Appointment of chief judges and ‘gender war’ against female judicial officers in Nigeria

In this piece, Abdulrasheed Ibrahim presents the pathetic story of a senior female judicial officer in the Gombe state judiciary, Justice Beatrice Iliya who is presently crying over alleged plot to deny her the opportunity of becoming the state chief judge over reasons purportedly unconnected with her gender alongside similar touching experiences of other women in other jurisdictions with a request on the National Judicial Council to arrest the purported on-going gender war in the judicature.

I read a story of a senior lady judge, Hon. Justice Beatrice Lazarus Iliya of the Gombe State judiciary, who was reported to have sent a petition to the National Judicial Council (NJC) protesting against an attempt to stop her from becoming the next Chief Judge of that State.

According to the Judge, she is the most senior judge in the State judiciary having been called to the bar in 1981.

She had earlier acted as the Acting Chief Judge for three months.

In her petition, she lamented what she called “lack of fair hearing, faulty procedure and the criteria used by the State’s Judicial Service Committee for the appointment of the new chief judge”.

She said further that rather than being invited to an interview, other two judges (Justice Joseph Ahmed Awak called to the bar in 1983 and Justice Muazu Pindiga called in 1988) who are junior to her were invited.

The judge asserted that she had sent a presentation dated April 21, 2020 and a verifying affidavit dated May 6, 2020 wherein she complained that the Attorney General of the State can not preside over a petition against her by “a grain merchant complaining to the governor that she moved into the office of the chief judge when she was in acting capacity.

The prayer of the lady judge to the National Judicial Council (NJC) is avery simple one as according to the judge: “…I humbly pray that my earlier presentations and all the issues raised therein should be investigated and resolved before the interview of the shortlisted candidates”

In the news report, the judge was said to have copied her petition to Hon. Justice Rhodes-Vivour, JSC who is the Chairman of the NJC Interview Committee, the Secretary of the NJC as well as the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).

The Attorney-General of Gombe State, Mr. Zubairu Mohammed was reported to have denied the claim by the lady judge that her name was not sent to the NJC but that from their assessment of Justice Iliya alongside Justice Pindiga, the Acting Chief Judge, the latter was found to have better administrative skills than the former.

This is a very serious and interesting matter that must not be taken lightly. I am of the view that since the issue is now before those that matter in the scheme of things, particularly the National Judicial Council (NJC), the issue must be critically looked into on what is really happening in the Gombe State Judiciary.

Its findings must be made public. We are awaiting answers to questions such as: Was there really any conspiracy to stop the lady judge from becoming the Chief Judge having been called to the bar about 39 years ago? What was the problem or grievance of the grain merchant with the Acting Chief Judge moving into the office of the Chief Judge in the acting capacity? What is the implication of an Acting Chief Judge moving into the office of the Chief Judge? What were the yardsticks used by the Gombe State’s Attorney General to measure the administrative skills between Justice Iliya and Justice Pindiga? In some states, must the position of Chief Judge be exclusively for men at the expense of women even when it comes to their turn to be?

At least rational and convincing answers are needed to these questions to settle once and for all the complaints of women judges who have been lamenting their being marginalized when it comes to being appointed as Chief Judges or being elevated to the appellate court in their various states.

We have had in the past many examples where women were deliberately schemed out of having what they deserved but with their patience and perseverance, they eventually found themselves in the position that was beyond their imaginations.

Notwithstanding the seemingly conspiracy of men against women in our judicial system, such has worked largely in favour of women that were once victims of such conspiracy.

There is no better way to illustrate this point than allowing those women to speak for themselves.

Hon. Justice Aloma Mariam Mukthar, the now retired first female Chief Justice of Nigeria, had this to say when she was bowing out of the Supreme Court which is the apex court in the country:

“…I rose to be number two in the hierarchy of the Kano State Judiciary, and was to remain number two for years to come until I was elevated to the Court of Appeal.

“In 1982 , the then Chief Judge , (an expatriate ) retired , and a Judge that came on board a few years after my appointment as a Judge was made the Chief Judge.

“When an exercise for appointment to the Court of Appeal commenced, the new Chief Judge asked if I was interested, I answered in the negative, because in spite of the situation on the ground, I had no desire to be moving from State to State as the office demands.

“In 1985, the incumbent Chief Judge left for the Court of Appeal . Again, history repeated itself. For, again, I was superseded by the then number four or five in the hierarchy of the court ,after acting as the Chief Judge for sometime, becoming the first woman in the country to discharge the function albeit temporarily.

“I took it in my stride and continued to work as though I was meant to be number (2) forever!

“To me, Allah wished it that way, and if he had said ‘no,’ nobody could have commanded it to be ‘yes’ .

“Indeed, it was as though I had full knowledge of what he had in store for me in future. People were always surprised at my attitude towards these developments…”

Despite all the scheming, it worked in favour of Justice Aloma and she later became the first woman to be elevated to both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court in Nigeria where she eventually retired as the first woman Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN).

She made history that is today known to the whole world. Another woman judge that went through similar experience was no other than now retired Hon. Justice Clara Bata Ogunbiyi (JSC).

Let us hear from the horse’s mouth when bowing out of the Supreme Court on retirement from the apex court at the mandatory age of 70:

“With my position as High Court Judge, I remained truly grateful to God and very content.

“My pre-occupation at that level was to give my best in the performance of my official function and also ensure that my family life did not suffer.

