Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lessons from Justice Jombo-Ofo’s saga

History was made in the Nigerian judiciary on Friday, November 23, 2012 when Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, hitherto the presiding Justice of the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal, was sworn in as the Acting President of the Court of Appeal. She is the first female President of the Court of Appeal, though in acting capacity. She took over from Justice Dalhatu Adamu. This singular appointment of Mrs. Bulkachuwa has effectively put women at the helms of affairs of both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, the two highest courts of the land. It would be recalled that Justice Mariam Aloma Mukthar was sworn in as the Chief Justice of Nigeria on July 16, 2012.
Another noteworthy event that happened same day, however, was the CJN’s swearing-in of Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofo who was unceremoniously denied an oath of office alongside 11 of her other colleagues on November 5. Her ‘sin’ was that she was playing the role of usurper by trying to occupy the Abia State slot at the Appeal Court though she is an indigene of Anambra State. The fact that she is married to an Abia man and had worked for 14 years in Abia State was discountenanced by her traducers. They simply based their petitions on “Guiding Principles and Formulae for the Distribution of all Cadres of Posts,” created in pursuance to the Federal Character Commission (Establishment, etc) Decree (1996 No 34). Part 11, Clause 11 provides that: “A married woman shall continue to lay claim to her state of origin for the purpose of implementation of the federal character formulae at the national level.” This policy is contained in Official Gazette No 74, Vol. 84. Incidentally, Anambra State already has three justices of the Court of Appeal while Abia has only one. The implication of Mrs. Jombo-Ofo’s appointment into the appellate court means that Anambra has four justices of the Court of Appeal while Abia has only one.
Though the petitions cannot be said to lack merit, however, the guideline is inconsistent with, and thus inferior to Section 42 (1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, which says: “A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not by reason only that he is such a person:- a) be subjected either expressly by or in the practical application of any law in force in Nigeria or any executive action of the government, to disabilities or restrictions to which citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religion or political opinions are not made subject..” It is an irrefutable fact that any law that is inconsistent with the constitution shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be null, void and of no effect. This is where the majority of the public, I inclusive, disagreed with the cerebral Justice Mukthar. Being a woman herself and a jurist, she ought not to have suspended Jombo-Ofo’s inauguration on the basis of petition(s) which is clearly in conflict with constitutional provision. More so, the Abia State Government which nominated her to the National Judicial Council in the first place had also written to affirm her candidacy.
The Senate, in a resolution passed on November 7, had urged the CJN to swear-in Justice Jombo-Ofo and for all government agencies to note that a married woman can claim either her state of origin or that of her husband’s in relation to the Federal Character principle. A civil society group, Women Empowerment and Legal Aid, led by its Executive Director, Mrs. Funmi Falana, had also dragged the Federal Government to a Lagos High Court over the matter before NJC in its emergency meeting held on November 21 gave a final nod for Jombo-Ofo to be sworn-in.
It is important to note that a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Olufunlola Adekeye, had decried this discriminatory attitude in her valedictory speech on Wednesday, October 31, a few days before the Jombo-Ofo’s maltreatment took place. The media had reported Justice Adekeye as calling on the CJN, the Chief Judges of the states, the Judicial Service Commission and the National Judicial Council to review the policy that married women cannot reach the peak of their career in their husbands’ states. She noted that complaints of this nature are increasingly rampant in the judiciary. The retired Justice lamented that whenever there is vacancy at the top in the husband’s state, the woman is often denied the post. Instead, she is referred to her state after climbing the ladder and putting so many years into the service. An indigene of the state will thereafter, take the position. She observed that the woman would have hurdles to cross in her state as she did not work there and the authorities there would not be able to assess her suitability for the post properly.
It is my considered view that the obstacle to women emancipation in Nigeria is more cultural than legal. AsThe Guardian noted in its November 21, 2012 editorial: “That Justice Jombo-Ofo seeks elevation to the upper Bench through her husband’s state of origin is not novel. From precedents, female judges have been known to take advantage of their husbands’ place of birth. It happened in the case of Justice Mary Odili who got into the Supreme Court through her husband’s state of origin and Justice Amina Augie, the wife of the late Senator Adamu Augie, who rose through the home state of her husband.” Two former Chief Judges of Lagos State, Justice Omotunde Ilori, and Justice Ade Alabi, were said to have been from Osun and Ondo states respectively. Even in the realm of politics, Senator Grace Folasade Bent, though Yoruba by tribe, represented Adamawa State (her husband’s home state) in the Sixth Senate.
It is therefore heart-warming that good sense has prevailed after much public uproar about the perceived injustice being meted to Justice Jombo-Ofo. However, I align my thought with those calling for constitutional reform on the issue of indigeneship. I think citizenship and residency should take precedence over indigeneship and that after a stipulated number of years of residing in a particular community or state, one should be able to aspire to the highest position in the state. This should not be made discretionary.
Additionally, the obnoxious federal character guideline needs to be reviewed by the National Assembly to bring it in conformity with the provisions of Section 42 of the 1999 Constitution, as amended. Further, it is high time Nigeria domesticated the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women and other international and regional instruments that promote women’s rights which the country had previously ratified.
Governor Theodore Orji of Abia State should be commended for nominating and standing by Justice Jombo-Ofo. This saga has proved the power of public opinion in shaping government decision. If not for the public outcry, Mrs. Jombo-Ofo would have been completely denied her legitimate right at the upper echelon of the Bench. I congratulate her and Justice Bulkachuwa warmly and wish them a very successful and crisis-free tenure in office.