacking in jurisprudence, analysis and creative thinking. Some barely state the principles with one or two cases that simply applied to the facts of the case.
The consequence of the observation of the NBA President is judicial mediocrity. It is unfortunate and sad. You need to read judgments from English Courts and Indian Courts and you will marvel at the analysis and critical review of existing cases both for and against and sound conclusion.
“In Nigeria, the courts barely rely on line of authorities and the other authorities to the contrary will not be considered. At the end of the day, our law reports are replete with judgments that are inconsistent. The whole thing is shameful. You can trace it to legal training in some of the universities, where specialisation is a thing of the past. The lecturer barely has textbook knowledge.
This is because PhD Islamic law teaches Land law. It is sad! Some of the faculties are academic jungle. The products are not half baked; they are sometimes not baked at all. Some of them through nepotism will become Magistrates, High Court Judges and now Court of Appeal Justices. Total overhauling of our legal education is required. We must thank Mr Akpata for calling a spade a spade. God will bless him for exposing the rot. It cuts across all sectors.”
Akpata must mobilise the Bar to protest —Ugwummadu
Former Executive Director, Committee for Defence of Human Rights, CDHR, Mr Malachy Ugwummadu stated that having made his observation, Akpata should mobilise members of the Bar to protest the NJC screening exercise.
He said: “The observation of Akpata over the screening exercise of nominated Justices of the Court of Appeal is grave. It’s believed that the President of the Bar fully comprehends the weight of his statement now out in the public. As the leader of a major stakeholder (the Bar) in the Justice sector of Nigeria, I commend his courage and forthrightness in speaking out, unlike his colleagues who may be equally aware but blowing muted trumpets over such a sensitive issue.
“He must, however, go beyond the lamentations and mobilise the entire Bar in protest of what he has just observed and call for a proper screening exercise that will restore the confidence of the public and reassure practitioners and even the Bench that ours is still a judiciary that is reliable and dependable in character, conscience and sound legal knowledge.
This is very important because, in the jurisprudence of law, the notion of justice takes flight not at the point when you lose a case, but at the point when the public loses confidence in what is happening there. Indeed, the President and the Bar can explore serious injunctive remedies until the proper thing is done to redeem the integrity and image of the Nigerian judiciary.”