Presidency Goofed on Appointment of Supreme Court Justices, says A2J

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Joseph Otteh
Joseph Otteh
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Presidency Goofed on Appointment of Supreme Court Justices, says A2J

Access to Justice (A2J) has accused President Muhammadu Buhari of abusing his powers in the appointment of Supreme Court Justices.

The group, in a statement entitled: “Appointment of Justices of the Supreme Court:  President Buhari’s antics sets alarm off on the future of the Nigerian Judiciary”, said the manner the President handled the appointment to the Bench of the country’s apex court  ”damaged the integrity and independence of the Judiciary in Nigeria’’.

The statement,  signed by A2J’s Convener Joseph Otteh and Project Director Deji Ajare, claimed that the President’s actions created suspicions about the independence of Supreme Court Justices and could kindle in-fighting and jostling within the court itself.

“His antics speak also to blackmail; the President tells the Judiciary that if his favoured names are not submitted for appointment, no other persons recommended to him by the NJC will be appointed into the Supreme Court. And the Judiciary apparently got the message!”

Access to Justice recalled that “in October 2019, the National Judicial Council (NJC) submitted a list of four serving Justices of the Court of Appeal, Justices Adamu Jauro, Emmanuel A. Agim, Samuel Oseji and Helen M.Ogunwumiju, to the President of Nigeria, for appointment as Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

“Until August 31, 2020 – i.e. nearly one year – the President did not forward the aforesaid names to the Senate for confirmation.

“By mid-August 2020, the NJC again submitted another list of four Justices of the Court of Appeal to the President for appointment into the Supreme Court. The four comprise Justices Lawal Garba, Addu Aboki, I. M. M. Saulawa and Tijjani Abubakar.

“On the 31st of August 2020, the President submitted the names of the first and second sets of nominees for appointment to the Supreme Court of Nigeria to the Senate for confirmation.

“The Senate read the letter asking for confirmation of the nominees on the 29th of September, 2020.

“Therefore, while it took about 11 months for Nigeria’s President to send names of the first set of nominees for Supreme Court positions to the Senate for confirmation, it took just about two weeks to do so for the latter set of nominees.”

The group noted that the Presidency has offered no explanations for what it described as “a huge and remarkable contrast in the pace with which it acted on the recommendations of the NJC with respect to both sets of nominations”.

According to the group, the processes leading to the recommendations of both sets of nominees for appointment to the Supreme Court were unarguably flawed, given that the NJC and the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), did not observe the requirements of the applicable Judicial Appointment Guidelines regarding notification and publicity for the vacancies, alongside offering an opportunity and level-playing field to every qualified person to be considered for selection as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

It argued that the FJSC  withheld information of its “compliance” procedures in spite of Freedom of Information Requests made to it by Access to Justice.

“Therefore, it appears reasonable to conclude that the President’s reluctance to act on the first setof nominations sent to him in October 2019 was not as a result of any flaws or defects with the process leading to the nominations.

The group asked: “So why did the President wait for so long before acting on the NJC recommendations, even when it was clear that the Supreme Court was, following the retirement of six of its eighteen justices within the last year, functioning at breaking point for so long? In spite of the volatile inferences that can be drawn from his actions, the President has not found it fitting to offer any explanations with respect to these nominations?.”

It said: “The impression all of this creates is that the President was set on manipulating how the Supreme Court is configured, politically and ethnically, now and for the near future; he wanted to determine how seniority amongst the Justices of the Supreme Court is ordered as well as which Justices of the Court can be expected to succeed to the highest judicial office as Chief Justice of Nigeria.

“The President’s letter to the Senate makes specific mention of the confirmation being “according to their ranking of seniority at the Court of Appeal”.

“The conduct of the entire process leads to the conclusion that the Presidency had withheld from seeking the confirmation of, and making the appointments of the four Justices whose names were on the first set of recommendations from the NJC simply because it was targeting the inclusion of further names for appointment to the Supreme Court,  names that were not included in the first list.

“Furthermore, that the President was willing to wait out the occurrence of that event, as well as ensure that its targets did not lose their comparable rankings with earlier nominated persons notwithstanding that the Supreme Court was almost collapsing with overbearing workloads due to its lean workforce.

“The President has also created unpalatable public suspicions about his motives for delaying the Supreme Court appointments, and, in fact, some sections of the public have alleged there is a quid pro quo motive involved in it.”

The group said the  Presidency’s interference with appointments into Supreme Court appointments further undermines the integrity and independence of the court, and politicizes membership of a court that ought to be a neutral, impartial, non-partisan and non-political institution.

It said the precedent the President had set would diminish the stature of the Supreme Court, as well as promote similar efforts in the future to manipulate the process along lines of vested or opportunistic  interests.

“The Presidency has abused its powers of the appointment of Supreme Court Justices, belittling it also by antics, which only serve overarching parochial, selfish interests.

“While the President has often voiced support for judicial reform and respect for the Judiciary, what he does in actual fact belie the rhetoric. President Buhari has inflicted incalculable long-term damage to the integrity and independence of the Judiciary in Nigeria,” it stated.

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