New Telegraph

December 10, 2023

Supreme Court nominations: ‘SANs didn’t make it to NJC’

… says no name sent to council for appointment

•Senior lawyers being used as casual justices –Sources
•We were never invited for interviews –Agbakoba, Idigbe
•Ozekhome, Mahmud, others react

There is a disturbing silence in the judiciary over an alleged refusal of the National Judicial Council (NJC) to appoint some Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs), who had been nominated by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) into the Supreme Court bench. This is just as competent sources close to the top hierarchy of the Bar informed Saturday Telegraph that some of the learned silks are not happy with the development because they were being used casually, without knowing their fate. In a shocking revelation, Saturday Telegraph gathered that the candidates were sent to the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) for interview but it was discovered that the candidates did not make it at the interview at the FJSC and hence their names were not forwarded to the NJC for confirmation. This was yesterday revealed by the NJC’s Director of Information, Soji Oye, when Saturday Telegraph contacted the organisation, which is the body responsible for the appointment of Judges. Oye said the appointment of Justices to the apex court has a process provided for it, while revealing that no name had been sent to the Council by the FJSC. “As far as that issue is concerned, no SAN has been shortlisted by the council for appointment. The process is that they will be invited for interview by the FJSC at the first stage. Names of qualified candidates will now in turn be forwarded to the NJC for screening and approval. “Some names were sent to the FJSC and interviews were conducted. But they could not make it to the NJC. I do not understand what it means by using them. Who is using them and to do what?” He queried. Oye’s response was contrary to the views earlier expressed by the FJSC, that poor budgetary allocation was the reason for not appointing new justices into the Supreme Court. The immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onoghen, had part of his agenda to reform the Administration of Justice System in 2017, requested the NBA to nominate senior law apex court. About nine silks were on February 10, 2017, nominated into the prestigious position, but some people in the sector, including a former President of the Appeal Court, Zainab Bulkachuwa, had kicked against the idea, saying it would not allow others to move up the ladder.

We were not invited for interviews –Agbakoba, Idigbe

In a swift response, the duo of Agbakoba and Idigbe denied ever being invited for interviews. Agbakoba said: ”Ha ha!!! No one invited us for interview!!! So I am shocked to hear that we failed interviews we were not invited to attend.” On his part, Idigbe said: ”Please nobody invited me to any interview. Where did you hear this sort of terrible rumour?” One of the sources, who is also a SAN, told Saturday Telegraph that the apex court had been engaging the services of some of these senior lawyers to help in the treatment of some cases so as to remove the backlog and the bottleneck in the dispensation of justice. He said: They give them cases to look into but they are not talking about their appointments. What the apex court and some of their lordships are doing amounts to casualisation of the senior lawyers. These people are not happy with the development, they have been complaining. “They have also threatened that they may not help the justices of the Supreme Court to look into some of their cases again, and that will cause a lot of backlog. Though some of them have shown their grievances, they cannot complain openly”, he said. Sequel to the CJN’s request, the then NBA President A.B. Mahmoud (SAN), had in a letter sent to the emails of all registered lawyers invited applications from suitably qualified legal practitioners to be appointed to the Supreme Court as provided in Section 231(3) of the Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended). The section provides that: “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 not less than fifteen years.” Consequently, nine silks were shortlisted by the umbrella body of lawyers from 89 Expressions of Interest that were received; Olisa Agbakoba, Anthony Idigbe, Prof Awa Kalu, Yunus Usman and Babatunde Fagbohunlu. Others are Miannayaaja Essien, Prof Awalu Yadudu, Tajudeen Oladoja and Ayuba Giwa. The names were forwarded to the then CJN who was said to have sent them to FJSC for screening and recommendation before final recommendation by the NJC. However, since the exit of Onnoghen as the CJN, nothing has been heard of the issue. Sources close to some of the nominated SANs who spoke with Saturday Telegraph under the condition of anonymity said that the apex court has since been making use of the SANs, but they however expressed their anger over the non-confirmation of their appointments, despite being used by the apex court to carry out its functions.

