Much as they are envied and unappreciated largely owing to the misconduct of some of their reckless colleagues, two very demanding qualities of men on the bench are discretion and sacrifice. Without judges, anarchy portends. Yet, unlike other folks in society, judges, ideally, are more of recluses compared to fellow citizens. Yet, judges, no matter how discreet, may not entirely escape the fall-out of everyday life of their spouses and offspring.
This seemed to have been the lot of the erstwhile president of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, who had to withdraw following protests raised on her possible impartiality by counsel of the petitioner, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. Remarkably, Justice Bulkachuwa withdrew not because the fear of impartiality against her was sustained. Indeed, the panel dismissed the allegation of possible political bias on account of being married to a senator elected on the platform of the All Progressives Congress, Muhammed Bulkachuwa.
Whichever way the ruling went, there was bound to be controversy. Justice Bulkachuwa, therefore, had to voluntarily withdraw so that justice would be seen to have been done. That was meritorious. At their level, especially in these days of a tainted judiciary, such judges do not emerge easily. And there was no way Justice Bulkachuwa could have remained on the panel without playing into the hands of malicious critics. On the other hand, the judge’s withdrawal has enhanced the potential credibility of the tribunal.
The ruling of the tribunal itself is monumental. At the appropriate or chosen time in life, a judge must get married, a human obligation or desire, which is neither an offence nor an indiscretion. The danger now is that, henceforth, judges finding themselves in Justice Bulkachuwa’s shoes will be vulnerable to such naturally circumstantial protests. Lawyers call such citation authority.
Yet, no judges of whatever gender could ever foresee the involvement of spouses or offspring in undertakings capable of raising doubts on their integrity during their career.
Was it wrong for the petitioner’s counsel to have raised the controversial objection? Surely not. It is a standard, if convenient, practice in litigations in any genuine democracy. Once the matter is raised and determined as in the instant case, the door closes against prospects of whingeing after the verdict. On this sensitive issue, justice has been dispensed without fear or favour. Justice Bulkachuwa has helped the situation by asserting her discretion. After all, following the dismissal of the allegation, she could have continued presiding over the trial of the election petition.
There was this other angle. A matter of trust was raised and instantly dealt with, while the judge voluntarily withdrew even without any fault on her side. Suppose Justice Bulkachuwa stayed on, flaunting her innocence inherent in the ruling, the Judge would have distracted public attention on himself, away from the trial of the election petition proper. In that situation, the election petition trial might have been prejudiced by irresponsible comments. We must not underestimate the importance of the election petition.
Should the spouse of a serving judge refrain from participation in politics? That is at some stage unrealistic. However, ordinarily, discretion should have been better exercised. No judge will ever taint himself or allow himself to be tainted deliberately by political partisanship from any quarters but the same judge, as in this case, cannot escape being eventually rightly or wrongly faulted even if conveniently for the real or imagined conduct of his spouse, ironically in the exercise of the spouse’s fundamental human rights assured under Nigerian Constitution to associate or hold or express views on and for politics.
When such a situation arises, necessary sacrifice must be made as Justice Bulkachuwa has done for Nigeria.
Meanwhile, the overall lesson must not be lost, especially the family of judges. Whatever company they keep, however they conduct themselves, whatever views they hold privately or publicly do not end with them. Innocently waiting as victims or beneficiaries are the judges themselves as Justice Bulkachuwa would testify.