Can Senior Advocates Ever Make It To Supreme Court?

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Recently, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) recommended nine senior lawyers to the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria for appointment as Supreme Court justices.
They include former NBA president Dr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), former Abia State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice Prof Awa Kalu (SAN), Chief Anthony Idigbe (SAN), Yunus Usman (SAN) and Babatunde Fagbohunlu (SAN). Others are Miannayaaja  Essien (SAN), Prof Awalu Yadudu, Tajudeen Oladoja and Ayuba Giwa.
This recommendation follows the directive of the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen to the President of the
Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN), asking the NBA to nominate suitably qualified legal practitioners to apply for appointment as Justice of the Supreme Court.
These actions, of course, are not without precedents. Section 231(3)
of the 1999 Constitution as amended provides that a person shall not be qualified to become a Justice of the apex court unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been so qualified for a period of not less than fifteen years. The immediate past NBA President, Augustine Alegeh (SAN)  revealed onSeptember 21, 2015 that NBA had nominated some senior lawyers to the then CJN, Justice Mahmud Mohammed for appointment into the SupremeCourt Bench.
In the speech he delivered to mark the opening of 2015/2016 Legal Year, Alegeh said, ‘’We are glad that our plea last year that appointment of Justices to the Supreme Court should not be restricted to the Court of Appeal alone as has been the practices for some years now in order to inject fresh blood into the Supreme Court Bench has been heeded. Recently, the NBA recommended some of its members to the CJN for appointment to the Supreme Court’’. NBA actually nominated John Olusola Bayesan (SAN) from Kwara State and Prof. Dakas CJ Dakas (SAN) from Plateau State for appointment to replace Justice John Fabiyi (Kogi) who was due to retire in November 2015 from the Supreme Court Bench. Dakas graduated with First Class in the Law from University of Jos. And Bayesan is a distinguished legal practitioner.
However, Justice Ejembi Eko of the Appeal Court who hails from Benue State made it through the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC)’s  shortlisting and National Judicial Council (NJC)’s recommendation to the President for consideration into the apex court. This triggered NBA’s reaction, accusing the leadership of the Judiciary of deliberately obstructing the senior lawyers from being appointed to the Supreme Court bench.
In the communiqué issued after its National Executive Council (NEC) meeting held in Jos on February 18, 2016, NBA stated that ‘’NEC commended the CJN for amending the Guideline for the appointment of Justices of the Supreme Court to include appointments of deserving Senior Advocates of Nigeria. NEC notes that despite impeccable records and deep knowledge of the law of NBA nominees, the final decision was based on number of judgements. NEC urged the CJN to initiate a holistic review of the guidelines to accommodate lawyers as doing so will inject new blood and improve efficiency of the Supreme Court’’.
Of course, an average judicial officer can boast of ten times of judgements submitted by a highly rated senior advocate.
Shortly before she retired on November 2014 as the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar had initiated and signed into law the ‘’2014 Revised NJC Guidelines and Procedural Rules for the Appointment of Judicial Officers of all Superior Courts of Record in Nigeria’’. Justice Mukhtar who could not commence the implementation of the guidelines before she retired noted in a forum that the purpose of the new guidelines was to stop Judges relying on mere seniority in the system for promotion onto higher Bench.
While replying Alegeh’s NBA, CJN Mahmud Mohammed said, “On assumption of office as the CJN, I directed the NJC to implement the new Revised NJC Guidelines and Procedural Rules for the Appointment of Judicial Officers of all Superior Courts of Record in Nigeria 2014; and they have strictly been observed in all appointments to all the superior courts so far made.’’
“Rule 3 (6) of the Guidelines is unambiguous because it stipulated the judicial officer’s appointment to a higher bench to be determined among other requirements of the number of judgements delivered”. The provision stated unequivocally thus, “and in the case of appointment from the Bar, evidence of 6 contested cases in the last 5 years; (ii) sound knowledge of law, (iii) seniority at the Bar and or the Bench, (iv) Federal Character or geographical spread and where necessary and possible, without compromising the independence of the judiciary or allowing politics to permeate or influence the appointment”, Justice Mohammed told Alegeh.
It will also take the camel to pass through the eye of the needle for the President to bring in a CJN from outside the Supreme Court Bench, as long as NJC and Section 231 (1) of the 1999 Constitution as amended exist. One must first become a Justice of the Supreme Court before he  or she is appointed the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
CJN Mahmud Mohammed had in a brief remark he scheduled to make during the meeting of the Chief Justices of the Commonwealth Countries at Wellington, New Zealand on Sunday 13 September 2015 said that in line with the new revised guidelines, the criteria and process for their appointment will be publicly declared when the seats become vacant. These criteria would ensure equality of opportunity for all who are eligible for judicial office and appointment on merit.
‘’The commitment to higher ideals of impartiality, propriety, diligence and competence, among others, are no longer mere watch words but are actual standards that our Judges have to attain.
‘’It was clear that the old Guidelines and Rules had become unworkable as it saw anachronisms such as the limitation that saw only
Justices of the Court of Appeal, as of right, making it to the Supreme
Court of Nigeria. Under the new, more rigorous and transparent rules, any qualified legal practitioner with the requisite intellect has the opportunity of making it to any Court in the land and even to the posts of Heads of Federal and States Superior Courts, including the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
‘’As Chairman of the National Judicial Council, I have had to take up the responsibility of ensuring that the overall appointments procedure maintains the institutional integrity of the judicial appointment process while ensuring that only the most competent persons are elevated’’ Justice Mohammed stated in New Zealand.
The question is, can any Senior Advocate of Nigeria make it to the Supreme Court Bench even under the Revised Guidelines. Of course, the answer is no. And there is no way the Guideline could be reviewed without considering the number of judgments delivered or secured by the applicants, be it a lawyer or Judicial Officer. It has been one of the requirements for taking the award of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN).
We have had Law Professors and PhD holders that joined the Bench at the courts below and rose by dint of hard work to the Supreme Court.
What stops the Senior Advocates from applying to join the Bench at the courts below? Perhaps, it’s their ego. Ahuraka is back from leave of absence to serve as Media Aide to two CJNs, Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar (GCON) and Justice Mahmud Mohammed  (GCON) at the Supreme Court.

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