‘Matter died with Onoghen’

When Saturday Telegraph contacted the Supreme Court, the Director of Press and Information, Dr. Festus Nwaneri, said there was a time the former CJN, Justice Onnoghen, requested for such a list of nominees, but that was then, and not under the current regime. According to him, “during Onnoghen, there was something of that nature. On the issue of using them, I am not aware of that”, he said. But another source, who is a member of the Judiciary Staff Union (JUSUN), told our correspondent that some of the justices are overburdened, as such; they are also asking that the appointment of the learned silks should be sped up. She said: “There are just 12 justices in the apex court and they are so overwhelmed. They seek help from some of the senior lawyers. But that is a private arrangement; it does not officially concern the court. They also want more judges to be elevated but that is not happening now. “If they had acted faster during the time of Onnoghen, the matter would have been put to rest. By now, the SANs would have come on board, but the issue died with the exit of Onnoghen. Even some lawyers and judges are frustrating the appointments; they believe it would stop the promotion of others. “Many judges in the Appeal Court are afraid that the appointment will not allow them to be elevated. But we have told them the solution lies in the unbundling of the Supreme Court. If we have the branches of the apex court in the six geo-political zones, that would provide for more justices and also speed up cases.

Ozekhome, Mahmud, others react

Reacting, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN) said he could not see why there is reluctance in appointing the seasoned SANs as justices of the apex court. “Many have distinguished themselves over the years. There is no rule known to me which states that Supreme Court Justices must only come by way of a gradualist elevation right from the High Court or Federal High Court, through the Court of Appeal, then to the Supreme Court. “Afterall, Dr Augustine Nnamani, once Attorney General, was taken straight to the Supreme Court from Bar. He turned out to be one of the very best Jurists we ever had”, he said. Also reacting, a former President of the Public Interest Lawyers League, PILL, Dr. Abdul Mahmud, said It is ridiculous that the NJC claims the nominated SANs didn’t pass the interview. “Two things here: either the interview process was rigged by the interviewers to achieve a determined outcome; or that the SANs performed woefully that it raises questions on the quality of lawyers being ap-pointed SANs. “I want to think it is the former. There is a constant fight within the legal profession between conservatism and the preservation of the status quo which allows appointments to be made from within the bench and radical progress. “Unfortunately, the bench is still a closet of those who would do anything to maintain the status quo, seeing that the status quo is grinding to a halt. If the NJC is sure of its claim, it should make the results of the interviews public”, Mahmud noted. In his own submission, an Abuja based lawyer, Oladimeji Ekengba, noted that the appointment of persons into the Supreme Court does not end at the NJC but also extend to the President who will forward the names of persons recommended by the NJC to the Senate for screening and confirmation. “If the SANs were never recommended, their names cannot be forwarded by the President”, he asserted.

Lack of funds stalling appointments

However, the FJSC had in an earlier comment explained that poor budgetary allocation was the reason for not appointing new justices into the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. The Secretary to the Commission, Bassey E. Bassey, disclosed this when the House Committee on Federal Judiciary visited the Commission penultimate Wednesday, July 15, saying that the Supreme Court was operating with only 12 Justices, with lots of vacancies to be filled. Bassey had said that the Judiciary was struggling because the appointment of new Justices for the Appeal Court and Supreme Court has to wait as a result of lack of funds. He said: “This year, our budget is the least, very small and in spite of operational activities, our budget is extremely small. The Judiciary is struggling because the appointment of new Justices to the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court has to wait. “Before you appoint them, you have to make adequate preparations for their welfare and as they are going, vacancies are created and they have to be filled. That is why the bulk of the budgets will always be given to the courts. “The budget has always been an issue. In 2019, the budget was N100 billion and we have the 2020 slightly above the one of 2019 which is N110 billion. Taking into consideration some of the priority areas like appointment of Justices of the Supreme Court, you discover that this is not enough. “The Supreme Court as at today has 12 Members and they are over working themselves. It is only in Nigeria that we have a Justice of Supreme Court working all through the week. We have to ease their stress because they are elderly”, he said.

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