On March 5, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa bowed out of the Bench as she clocked the statutory mandatory retirement age of 70 years for Justices of Appeal Court.
In this interview with Lukman Olabiyi, before bowing out of the Bench in Lagos, Justice Bulkachuwa whose husband is a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and senator representing Bauchi North senatorial district, painted the picture of her career, family and lifestyle.
Justice Bulkachuwa who is the first Chief Judge of Gombe State in 1997, appointed as Justice, Court of Appeal (JCA) in 1998 and later became the President, Court of Appeal in April, 2014, also disclosed her greatest challenge while in office, among other things in respect to Nigeria’s judiciary, election petition cases and sundry issues.
Justice Bulkachuwa, an indigene of Nafada Local Government Area of Gombe State, was born March 6, 1950 to the family of Alhaji Abubakar Gidado El-Nafaty in Bauchi, Bauchi State. She began her primary education at Tudun Wada primary school, Kaduna in 1957 before moving to senior primary school, Maiduguri road, Kaduna in 1961, where she acquired her First School Leaving Certificate in 1963. She later enrolled at Queen Elizabeth School, Ilorin where she obtained her West African School Certificate (WASC) in 1968.
Justice Bulkachuwa proceeded to Abdullahi Bayero College/Ahmadu Bello University, Kano between 1971 and 1972 for her GCE ‘A’ Levels and in 1975 she obtained her LL.B (Hons) from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. She attended the Nigerian Law School between 1975 and 1976.
The former president of the Court of Appeal, started her work career as a National Youth Service Corp member on primary assignment at the Ministry of Justice, Kaduna state in 1976. She rose through the cadre to become a Chief Magistrate from 1985 to 1987 and was appointed as a High Court Judge in 1987. At the creation of Gombe State, she was deployed and sworn in as the Chief Judge of Gombe State in 1997. Thereafter, she was appointed as Justice, Court of Appeal (JCA) in 1998 and later became the President, Court of Appeal in April, 2014.
What was your greatest challenge on the Bench and while in office as President of the Court of Appeal?
My greatest challenge while in office bordered on negative media reporting. Most of the times, journalists didn’t bother to balance their stories before going to the press. They didn’t even read our judgements. That’s a major problem.
However, amidst all these, I tried to give my best to the job. The most important thing for me is to satisfy my conscience that the right and proper things were done on cases handled by my colleagues and I. That’s why when I write and deliver a judgement, I don’t go back to it.
What can you say about the issue of conflicting court judgements. How do you think the problem can be tackled?
On this issue, we might have the same situation but the facts might be different. This means the two situations will be decided differently. Don’t also forget that we have different Justices of the Court of Appeal and each of them has his or her own understanding of the law and how to apply it. So, the decisions might be arrived at from the wrong angle, but we must address ourselves to the facts of each case.
When the issue of conflicting court judgements was raised, I formed an in-house committee and all the judgements that were said to be conflicting were looked into. They were all considered by the committee and at the end of the day, it was found out that there was no conflicting judgement anywhere. It only bordered on the understanding of each judgement and when court judgements are read by a layman who doesn’t understand what the judgements are all about, he will be talking about conflicting judgements.
What are the constitution amendments that you think should be carried out to aid the speedy dispensation of justice?
So many unnecessary cases go to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. I think an amendment should be carried out to limit the number of cases that go to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.
For instance, chieftaincy matters have been tried from High Court and even in some cases from the Customary Court. Some of these cases will still find their way to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. Therefore, I think except a case is of serious national importance, its hearing should end at the High Court. Even, if such cases must go to the Court of Appeal, the Justices of the appellate court must decide whether they want to hear it or not. The Court of Appeal should have the power to decide which cases will be heard. This is what happens in some developed climes. So, what I am saying in essence is that we should limit the number of cases that goes to both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. Besides, I want to say that in election petition matters, not all cases should go to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. Some of these cases should end at the Tribunal.
I also think the number of Justices at the Court of Appeal should be increased. As at now, I think there are only 90 Justices. More Justices should be appointed, particularly in Divisions with high volume of cases. This will aid in ensuring speedy dispensation of justice. Besides, I want to talk about good work conditions for the judges. One of such is spacious and well equipped courtrooms. This is what I expect to see in all the Divisions of the Court of Appeal across the country. This is part of the conditions under which the Justices will be happy to work.
What can you say about funding of the judiciary?
Funding has remained a major challenge and I want to suggest that even before budgetary allocations to the judiciary are made, our needs must be considered. Lack of fund has made it difficult to construct more courtrooms at the Court of Appeal Divisions.
What is the reality on ground with regards to the issue of corruption on the Bench? I mean, did you in the course of your career find out that politicians are corrupting judges?
Every allegation of corruption against any judicial officer must be proved beyond every doubt. Allegations of corruption are criminal in nature. So, they have to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. There was a time allegations were flying around that I was given N6 billion and I laughed. So, if I was given N6 billion bribe, do you think I will still be here? That was how all sorts of allegations were made against judges without any proof. I don’t have any evidence to say that any of my colleagues had been bribed or compromised. My husband is a politician, but politics is a no go area in the house. Even my children are aware of that. No politician is invited to the house. My husband can pursue whatever he wants to pursue as a politician but we hardly discuss politics in the house. All these help to guard against any influence from any politician.
At a time, you were asked to recuse yourself from the panel, which heard the dispute that arose from the 2019 presidential election over allegation of bias. What came to your mind particularly when it was coming from a major opposition party?
I have been a judicial officer for 40 years and I know I have a responsibility to God. I am going to be accountable to Him on a day. That’s why I tried to be upright as much as possible in my judicial conduct and this is what guided me in handling any case that came before me.
When that issue of the presidential election petition panel came up, I have even forgotten that my husband is a politician. I only felt that as the President of the Court of Appeal and number one in that court, I would have been the first person to handle the case and I had no doubt that I would have done justice to the case.
But, once I was asked to recuse myself, a doubt was raised in my mind; a doubt in the sense that no matter what I do or say, I will not be seen as being impartial. So, I decided to recuse myself from the panel.
In your opinion, do you think finality should be at the Court of Appeal for gubernatorial election dispute?
I think so. I think we have been doing the best we can in all these matters. It’s only in one or two controversial matters that the Supreme Court have upturned our verdict. But, in most cases, the apex court has stamped our decisions. We are very thorough at the Court of Appeal. That’s one thing I know and I am very proud of the Justices of the Court of Appeal. Look at how we were able to handle all election petition matters within the timeframe allowed by the law.
Are you in support of the clamour for the drafting of retired Justices and senior lawyers to handle election petition cases so as to reduce the workload of serving justices?
I don’t think it is proper to allow retired justices to come in and handle election petition cases. Serving justices are under the supervision of the National Judicial Council (NJC) and I believe they will not do anything that would affect their works. But if we give the job to retired justices, then, there might be problem. Who will supervise them? I also believe they will not do it the way sitting justices will do it. I am also not in support of drafting senior lawyers to handle election petition cases. Senior lawyers unlike judicial officers may not have the requisite knowledge of the proper handling of election petition cases.
Do you think Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanism is capable of resolving electoral disputes?
It should be applicable because it has been used successfully in so many other cases. If it is used, it will also decongest the courts. It’s only that I don’t know whether politicians will agree to use it in resolving electoral disputes.
In an unprecedented manner, politicians are now seeking review of the judgements of the Supreme Court. What is your take on this?
Asking the Supreme Court to review its judgement is unconstitutional. It’s not the law.