There has been an unprecedented vacuum of about 10 days in the office of the Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court, Abuja, PREMIUM TIMES reports.
Findings by our reporter show that this is caused by President Muhammadu Buhari’s unavailability to approve the appointment of an acting Chief Judge to fill in the suddenly vacant office.
Mr Buhari had jetted to London on July 26 for an education summit after which he would stay on in the city for a “medical check-up” his office said in a statement.
Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, who could have approved the appointment of the acting Chief Judge of the FCT judiciary, is handicapped by Mr Buhari’s failure to transmit power to him in acting capacity, lawyers say.
Garba Salisu had suddenly resigned as the Chief Judge of the FCT High Court to take up an appointment as the Administrator of the National Judicial Institute (NJI) in Abuja.
His appointment as the NJI administrator took effect from August 1, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Tanko Muhammad, announced in a statement on August 2.
Since Mr Garba’s exit from the bench, the seat of the Chief Judge of the FCT, which ordinarily is reserved for the next most senior judge of the court, has not been occupied.
But as of Tuesday morning, about 10 days after assuming his new role, Mr Garba’s picture still featured as the Chief Judge of the FCT High Court on the website of the court.
Mr Garba, who hails from Katsina State, would have been due to retire as the chief judge by October 10 when he would have attained the mandatory retirement age of 65 years.
‘State of uncertainty at FCT High Court’
Going by the tradition of succession based on seniority in the Nigerian judiciary, the next most senior judge of the court expected to step in as the Chief Judge is Hussein-Baba Yusuf who hails from Kogi State.
Human rights lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Femi Falana, has described the atmosphere at the FCT High Court as that of “uncertainty” as the law does not envisage a vacuum for the position of Chief Judge.
Mr Falana noted that the failure of Mr Buhari, who is statutorily empowered to give his approval for the appointment of an acting Chief Judge for the court, has foisted “a state of uncertainty” on the court.
Similarly, other lawyers lampooned the presidency for throwing the court into a state of confusion.
They urged the judiciary to free itself from the stranglehold of the executive arm of government.
The Chairman of the Abuja branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, Hauwa Shekarau, said Mr Buhari’s absence has made it impossible for the next most senior judge of the court to be sworn-in in an acting capacity as Chief Judge.
“Nature abhors a vacuum. The CJ has left, therefore, the next most senior judge is supposed to take over.
“Unfortunately, the president (Mr Buhari) is out of the country. He didn’t transmit power to the Vice-President to be able to act on his behalf.
“This clearly throws up the issues that are bedevilling the governance of Nigeria. We are all left in a quandary,” she lamented.
A former National Secretary of the NBA, Afam Osigwe, however, said the president’s absence should not be an issue as there are constitutional provisions to deal with such an occurrence.
Mr Osigwe, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, said the CJN could step in to swear in the next most senior judge in the absence of the president.
He explained that the “Oath Act” allows the CJN to swear-in an acting Chief Judge in the president’s absence.
“We must not wait for the president to return before statutory functions are carried out,” Mr Osigwe said.
However, findings by our correspondent showed that the CJN is also out of the country, like the president.
“The situation is made worse by the absence of the CJN from the country,” a source familiar with the unfolding issue told this reporter.
Implications of vacuum
Mr Falana said the vacuum created by the non-appointment of an acting Chief Judge in the court has far-reaching implications.
He opined that the court’s activities are at a standstill.
“The implication is that the court is paralysed administratively or otherwise.
“It is the statutory duty of the Chief Judge to assign and distribute cases to judges when they are filed. Nobody can perform that role now.
“Any assignment carried out by any Judge or registrar may be set aside,” Mr Falana explained.
Buhari’s pattern of tardiness in judicial appointment matters
Mr Buhari’s tardy handling of the FCT Chief Judge’s appointment fits into a pattern of his poor regard for judicial appointment matters, which has unnecessarily heated up the polity, created avoidable uncertainties and instability in the judicial system on several occasions.
This first manifested in 2016 when the president delayed the appointment of Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) for months.
The National Judicial Council (NJC) had recommended Mr Onnoghen as the next CJN in October 2016, one month before his predecessor, Mahmud Mohammed, was to leave office.
Mr Buhari refused to act on the recommendation long after Mr Mohammed left office on November 10, 2016, leading to the need, for the first time in the history of the Nigerian judiciary, to have an acting CJN.
After Mr Onoghen’s inauguration as the acting CJN on November 10, Mr Buhari would continue to delay his nomination to the senate for confirmation.
Many Nigerians struggling to make a sense out of Mr Buhari’s reluctance about sending Mr Onnoghen’s name to the senate for confirmation tried to explain the then strange attitude as the president not wanting a non-northerner as the CJN.
Others said the government was still subjecting Mr Onnoghen’s records to an integrity test to determine his fitness for the job.
The delay went on until Vice-President Osinbajo took advantage of Mr Buhari’s medical vacation to London, to send Mr Onnoghen’s name to the Senate which subsequently confirmed his appointment on March 1, 2017.
Mr Onnoghen was then sworn in as the substantive CJN on March 7, 2017, almost five months after NJC’s recommendation.
Similarly, the appointment of the current Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, John Tsoho, and the President of the National Industrial Court, Benedict Kanyip, suffered about three months delay in 2019 as a result of Mr Buhari’s tardiness.
While the NJC had recommended them for appointment in October 2019, Mr Buhari did not act until December.
In a related development, 12 candidates recommended by the NJC for appointment as Justices of the Court of Appeal had to wait for seven months to be cleared by the president in June 2018.
In the same vein, Mr Buhari delayed the appointment of four justices recommended by the NJC to the Supreme Court bench in October 2019 for almost one year.
While the list of the four nominees was still waiting to be attended to by Mr Buhari, the NJC recommended another four candidates to him for appointment to the Supreme Court bench in August 2020.
Despite the increasing vacancies on the Supreme Court bench which kept piling more workload on the remaining judges of the court, Mr Buhari still refused to act on the recommendations until September when he merged the old and new lists and sent the eight names to the Senate for confirmation.
Only last year, Mr Buhari, who received NJC’s list of 33 candidates recommended for appointment as judges of the FCT High Court in April, would not act until over four months after.
Also in 2020, the current President of the Court of Appeal , Monica Dongban-Mensem, waited for Mr Buhari for about three months before her recommendation by the NJC for appointment to the position was approved by the president.
Mr Buhari’s lukewarmness towards NJC’s appointment recommendation also manifested in disciplinary matters.
One of such was NJC’s recommendation of a judge of the Federal High Court, Mohammed Yunusa, to President Buhari for compulsory retirement in July 2016 over an allegation of misconduct levelled against him.
The NJC immediately placed Mr Yunusa on suspension while waiting for Mr Buhari’s approval of the judge’s compulsory retirement from the bench.
Little did NJC know that Mr Buhari would not ever act on the recommendation.
While on suspension, Mr Yunusa approached the NJC for a review of the case against him.
At the end of the review, the NJC’s probe panel recommended his recall.
The Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Mr Tsoho, told PREMIUM TIMES, in an exclusive interview that Mr Yunusa was back on the bench.
The case turns out to be a spectacular illustration of Mr Buhari’s lukewarmness towards NJC’s recommendations, with the president failing to act on both the earlier recommendation for Mr Yunusa’s compulsory retirement and the later one for his recall from suspension.
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