From John Adams, Minna
There was joy and gaiety when the Niger State judiciary rolled out the drums to celebrate the exit of one of its own, Justice Maria Sanda Zukogi, former chief judge of the state, who retired recently after serving for 40 meritorious years.
Justice Zukogi who joined the state judiciary in 1979 as an Associate Magistrate was appointed as chief judge in activing capacity in April 2016 and was later confirmed as the fifth chief judge the state in July of the same year.
As widely acknowledged by stakeholders in the Niger State judiciary, she rendered meritorious service to humanity, to the glory of God.
In her valedictory speech which was laden with emotion, Justice Zukogi said: “There is time for everything, a time to be born, a time to die, a time to work and time to retire. The time has come for me to retire from the judiciary, having served in both the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice for over 40 years.”
The valedictory session held at the Niger State High Court, Minna, the state capital, was a gathering of who is who from both the federal and the state judiciaries.
All court proceedings came to a halt and the criminals in the state had a respite for the day as judges, both serving and retired, lawyers and other staff of the state judiciary gathered to bid farewell to a distinguished jurist.
The state high court was filled to the brim as it was a moment of handing over and taking over. Friends, associates and family members of the retired chief judge and the incoming one, took over all the available seats at the High Court 1, the venue of the valedictory session.
Justice Maria who could not hold back her emotion as encomiums cascaded on her for a successful career, recalled how she began as an Associate Magistrate, when she had to start a new life detaching herself from society in compliance with judicial ethos, a life she said she had lived for over 40 years.
As a devoted Christian, Zukogi believed that it was God that made it possible for her to adhere strictly “to the difficult ethics, which define me as a judge,” noting that life a judge was not a bed of roses.
Zukogi, a Gbagy by tribe, born in Paiko, the headquarters of Paikoro Local Government Area of the state in January 1954, began her early education at the famous St. Louis Primary School, Minna and later St. James Primary School, Ilorin, between 1960 and 1966.
She thereafter proceeded to Queen of Apostle College (now Queen Amina College) Kaduna, between 1972 and 1973, and was admitted into the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria in 1973 from where she graduated in 1977 with LLB.
However, after her B.L from the Lagos Campus of the Nigeria Law School in June 1977, she started her carrier in public service in 1979 when she was appointed an Associate Magistrate with the state judiciary.
For the past 40 years, it has being a steady and peaceful rise in her career as her dedication and hard work were duly noted and rewarded. Her rise climaxed in her appointment as the state Chief Judge by Governor Abubakar Sani Bello on April 12, 2016.
She is the second woman to occupy such position since the creation of the state in 1976 after the former First Lady, Justice Fati Lamin Abubakar (retd), the wife of General Abdulsalami Abubakar, former head of state.
The most challenging moment for her was her assumption of office as the chief judge of the state with virtually nothing on ground to work with but it was a challenge she faced squarely.
“On my appointment as the chief judge, I knew I certainly had a lot of challenges ahead of me. The challenges were too numerous and when you think you have solved one problem, another ugly one would raise its head,” she said.
The Niger state judiciary, like any other judiciary in Nigeria has it numerous challenges which include infrastructural deficiencies and welfare of the judiciary staff both at the higher and the lower bench.
After undertaking a tour of judicial institutions in the state, Zukogi explained that she was disturbed by the level of dilapidation of the courts across the state as the structures were unfit for human occupation.
Citing one particular example, she said: “I had course to go to Lapai High Court on assumption of office and I visited the magistrate court there too.
What I saw there gave me sleepless nights. I wondered what their worships felt like being well dressed in corporate wear and having to sit in such dilapidated court buildings.
“The worst, however, was to come when during the rains, there were more than eyesore. One may not understand the state these courts were in until you see them yourself. I kept commending their lordships for their patience.
“But with the cooperation of the governor who already was aware of the challenges the story is a different one today.”
Despite these challenges, she was able survive the storm as her two and half years reign witnessed a major transformation in the state judiciary. Very visible among them was the establishment of the multi-door court house in tune with modern trends of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanism which is geared towards saving cost, time, technicality and problems associated with litigation.
Staff were appointed and trained to manage the well-furnished multi-door court house.
“What we have established here is a large court house with multiple dispute resolution doors or programme – that is, arbitration, mediation/conciliation and sulhu doors,” Zukogi said.
She maintained that the adoption of ADR mechanism can greatly help in dispute resolution apart from reducing the backlog of cases, adding, “we have to innovate and change, otherwise the system would remain stagnate.”
Staff development was one area that the retired Justice Maria gave serious priority to during her tenure, especially with the realization that with the development of various economic activities, the nature of litigation has changed therefore the Bar and Bench must be equipped to deal with this change.
This informed her decision to embark on continuing education programme for the judges to keep them abreast of vast developments in law.
With dynamism in crimes and with obsolete nature of our laws, Justice Zukogi set up a law review committee with membership of high court judges, representatives of the Ministry of Justice and the Law Reform Commission and the Bar to review most of the “problematic laws” resulting in new laws being enacted to replace them.
In addition to all these achievements, within her short tenure, no fewer than 20 courts were renovated and furnished to make the working environment conducive for judges.
All these she pointed couldn’t have being possible without understanding, support and cooperation of the state governor, who made it easier for her to overcome the challenges.
In her final ward, Zukogi told her friends, associates, professional colleagues, staff of the judiciary and family members gathered at the valedictory court session: “Today marks the end of my journey in the judiciary. I thank God Almighty for his mercies and blessings and we pray that he will be there for us always.”
The climax of the day was a gala night put together by the state Ministry of Justice in her honour. In his welcome address, the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Nasara Danmallam, described Justice Zukogi as “the architect of the new face of courts in the state” stating that the courts had undergone tremendous transformation under her watch.
He said: “You have been able to key into the administration’s transformation agenda with the turnaround of all the dilapidated courts in the state, and the welfare of all the judges with the little available resources.”
At the gala night, the State Executive Council was led by Governor Abubakar Sani Bello, the legislature was adequately represented by the Speaker of the Niger State House of Assembly, Alhaji Marafa Guni, while the new acting chief judge, Justice Mohammed Ahmed Bima, performed his first official assignment as he led the entire bench to the dinner, which many described as a “chance to meet.”
The governor in his remarks, told the retired chief judge to be ready to offer her wealth of experience and service to the government any time she was called upon.
“Please you are retiring today but we all know that you not tired, we believe that we can still tap from your vast experience, so any time we call upon you for your contribution on how to move the state forward we hope you will make yourself available.
“You have performed so well that your services would surely be needed in a very short time. God will soon open a new door for a new relationship because as a government we have enjoyed cordial relationship with you.”
The highlight of the night was the presentation of a 665-page book, “The success Story of Justice Maria Sanda Zukogi” which chronicles her entire life in public service.