Justice Uwani Musa Abba Aji: From Gashua to the Supreme Court

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Hon. Justice Uwani Musa Abba Aji

Any Nigerian that was politically aware in the 1990s would be familiar with the name Gashua. For these crops of Nigerians, the images that readily come to mind are – Gani Fawehinmi, and a terrible prison.

During one of his many arrests in the early 1990s, by the military junta, he was sent off to a prison in Gashua; described as one of the most horrific. And so Gashua, aside from being the capital of Bade Local Government Area in Yobe State and administrative seat of the famous Bade Emirate, also hosted celebrity prisoners.

But who would have believed that beyond the dark images that Gashua conjures in many minds, this famous town has birthed and quietly nurtured one who would rise to become a symbol of justice in defiance to all that military juntas represent.

Born November 1956 in Gashua, Hon. Justice Uwani Musa Abba Aji last Tuesday broke the glass ceiling as she became the seventh woman to sit at Nigeria’s Supreme Court and second from the North East after Hon. Justice Clara Bata Ogunbiyi who is from Borno State.

Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen made some remarks after the swearing-in. “Today is a very great day in the history of the Nigerian judiciary as you have not only witnessed the swearing in of yet another gentleman in skirt to the bench of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, but it is a victory for the judiciary in particular and the legal profession in general, and for all right-thinking members of the community known as Nigeria because it offers hope for the hopeless. It offers hope for continued investment in the project known as Nigeria. I must personally thank the Federal Republic of Nigeria for this opportunity.”

Now, the unwary might suppose that the CJN said those, because of the special number (seven) which she occupies among the ladies that have graced the apex court bench. Nonetheless, His Lordship meant other things. Hers was a journey fraught with thorns and thistles…

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A gentle smile lit her face but her soft voice sounded croaked as she weaved in and out of the crowd; saying thank you, shaking hands and hugging a number of the many guests that packed the Supreme Court’s ceremonial court hall to witness her swearing-in. It was finally a dream come true. The CJN further captured her odyssey with these words. “You have journeyed through thick and thin to get here…You have worked very hard to earn elevation to the Supreme Court… Your work ethic and integrity are what got you here…”

Called to the Bar in 1981, Justice Abba Aji started from Central Primary School, Gashua and later Government Girls Secondary School, Maiduguri now Government Girls College. She then proceeded to the Institute of Administration, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria between 1974 and 1976 where she obtained a diploma in law. She later acquired an LLB (1980) from the same institution. After serving at various cadres, from Clerical Assistant, Area Courts Division in 1973 to Acting Chief Registrar, High Court of Yobe State, November to December 1991, Abba Aji was appointed as a High Court Judge on the 18th of December 1991. Her Lordship was there until 22nd September 2004 when she was called up to serve at the Court of Appeal.

She joined other justices of the Appeal Court same day with Justices Mary Peter Odili and Kudirat Keke –Ekun. Although women have not yet reached parity with men in terms of their numbers within the federal judiciary, significant progress has been made and the list keeps growing.

Abba Aji’s confirmation came after the senate considered the report of the Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters on her nomination.  Chairman of the committee, David Umaru, said the nominee has been screened and satisfied all requirements.

Yet, her confirmation was not without pitfalls. Immediately her nomination was announced a certain Civic Society Network Against Corruption (CSNAC), through its Chairman, Mr. Lanre Suraju, urged President Muhammadu Buhari not to forward her name to the Senate for confirmation as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, on the basis that she was under corruption investigation by security agencies for allegedly accepting a bribe from a senior lawyer who is currently facing trial in court, some questions arose.

Suraju, who is a member of the NJC’s Corruption and Financial Crime Cases Monitoring Committee set up last year by the CJN, was said to have threatened to challenge Abba-Aji’s appointment in court should President Buhari assent to her elevation to the Supreme Court.

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Nonetheless, the National Judicial Council (NJC) has since reacted to the call asserting that there are no allegations of corruption against her. The NJC in a statement by its Director of Information, Mr. Soji Oye, explained that contrary to CSNAC’s claim, Justice Abba-Aji has no pending corruption case to disqualify her from being appointed to the apex court’s bench. The Council had at its 87th meeting chaired by the CJN on October 3 and 4, 2018 recommended Justice Abba-Aji, currently the Presiding Justice, Kaduna Division of the Court of Appeal, to the President for appointment as a Justice of the Supreme Court.

Her lordship was one of the eight judicial officers, who were directed by the NJC to excuse themselves from duties, effective from November 2, 2016 on the request of the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) pending the outcome of their investigation by the DSS, on corruption allegation. She and others were however directed to resume duties on June 7, 2017 on the grounds that no charges were brought against them by the AGF at the conclusion of their investigation.

Strangely, as soon as she was announced for elevation, CSNAC showed up. Yet, the story of United States’ Justice Brett Kavanaugh is still very fresh. After investigations on allegations of sexual misconduct levelled at him, a letter to the Senate Republicans from the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman revealed that none of the witnesses provided evidence to back their claims. Subsequently, he was cleared and elevated to the Supreme Court of the United States. Some months ago, one of his accusers not only admitted that she lied to the congress but revealed that she had never met Kavanaugh.

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On the Nigerian scene, if the AGF and his team that initially alleged graft failed to bring charges against Abba-Aji at the end of their investigations, why the insistence by CSNAC that she is under corruption investigation by security agencies?

When the NJC in view of no pending corruption case against her and other justices called them back to work, CSNAC raised no posers. All that while, she adjudicated over matters and wrote judgments. If she is considered unfit to sit on the apex court bench on account of alleged corrupt practices, does it then mean that justices with corruption tendencies are suitable for the Court of Appeal? Would it not amount to grave injustice for CSNAC to be silent over the recall to the Court of Appeal, of a judge that is likely to pervert the course of justice? Would it not be a great travesty of justice to suffer litigants the agony of going on appeal when it is known that they will not get justice? CSNAC needs to answer these questions and more if in their opinion she is unfit for elevation but kept mum when she was recalled to the Court of Appeal.

But for routine appeals to the Supreme Court by lawyers and litigants who are dissatisfied with some decisions of the appeal court including that of her lordship, there has never been any known petition against her.

Lillian Okenwa, a lawyer, is Editor-in- Chief/publisher – Law & Society Magazine

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