“As a result, I was indifferent initially in moving up to the ladder to the higher court.

“However, through the counsel, assurance and encouragement of my dear husband , I was motivated that I have the intellectual capacity and tenacity to go higher and God helping me , I should not limit my horizon.

“This counsel now afforded me the encouragement and confidence to inform my Chief Judge of my interest to the Court of Appeal in the event there was an opening for Borno State quarter.

“His response was that he would let me know when the time comes .This he never did despite the fact that at that time there was nobody at the Court of Appeal in the Borno quarter. However, he recommended two of my juniors.”

Before I continue with further interesting remarks from Justice Ogunbiyi’s experience, I want to express the view here on the danger in making emperiorship or tyranny of our leaders at all levels including the legal profession which judiciary is part of.

When you have a system that leaves the Chief Judge with the absolute power or discretion to decide which of the Judges under him go to the appellate court, having the best materials for that appellate position may be compromised and fair deal not achieved as most CJs will always prefer their godsons or goddaughters for that positions at the expense of the good material judges in the system.

Favouritism and nepotism will always come to play. It is interesting to note that the lady judge in Gombe State in trying to resist her being marginalized in the scheme of things has equally copied the NBA’s President with her petition.

The type of tyrannical power being played out in the NBA may not justify its intervention on this issue, as the saying goes that he who comes to equity must come with clean hands. Has the NBA moral right to intervene in this issue?

The NBA by its discriminatory constitution confers on all its local branches chairmen the powers to behave like godfathers in conventional politics.

A branch chairman has the absolute power to give and not to give a letter of good standing to any aspirant aspiring to run for elections at the NBA national level. If the local chairman does not like the face of an aspirant, he can withhold the letter and that will be the end of the matter.

In the Ikeja Branch of the NBA for example, Mr. Dele Oloke as Chairman and his predecessor, Mr. Adesina Ogunlana are not best of friends with their attitudes of cat and mouse towards each other.

When Ogunlana decided to run for the 2020 NBA Presidential election at the national level, Oloke refused him the letter of good standing and the rest is now history.

Unfortunately, the fate of an aspirant in an election that should be left in the hands of the generality of lawyers who are the electorates is made a one man show under the NBA political system.

 I think from this narrative, we can all deduce the danger in making tyranny of those at the helm of affairs.

Perhaps, the National Judicial Council (NJC) in the course of its operation had, in the past, seen the handwriting on the wall and decided to change tactics. Let us hear further from Justice Ogunbiyi:

“Co-incidentally at this time, recommendations for appointment to the Court of Appeal were no longer the exclusive preserve of the State Chief Judges. Recommendations could also come from Court of Appeal or Supreme Court Justices.

“Justices of the Court of Appeal Jos Division who sat on my judgments coming from Borno State High Court Bench, on their own volition took it upon themselves and gave recommendations on my behalf.

“Similar other Justices that were outside Jos Division also unanimously recommended me for appointment.

“To me, these Justices are my destiny helpers and I saw God’s divine purpose at work… It is gratifying that at my valedictory session on leaving Borno State Bench to the Court of Appeal, the Hon. The Chief Judge remarked in his speech that although he did not recommend me for appointment, he however applauded those who did so.

“He even further poured encomiums on my suitability, credibility and integrity as a judge, to the glory of God.”

Confirming the above assertion, Hon. Justice James Ogebe, a retired Jurist of the Supreme Court said in the book titled: HONEY FROM THE ROCK which is a biography of Hon. Justice Clara Bata Ogunbiyi that :

“..When she (Hon. Justice Ogunbiyi) was the most senior Judge and was due for elevation as the Chief Judge of the state, she was bypassed and a Judge far junior to her was appointed over her. She bore this with patience. Some of us recommended her to the Court of Appeal and, by the grace of God, she was elevated as a Justice of the Court of Appeal…”

I think a lot of lessons need to be learnt from all these. For those women who may not have the livers to resist such injustice, such denial may be a blessing in disguise for them as we have seen in the cases of Justice Aloma and Justice Ogunbiyi who despite such denial eventually made it to the apex court in Nigeria.

When a coup was once hatched in Kwara State against Hon. Justice Raliat Habeeb-Elelu as Chief Judge, the woman fought her legal battle up to the Supreme Court to get herself reinstated back to that office where she eventually retired.

I do not buy into any act of conspiracy trying to deny women whatever positions they are entitled to in as much as they have the competence, credibility and integrity to hold those positions in question. They need not be cheated out because of their gender.

This case of Hon. Justice Beatrice Lazarus Iliya of Gombe State Judiciary must be seriously looked into by the National Judicial Council (NJC) and justice done if she actually deserves to be the Chief Judge as she must not be discriminated against on the ground of her being a woman. Having been called to the bar about 39 years ago and putting such a number of years into the practice and adjudication of law is not a small joke.

Many states in Nigeria particularly Lagos State have produced many female Chief Judges that performed wonderfully well in that position .Unlike in many other states, Lagos State has been the most liberal when it comes to the appointment of judges irrespective of the states the appointees come from and they are allowed to assume the position of the Chief Judge whenever it comes to their turn to be.

This kind of thing is very rare in some states as the highest position a non-indigene judicial officer can reach in those states is the position of the Acting Chief Judge.

Those states need to borrow a leaf from Lagos State when it comes to giving honour to whomsoever it is due. Competence, Creditability, Integrity and uprightness should be allowed to take precedent over ethnicity, gender and religious considerations.

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