NJC: When the Hunter Becomes the Hunted By Prince Azubuike Esq.
The National Judicial Council is a creation of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) with enormous powers capable of taming every judicial officer in Nigeria (see Item 21 Part 1 Third Schedule to the Constitution).
The powers of the NJC was further elaborated and given judicial nod by the Supreme Court in the celebrated case of Hon. Justice Raliat Elelu-Habeeb v A.G Federation (2012) All FWLR (Pt. 629) 1011. To the judicial officer, the fear of the NJC is the beginning of wisdom, as this judicial body, while trying to ensure sanity in the judicial arm of government have meted out sanctions to some judges who otherwise feels they are untouchable.
The NJC became more vocal with respect to the appointment of substantive Chief Judge of a state. As a result of the conflicts of interest that ensued in the process of the appointment of substantive CJ’s, this revered body was exposed with some powerful political elements in the country particularly state Governors.
The Abia State judicial debacle will not be forgotten in a hurry as the incumbent and his predecessor have had occasions in which they felt the unwavering pressures from the NJC. The scenario that played out in Rivers State in 2013 has left many in awe as to how unyielding the NJC can be.
The then Governor of Rivers State Rt. Hon. Chibuike Amaechi was faced with the challenge of appointing a substantive CJ for the state. He had his preferred candidate Sir Justice P.N.C Agumagu (as he then was) rejected by the NJC on the ground that he was not the ‘most senior’ judge in the hierarchy of judges in the state judiciary.
The Governor approached the court in Suit No: FHC/PH/CS/421/2013 – Governor of Rivers State & 2 Ors. V NJC & Anor vide an Originating Summons for the resolution of several questions among which is,:
“Whether the NJC is entitled under the CFRN to recommend only the most senior judge of the High Court of Rivers State to the Governor for appointment as the Chief Judge of the state?”
In a well-considered judgment delivered on the 18th day of March, 2014, Lambo Akanbi J (as he then was) in resolving the question raised in favour of the Governor held that:
“The role of NJC therefore is advisory without a corresponding obligation on the party to whom the recommendation is made to willy-nilly accept the recommendation. The Governor is not made a rubber stamp or robot to willy-nilly accept the NJC recommendation. He has a choice of outright rejection without taking it to the House of Assembly for debate.”
Armed with this judgment, the then Governor swore in Hon. Justice PNC Agumagu (as he then was) as the substantive CJ of the state. In its usual modus oparandi, the NJC suspended Agumagu J. as a judicial officer and recommended him for compulsory retirement. The aftermath of that confrontation between the NJC and the Governor will be a story for another day.
Five years afterwards, the NJC is in a dilemma, the past CJN W.S.N Onnoghen (as he then was) was suspended from office via an ex parte order of the CCT. On the basis of the said order, President Buhari appointed T. Mohammed as the acting CJ without any recourse whatsoever to the NJC. A revered jurist, Olisa Agbakoba SAN petitioned the acting CJN to the NJC for accepting the appointment without NJC’s recommendation.
After subjecting the said petition to investigation, NJC resolved that the Ag. CJN did nothing wrong by accepting the appointment even without its recommendation. Subjecting the said decision of the NJC through the lens of its precedents, something fundamental is wrong. NJC forgot in a hurry that it was sequel to a judgment (not an ex parte order) of a court that PNC Agumagu accepted the appointment to serve as the substantive CJ of Rivers State yet the NJC sat on appeal over the said judgment by suspending Agumagu J without first having the judgment set aside by a competent court. The NJC was again playing the role of a typical boss, bully any employee that refuses to follow ‘instructions’.
The judiciary no doubt is integral to the success of any democracy. Not until the judiciary wakes up, our democracy will remain nascent even after practicing it for 100 years. No doubt, there is need for urgent reforms in the judiciary and if we indeed long for serious institutional changes that reform must begin with the NJC.
Prince Azubuike Esq
(Distinguish Member of Degema Branch of the NBA) Writes from Port Harcourt and divides his research interest in International Law (with a bias for Afro Centric Views), Constitutional Law, Commercial Arbitration and Oil and Gas Law.
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