An era in our judicial system seems to have gone for life. What era are we talking about? There was an era in this country when lawyers were invited to serve as judges on the judicial bench .While some accepted the invitation, some declined it. The first lawyer from the Northern Nigeria, Alhaji A.G.F. Abdulrasaq, SAN was once gazetted was a Judge in the old Northern Region, but the lawyer declined the elevation to the bench. Lanre Akinsola Esq .(A.K.A Onigegewura) who always prides himself as an amateur historian once wrote that Chief Afe Babalola, SAN was once invited to the bench as a judge, but he declined it on the ground that the take home that would be given to him as remuneration would not be sufficient to take care of himself and his family . Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, in an exclusive interview with Gloria Ireka, Esq, the Editor -in- Chief of the NEWSWIRE MAGAZINE had this to say:
“In 1986, when I was ten years at the Bar, the late Honourable Justice Babatunde Belgore – then Number Two at the Federal High Court called me to his Chambers here in Lagos and said ‘Wole, I am recommending you ,as a Judge of the Federal High Court,’ I thanked him ,but declined the offer. I didn’t want to go to the Bench. I wanted to stay at the Bar to practice and get to the peak of the profession…”
In my tribute to the late Hon. Justice Niki Tobi titled – NIKI TOBI: EXIT OF A LEGAL LUMINARY published in the THISDAY NEWSPAPER of 02.08.2016, I wrote:
“…The eventual elevation of Hon. Justice Niki Tobi to the Supreme Court after the retirement of Hon. Justice Adolphus Godwin Karibi Whyte (CON) who was the first Justice of the apex court to retire at the age of 70 after the extension from the age of 65. Hon. Justice Karibi Whyte, retired JSC, taught Justice Tobi law as a lecturer at the University of Lagos. When Justice Tobi was appointed a professor of law he was advised by the learned jurist that the Nigerian Judiciary would need his services.”
It should be noted, despite the fact that Justice Niki Tobi was a professor as at the time he joined the bench, he rose from the High Court through Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court. I want to believe that it was the comportment, the high level of discipline and displayed of the wide knowledge of law by these individuas that must have attracted those recommending them for elevation to the Bench .Here is another lesson for all lawyers. There was this encounter between late Hon. Justice Taylor and Mr. Bolarinwa Babalakin related as follows in the book: LEGAL LUMINARIES:
“Justice Taylor was a very firm, able, honest and no-nonsense judge who would not tolerate any application by lawyers for adjournment without cogent reasons. Sometime in April 1960, Mr. Bolarinwa Babalakin (later a Justice of the Supreme Court) barely six months old at bar appeared before Justice Taylor at the High Court of the Western Region in Ibadan with the instructions from his senior colleague in chambers to ask for another date for the senior colleague to personally come and handle the contentious matter. Justice Taylor refused Mr. Babalakin’s application and said that he would stand down the case for two hours for the new wig to study the case file and come back to argue the case before him .When Mr. Babalakin eventually took the bull by the horns and did very well before him, Justice Taylor later invited him to his chambers and encouraged him to continue to perform very well as he did before him in court the other day .Justice Taylor further advised Mr. Babalakin that if he kept the flag flying the sky would be his limit in the practice of law .Like a biblical prophet ,the prophecy of Justice Taylor on Mr. Babalakin came to pass that he not only succeeded as a practising lawyer but was later elevated to the bench and eventually retired as a Justice of the Supreme Court, the apex court in Nigeria.”
The happening this time around has clearly showed that the era when lawyers are being invited to the bench has gone for life. Rather than being invited, those lawyers who want to be judicial officers will have to apply to the authorities in charge of the appointment of judicial officers whether at the State or Federal level. If we are to call a spade its real name, getting elevated to the bench as a judicial officer goes beyond mere applying for the position. I have overheard many applicants and aspirants complaining that most advertisements you see calling on lawyers to apply as judicial officers may just be a ruse or in the general parlance is just “ to fulfil all righteousness” that those in charge real know those they will appoint or that the appointment may have even been completed before the advert. To the best of my knowledge, it is not only in our profession that this kind of things happen, it is a general practice in all other fields of human endeavour not only in Nigeria but in some other part of the world.
