The alarm raised by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, over the undue interference of politicians in the appointment of judges deserves serious attention. The CJN pointed out that some state governors are the most culpable in the violation. The interference, which also undermines the justice system, represents an affront on the judiciary as an arm of government.
The judiciary, as the last hope of the common man, deserves its independence and sanctity. The executive and the legislature must respect the independence of the judiciary and should not do anything to undermine it.
Sections 256 (2) (3) and 270 (2) (3) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) stipulate how judges should be appointed. They state that every High Court Judge must be appointed by the President at the Federal level, and Governor at the state level, all subject to the recommendations of the National Judicial Council (NJC).
However, the NJC is the only statutorily empowered agency of government saddled with the responsibility to discipline and monitor the professional conduct of judges. It is the only body that can adequately determine “fit and proper persons” for appointment as judges.
Thus when vacancies are declared in any jurisdiction, the NJC therefore, recommends to the executive (the president and state governors, as the case may be) persons who are qualified, according to the strict parameters of the NJC, to occupy the offices. The executives are obliged by law to appoint the persons so recommended by the NJC.
This orderly process envisaged by the law is to ensure that only the right persons are appointed into the high office of a judge. It is also to ensure the independence of that arm of government as envisaged in a constitutional democracy.
Democracy in its most ordinary definition is the government of the people. In this wise, it must at all times secure the confidence of the man in the street, and the only way to do so this is to ensure the safeguards, granted by the rule of law and due process as enshrined in the constitution.
Anything short of these minimum safeguards, therefore, is an aberration and represents deliberate attempts to undermine the system. Chief executives at the federal and state levels should resist the tendency to undermine the system for their selfish ends. The trend to overreach has been with us particularly since the advent of the present republic, and the danger is that it is perhaps growing. Those in the executive arm, who engage in these acts, do so at the detriment of the separation of powers and the rule of law and the overall health of the society.
The appointment of judges should never be politicised in the first place because of the sacred and onerous assignments the judges are saddled with. Only persons of the highest integrity as stipulated by the law are fit to occupy the offices. Nothing must be done to interfere with the orderly and smooth processes of their appointments.
This fundamental point, we believe, is the essence of the CJN’s admonition to politicians and especially those in high executive offices. They should take due notice of the timely warning and refrain from any interference with the appointment of judges in their areas of influence or control.