In the matter of the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court, a matter in which statutorily the presidency has a formal but largely routine role, Nigeria has been reduced to a seething cauldron of irredentist intrigues and plots. More and more, in the eyes of many professional bodies and civil society organisations, the country is resembling a tentative patchwork designed to fail outright or become unlivable for its citizens. Last week, a justice advocacy group, Access to Justice (A2J), took issue with the convoluted manner the Muhammadu Buhari administration was pursuing the latest set of appointments to the Supreme Court. The president was abusing his powers and damaging and lowering the independence and integrity of the judiciary, the group concluded. A2J came to this drastic conclusion because of the deliberate delay and nonchalance the presidency introduced into the appointment process.
With a carefully established and damning timeline, A2J suggested that there was more to the 10-month delay in forwarding to the senate names of the first set of justices recommended by the National Judicial Council (NJC) for appointment to the apex court. According to the group, “…In October 2019, the National Judicial Council (NJC) submitted a list of four serving Justices of the Court of Appeal, Justices Adamu Jauro, Emmanuel A. Agim, Samuel Oseji and Helen M.Ogunwumiju, to the President of Nigeria, for appointment as Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Until August 31, 2020 i.e. nearly one year the President did not forward the aforesaid names to the Senate for confirmation. By mid-August 2020, the NJC again submitted another list of four Justices of the Court of Appeal to the President for appointment into the Supreme Court. The four comprise Justices Lawal Garba, Addu Aboki, I. M. M. Saulawa and Tijjani Abubakar. On the 31st of August 2020, the President submitted the names of the first and second sets of nominees for appointment to the Supreme Court of Nigeria to the Senate for confirmation. The Senate read the letter asking for confirmation of the nominees on the 29th of September, 2020.”
By delaying the first set of nominations for 10 months, but acting on the second set of nominations with alacrity in two weeks, it is strange that the government does not think it owes the country an explanation. No explanation will be forthcoming, however. This has become customary of the administration; an indefensibly cynical style it has neither tried to justify nor repudiate. The president’s role in the appointment of justices is largely formal, virtually serving as a conduit. The NJC does the main job. Therefore, what lengthy security vetting was needed for the first four justices that it had to take 10 months while it took only two weeks in the case of the second set? Meanwhile this inordinate delay came at a time when the apex court was groaning under the weight of excess work and inadequate personnel, especially considering that six of its 18 justices retired last year. Even though A2J indicated that the nomination process could be better organised and more merit driven, it nevertheless accused the president of being tardy and disingenuous.
Here is A2J’s damning conclusion: “The impression all of this creates is that the President was set on manipulating how the Supreme Court is configured, politically and ethnically, now and for the near future; he wanted to determine how seniority amongst the Justices of the Supreme Court is ordered as well as which Justices of the Court can be expected to succeed to the highest judicial office as Chief Justice of Nigeria. The President’s letter to the Senate makes specific mention of the confirmation being ‘according to their ranking of seniority at the Court of Appeal’. The conduct of the entire process leads to the conclusion that the Presidency had withheld from seeking the confirmation of, and making the appointments of the four Justices whose names were on the first set of recommendations from the NJC simply because it was targeting the inclusion of further names for appointment to the Supreme Court, names that were not included in the first list. Furthermore, that the President was willing to wait out the occurrence of that event, as well as ensure that its targets did not lose their comparable rankings with earlier nominated persons notwithstanding that the Supreme Court was almost collapsing with overbearing workloads due to its lean workforce.”
Having acted more like a monarchy in the past few years, the Buhari presidency may be less inclined to explain itself and its motives to the public in this matter. But clearly, it needs to, if Nigerians are not to run away with the impression that the president and his team have no idea what Nigeria should be, represent or aspire to, and that they see the country only through ethnic or special interest prism. For a government needlessly but perhaps deliberately courting controversy in the skewness of its appointments, particularly security appointments, as if pursuing a hegemonic agenda, it is baffling that it seems set on implementing the same nefarious agenda in the judiciary. As in other skewed appointments, the depressing leitmotif obvious to everyone is that public policy is now dangerously undergirded by ethnic and religious biases. There seems to be no aspiration to create or forge a country where skilled officials manage public affairs, to the point where Africa would want to borrow a leaf.
No Nigerian will suggest that the judiciary is growing in integrity and independence, or in character and learning. Indeed, in the past few years, with the calculated assault on the third arm of government continuing apace, the country should brace itself for more disreputable and mediocre judgements from the courts. On assuming office, the Buhari presidency railed against the judiciary, promising that he would reform it. But instead of reforming the judiciary to return it to its golden age, an age that has now become a lost chimera because of the intrigues of key presidential aides, the country must wonder which area of national life will be spared the rot and manipulation.