— Says Process Largely Biased And Not Objective
— Accuses The Judiciary Of Being Indifferent Towards Its Declining Reputation
— Faults Unnecessary Meddlesomeness Of Executive In Judicial Affairs
A civil rights Non-governmental organization, ‘Access To Justice’, has called for the cancellation of the entire process adopted by the National Judicial Council [NJC] in screening Judicial nominees for possible elevation to the Court of Appeal.
In a press statement by Joseph Otteh, Convener and Deji Ajare, Project Director titled, ‘ Court of Appeal Appointments: Nigeria’s Judiciary Is Failing to Re-Inspire Public Trust Again’; the NGO noted that the Nigerian Judiciary has constantly failed to reorganize itself in ways capable of re-inspiring public confidence in its branch of government, noting that the confidence reposed in the Judiciary, has over the years been brutally shaken, yet, the Judiciary continuously acts indifferently to this public perception and image.
The civil rights group also noted the constant meddlesomeness of the executive arm in judicial affairs, especially with regards to its composition. It recalled the nonchalance of the presidency with regards to some selected names for appointment to the Supreme Court, until another list was sent, which allegedly had the names of persons from a particular tribe which was appealing to the presidency.
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On 19th of March, the National Judicial Council (NJC) announced, following its meeting of 17-18 March 2021, that it was recommending the appointment of eighteen (18) judges to the President for appointment as Justices of Court of Appeal. These appointments come on the heels of widespread controversies over the manner the selection of the recommended candidates was done, as well as over the geo-political composition of the selectee list forwarded to the NJC by the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC). Quite a number of organizations representing various ethnic and faith communities alongside other stakeholders expressed dismay over the list, alleging that the process leading to candidate selections had been very compromised.
In her rebuttal, the President of the Court of Appeal Justice Dongban-Mensem stated that the current exercise passed through the due and usual process of appointment into the judiciary.
Appointments Come within Backdrop of Overt Political Interest by the Presidency in Appointing Preferred Persons into Appellate Court Positions
These appointments are taking place within the backdrop of past efforts by the Presidency to influence how the Judiciary is constituted. Recall that in October 2019, the NJC had submitted the names of four Justices of the Court of Appeal to the Nigerian President for confirmation and appointment as Supreme Court Justices, but the President refused to forward those names to the Senate for confirmation until the NJC submitted, in August 2020 and nearly one year after, a further list of another four Justices, all from a particular region, , to him for appointment as Supreme Court Justices. Soon after the submission of this additional list, the President sent all eight Justices’ names to the Senate for confirmation to the Supreme Court. The President’s letter to the Senate specifically said that the confirmation of all the Justices were “according to their ranking of seniority at the Court of Appeal”.
Appointment Procedures Flawed, Lacked Transparency with no Assurance that Selection Decisions Were Merit-Based
Given available information, including published remarks by an eye-witness – the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) President – there is no evidence that the selection process of the Court of Appeal nominees met the standards of objectivity and merit stipulated by the Extant Revised NJC Guidelines & Procedural Rules for The Appointment of Judicial Officers of All Superior Courts of Record in Nigeria (“Appointment Guidelines”).
The FJSC which is responsible for ensuring that candidates for federal judicial office are selected based on stipulations of transparency, objectivity, a level-playing field and merit, has a dismal and notorious history of flouting the Appointment Guidelines and shielding information about what was actually done from the public.
There is nothing to indicate, for example, that the FJSC published the Court of Appeal vacancies on its website, or invited applications from all qualified persons for those vacancies, or placed vacancy notices on the notice boards of the NBA alongside sending relevant notices to the leadership of the NBA all of which is required under the Guidelines.
The outcome of the selection exercise shows that no nominee for the Appeal Court positions was selected from the Bar, in spite of the broad range of professional competencies found amongst practicing lawyers and academics. It further shows that the Judiciary is still maintaining its narrow, insular and counter-productive policy of excluding other qualified members of the legal community from consideration for appellate judicial positions, in spite of provisions of the Constitution and the appointment Guidelines.
Nigeria’s Judiciary Still Shooting Self in the Foot and Making Recipes for Disaster
Access to Justice is very concerned that Nigeria’s Judiciary is still failing to reorganize itself in ways capable of re-inspiring public confidence in that branch of government – confidence that has been brutally shaken in the last few years. The Judiciary appears not to be concerned that its public perception and image has undergone significant shifts over the years, and is rapidly declining.
On the contrary, the Judiciary is continuing its culture of “business as usual”; it is even doing more now to further weaken its poor standing. A broad range of public opinion will regard the selections for the Court of Appeal positions as mostly flawed and uninspiring, and will feel that the Judiciary is increasingly becoming the new frontier and battlefield for geo-political dominance and supremacy, rather than the politically non-aligned and neutral place it ought to be for settling legal disputes.
There are huge credibility gaps between the laid down judicial appointment procedures and what was actually followed by the FJSC in recommending the 18 candidates for appointment. The outcome of the selection process does not show, on the balance, that the process leading to the selections satisfied the criteria for appointments, nor met with the overall objective of putting the Judiciary’s front foot forward in matters of judicial appointments. It is unfortunate that the Judiciary is stumbling in this way and allowing itself to be perceived with more and more distrust each passing day. We are concerned that the Judiciary continues to rob itself of the opportunities to refresh the button and reset how it moves forward with regard strengthening its capacity, given the stellar professional resources available in Nigeria.
Access to Justice therefore Demands:
A cancelation of the entire judicial selection exercise and the commencement of another one, beginning with a Call for Expression of Interest.
The adoption of a much more transparent, objective and rigorous process for evaluating the strengths and credentials of those applying for the available positions.
The FJSC must use clear and uniform standards for assessing the strengths of those who express interests in the position. An institution or Committee of reputable legal experts quite independent of the FJSC should be tasked with the responsibility of examining and evaluating the credentials of all the nominees on their merits and submitting their recommendations to the FJSC. Based on the overall performance of the nominees, a short-list is sent to the NJC, which will use this as a basis of its review and recommendations.
 Even though process adopted in nominating those Justices did not comply with the relevant appointment Guidelines, the President nonetheless did not challenge the process.
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