Let me cite a personal experience, many years back when I was working for a particular law firm and I became fed up with the system, a very good friend of mine drew my attention to a particular Federal Medical Institution’s advertisement wanting to recruit lawyers to its Legal Unit and I applied immediately. I was in Adamawa State High Court, Yola for a matter when the text message came in on my phone that I should come for an interview. Immediately I finished from court and instead of going back to my hotel room to relax till the following day to embark on my trip back to Lagos, I proceeded immediately to the motor park and took the next available car to Abuja from where I eventually took the one going to Lagos. On the early morning of D-day, I proceeded to Abeokuta for the interview and I was very astonished when I got there. The crowd I saw on ground was as if we have gone there to watch football match. Although apart from lawyers, the institution still wanted to recruit other non-lawyers to other units or departments. The organizers of the interview made things worse when they said there was going to be a written test and to be followed by oral interview which everyone must take part. It was then I realised that the organizers had succeeded in taking us for a ride. The question I began to ask myself were that: If the organizers were really serious, why must it be everyone that took part in the written test that must also take part in the oral interview? Shouldn’t it be wise for them to have said that if written test was done and marked, those that score below certain percentage should take their exit and those with the required points should wait for the oral interview. But this was not to be. The exercise was nothing but a charade as the result of the written test was never published. The organizers presumably asked those that passed and failed the written test to wait for the oral interview. That day I returned home from Abeokuta to Lagos around 10 PM and subsequently nothing was heard from the organizers of the written test and oral interview. Since then the advice I keep giving to people and myself was that whenever you see any advertisement for recruitment, please always shine your eyes so that it may not turn out to be another ruse or charade. Although, there is nothing bad in trying.
The Supreme Court and Court of Appeal not very long ago called on lawyers outside the judicial circle to apply for elevation to the appellate courts and despite the show of interest by many senior lawyers; we are still waiting to see the elevations. When this idea was first mooted and lawyers were declaring interests in the elevations, my personal reaction was that while wishing them the best and good luck, I still hold the personal belief that those who are within the system and still serving on the bench may not be comfortable with that idea because allowing that may hinder their own hope and aspiration of being elevated. Those who are coming from outside may be seen as hijackers despite the fact that there is no law that says Justices of the appellate court cannot be chosen or elevated from among the lawyers in the private or official Bar. The late Justices Elias and Nnamani were elevated from the official bar directly to the Supreme Court respectively under Gowon and Obasanjo military regimes.
The question that is still begging for answer now is: Should our jurists be appointed or elected to the bench? While it may be argued by some that the present mode of appointing judges to the bench is in line with what is stipulated in the Constitution, but the fact still remains that this mode without fear of being contradicted has its many shortcomings. What shortcomings are we talking about? Let us again borrow from the words of Hon. Justice Mariam Aloma Mukhtar, a former Chief Justice of Nigeria:
“I shall at this junction revisit the issue of lobbying and in addition favouritism and god-fatherism in the appointment of judicial officers. It is sad that we allow the rising culture of lobbying to influence appointment in judiciary….If we are to revive what held sway in the past which is maintaining a strong and competent judiciary- then let merit should be the watchword. Lobbying, favoritism and godfatherism should be discouraged and discarded, as they lead to fall in the standard and instead of enhancing the institution, they devalue and weaken it because of incompetence of the personnel.”
The negative experience of those lawyers who are really involved in the court room litigation practice will surely give credence to the contention of the former Chief Justice.. If you conduct opinion poll among practicing lawyers, you will be able to know which of judicial officers are good, brilliant and have passion for the job and which judicial officers are otherwise. The judicial officers are equally in position to know which of the lawyers are good, brilliant are and really have the knowledge of law. As such if we opt for the election of jurists to the bench or their elevation to the appellate court, both judges and lawyers will be eligible to vote in such exercise because both lawyers and judges know the best candidates for the jobs. Any lawyer vying for the position of a judge must be well learned in the knowledge of law. Anyone that is not versed in law but with the intention to learn on the job as a judge should not have business going to the bench as such will be very dangerous to our judicial system.
The judges on the bench deserve better remuneration but any aspirants to the bench who will not be contented with such remuneration should better remain where they are . They should learn a great lesson from the polite way of turning down the appointment even if it is offer to them as done by Chief Afe Babalola, SAN above. It is very unfortunate that there are stories of some lawyers who despite being elevated to the bench as judges still engage in the behind the scene practice of law rather than leaving those briefs for others lawyers in real practice to do that and disengage themselves completely from such briefs. A lawyer must have a specific choice of chosen between either being at the Bar to practice law or being on the Bench to face squarely the business of dispensing justice. Is it possible for a person to eat his cake and still have it?