In June 1998, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Commonwealth Legal Education Association, the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association and the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association held a conference in the United Kingdom at Latimer House, Buckinghamshire. The conference drew a set of Guidelines on good practice governing relations between the Executive, Parliament and the Judiciary, in the promotion of good governance, the rule of law and human rights. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, in December 2003, the Heads of Government fully endorsed the recommendations of their Law Ministers on the Latimer Guidelines, which specify the Commonwealth Principles on the accountability of and relationship between the three branches of Government.
The Nigerian Judiciary has assured in several fora that it has made significant progress not only complying with the Latimer House Principles but is also complying with the Bangalore Principles as well, which they insisted have formed an important part of the ethical character that underpins the operation of the Nigerian Courts. The commitment to higher ideals of impartiality, propriety, diligence and competence, among others, the judiciary boasted are no longer mere watch words but are actual standards that the nation’s Judges have to attain. An independent, impartial, honest and competent judiciary the Latimer House Principles insisted is integral to upholding the rule of law, engendering public confidence and dispensing justice. Indeed Value 6 of the Bangalore Principles state that competence and diligence are prerequisites to the due performance of any judicial office. To secure these aims, judicial appointments should be made on the basis of clearly defined criteria and by a publicly declared process.
The process should ensure equality of opportunity for all who are eligible for judicial office and appointment on merit. Judges should be subjected to suspension or removal only for reasons of incapacity or misbehaviour that clearly renders them unfit to discharge their duties, so the member countries are expected to imbibe. The National Judicial Council (NJC), the apex body for the nation’s judiciary, is one of the Federal Executive Bodies created by virtue of Section 153 of the 1999 Constitution as amended. The council is vested with enormous powers and functions, which no such institution in the 1979 constitution or any other previous constitution had. By the provision of Paragraph 21 of Part One of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution, NJC is empowered to recommend to the President or Governors from among the list of persons submitted to it by the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), Judicial Service Committee of the FCT and State Judicial Service Commissions, persons for appointment as justices, judges or Kadis of all the superior courts of record in the country.
According to the NJC new guidelines on appointments, the council however interviews all candidates, Kadis, judges, justices for appointment to all superior courts of record to allow for competition among candidates and transparency in the selection mechanism for judicial appointments. Despite all the rules and guidelines, lobbying, favoritism and god-fatherism still play major roles in the appointment of judicial officers in the country. This has been argued to be a norm in pluralistic, ethno-religious and democratic society like Nigeria. This is particularly so, because unlike the Executive and Legislature that in most cases appoint their personnel and officers solely by themselves, all Judicial Officers’ appointment involve all the three arms of government. And all the members of the three arms of government are involved more than before in lobbying, trying to do a favour or being a god-father to some judicial officers. Because the menace is weighing down on the quality of judicial officers being appointed this days, the former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar had to raise the alarm recently, saying it is capable of destroying the judiciary if steps are not taken to curb it.
Justice Mukhtar had on March 3, 2018 during a biography presentation of retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Clara Bata Ogunbiyi in a book titled ‘’Honey from the Rock’’ said, “I shall at this junction, revisit the issue of lobbying and in addition favoritism and god-fatherism in the appointment of judicial officers. It is sad that we allow the rising culture of lobbying to influence appointment in the judiciary. “If we are to revive what held sway in the past, that is maintaining a strong and competent judiciary, then merit should be the watchword. Lobbying, favoritism and god fatherism should be discouraged and discarded, as they lead to the fall in the standard, and instead of enhancing the institution, they devalue and weaken it because of incompetence of the personnel. Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar’s view for a change in the criteria for the appointment of Judicial Officers in Nigeria is instructive; and therefore behooves on the NJC to begin to implement the ‘’2014 Revised NJC Guidelines and Procedural Rules for the Appointment of Judicial Officers’’ of all Superior Courts of Record in Nigeria’’.
It was clear that the old Guidelines and Rules had become unworkable as it is fostering 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. It is worthy of note that part of the reform of the current CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen who doubles as the NJC Chairman is to ensure that the overall appointments procedure maintains the institutional integrity of the judicial appointment process so that only the most competent persons are elevated.
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