Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Tasks before the New CJN

Hearty congratulations to our new Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Justice Aloma Mariam Mukthar (JSC) who was sworn in as the thirteenth CJN on Monday, July 16, 2012. Twelve predecessors of the new CJN are:  Adetokunbo Ademola 1958–1972, Teslim Olawale Elias, 1972–1975, Darnley Arthur Alexander, 1975–1979, Atanda Fatai Williams, 1979–1983, George Sodeinde Sowemimo, 1983–1985, Ayo Gabriel Irikefe, 1985–1987, Mohammed Bello, 1987–1995, Muhammad Lawal Uwais, 1995–2006, Salihu Moddibo Alfa Belgore, 2006–2007, Idris Legbo Kutigi, 2007–2009, Aloysius Katsina-Alu, January 1, 2010- 28 August 2011 and Dahiru Musdapher, August 2011 – July 15, 2012.

Justice Mukthar was a lady of many firsts; she is indeed a trailblazer and a pacesetter. News report has it that she is the first female Northerner to become a lawyer, first female High Court Judge from the North, first female second-in-command in Kano State judiciary, first female Justice of the Court of Appeal where she served 17 years, first female Justice of the Supreme Court, and the first female to be honoured with the title of Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON).  Statutorily, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) heads the Supreme Court and the National Judicial Council (NJC), a position that has been the exclusive preserve of men since the country gained independence. It is also the first time an arm of government will be headed by a woman.  Hon. Justice Mukthar has been described as the lady of justice and not of technicalities who commands the respect of lawyers and judges because of her integrity.

Kudos goes to President Goodluck Jonathan for this meritorious appointment. Though former president Obasanjo appointed Justice Mukthar to the Supreme Court in 2005; the incumbent president has scored a number of first too as having appointed a woman as CJN and also having appointed highest number of women in his cabinet (about 13 out of 42) as well as appointing highest number of female justices to Supreme Court. If my lord, Justice Clara Ogunbiyi’s nomination to Supreme Court is eventually confirmed by the Senate, she will be joining Justice Aloma Mukthar, Justice Olufunlola Adekeye and Justice Mary Odili. What this boils down to is that out of about 17 Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, four of them will be female.   This is unprecedented in the history of the apex court.

The inauguration of the new CJN also underscored a silent revolution by Nigeria’s women. Even though women performed poorly in the 2011 General Elections, they are getting compensated with appointive positions. There are now female speakers in Oyo and Anambra as well as a Deputy Speaker in Adamawa State House of Assemblies. The House of Representatives also has a female Majority Leader in the person of Hon. Mulikat Adeola Akande. Perhaps, for the first time Nigeria now has first female Comptroller-General of Immigration, Mrs. Rose Chinyere Uzoma.

The tasks before the new CJN are no doubt daunting as she comes at a time when judicial reform is still inchoate. Among the major challenges Justice Aloma Mukthar have to grapple with is how to fast-track our justice delivery system.  Sunday Punch of June 24, 2012 reported that statistics from the Nigerian Prisons Service shows that there are no fewer than 53,100 inmates in prisons across the country. Out of this figure, 47,200 were standing trial as at June 20, 2012. This shows that only a paltry 5,900 are convicts while the remaining are awaiting trials. Moreover, up to 50 per cent of these Awaiting Trial Prisoners have been on remand for between 5 and 17 years without their cases being concluded.

This shows that potential innocent people are being made to unduly suffer. Part of the blame has been put at the doorstep of the judiciary who is said to be slow with dispensation of justice. According to the Deputy Controller of Prisons and spokesman for the service, Mr. Kayode Odeyemi, “Our criminal justice system is weak. The law enforcement agencies and the judiciary are slow in dispensing justice, making those awaiting trial increase and stay longer in the prisons. Also, the law enforcement agencies and the courts continue to find high profile cases such as armed robbery, drug trafficking, murder and homicide difficult to handle, as the principal witnesses often avoid appearance in court. This makes such cases suffer setback.”

At a lecture organised by the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS) on  November 10,  2011, the immediate past CJN, Justice Dahiru Musdapher in a paper titled  “The Nigerian Judiciary: Towards Reform of the Bastion of Constitutional Democracy” lamented the delay in the dispensation of justice which he identified as a major challenge in the justice delivery sector. He attributed such delay to institutional incapacities in   facilities (especially electronic facility), in-built delay mechanisms in the law, as well as failings on the part of some Judges, the official and private Bars, law enforcement agencies, litigants and witnesses. CJN also expressed concern about “the declining intellectual depth and overall quality of the judgments of some Judges as well as the frequency with which some Judges churn out conflicting decisions in respect of the same set of facts.”

Some administrative steps taken by the Justice Musdapher to reform the judiciary include the setting up of Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais led 28 member judicial reform committee as well as the full computerisation of Supreme Court operations so as to ensure efficient and speedy processing of court documentations, fast-track compilation (and transmission) of records of proceedings and other vital documents. Justice Musdapher also issued an advisory to his colleagues on the bench when he counseled them to prioritise criminal matters bordering on official corruption that are placed before them, accelerate the hearing of such cases and ensure that they are dispensed with within six months of filing. More than eight months after this worthy counsel was given, the wheel of justice still grinds slowly as no noticeable improvement has been witnessed in the justice delivery system.

The newly sworn in CJN must not reinvent the will. She should realize that time is of essence as she has barely two years before she will clock the mandatory retirement age of 70 years. She should therefore spend her little time in office judiciously by consolidating on the reforms initiated by her predecessor. She should put her weight behind the 52 constitutional amendments her immediate predecessor submitted to the national assembly and clinically study with a view to implement the report of the various justice sector reform committees, particularly the last one submitted by Justice Lawal Uwais committee. Let her play the role of implementer and enforcer of judicial reforms and she would have achieved much to be positively remembered.