By Olumide Osaigbovo Akpata (Former NBA Chairman).
1. While serving as the 30th President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and concurrently as a member of the Interview Committee of the National Judicial Council (NJC), I openly queried what I considered to be the sub-optimal manner in which potential Justices of the Court of Appeal were being screened by the said Committee and the fact that some of the candidates displayed a confounding lack of knowledge of very basic legal principles. Regrettably, the justification given by some members of the Committee in defence of these candidates who were aspiring to be elevated to the Court of Appeal was that these would-be Justices of that Appellate Court would learn on the job.
2. At the meeting of the National Executive Council of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA-NEC) held in Uyo, Akwa-lbom State, on March 18, 2021, 1 informed members of the NBA of this shocking state of affairs and I also warned of the potentially negative and detrimental consequences of this unfortunate situation. My statement, referred to above, was immediately publicised on social media, with some embellishments, by a lawyer who was present at that meeting. and this report immediately went viral, much to the chagrin of some of the operators of our Judicial system.
3. For starters, My Lord, Hon. Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem, the President of the Court of Appeal (PCA), took umbrage at my well-intentioned comments and publicly and very stoutly defended this patently defective recruitment process.
4. Since the conclusion of my tenure as NBA President in August 2022, I have had cause, at different fora, to revisit and highlight this vexed issue of the sub-optimal recruitment process in the Nigerian Judiciary and what it portends not just for the future of the institution but of the entire nation.
5. My most recent intervention in this regard was at the Rule of Law Symposium held as part of the Annual Conference of the International Bar Association (IBA) on the 3rd of November, 2023, in Paris, France. At that event, I stated that the lethal combination of a shoddy recruitment process and the impoverishment of Judges and the Judiciary, by the executive arm of Government at both national and sub-national levels is an insidious attempt by the Nigerian political class and their collaborators to “capture” the Judiciary, and this constitutes a clear threat to the Rule of Law in Nigeria, a situation that calls for the urgent intervention of the International Bar Association (IBA).
6. Ever since the video recording of my aforementioned contribution to the Symposium surfaced on the internet, I have been, again, roundly criticised by some very defensive Judicial officers and their cohorts for airing what they considered to be internal national issues on the international stage.
7. It must be said, however, that my position on this issue, as enunciated at the IBA Conference in Paris, has also been supported and endorsed by many well- meaning Nigerians, including senior Legal Practitioners and some Judges.
8. My position has also been very unfortunately vindicated by recent occurrences in our Judiciary. A case in point being the scandalous and extremely embarrassing report of an apparent discrepancy between the Judgement pronounced in open court and the Certified True Copy obtained from the Court Registry, in the Kano State Gubernatorial Petition Appeal. This rather bizarre incident has further accentuated the crisis in the Nigerian Judiciary, which is exacerbated by the many confounding decisions emanating from our Courts that continue to bewilder and befuddle observers of this once- revered arm of government.
9. As expected, the news media and the rumour mills are awash with suggestions that this Judgement may have been “intercepted” on its way to delivery and that this ostensible mix-up was in fact a Freudian slip that occurred in the course of a hastened heist. These suggestions and allegations, even though unsubstantiated, are very quickly gaining traction and taking root in the minds of very many Nigerians and indeed non-Nigerians a situation that could very quickly imperil the Judiciary in Nigeria and, by extension, our nascent and floundering democracy.
10. I recently came across news reports from usually reliable media sources, quoting the Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal, Umar Bangari, as having attributed the discrepancy in the said Judgement to a clerical error. Furthermore, he is reported to have requested parties to the Appeal to apply to the Court to correct the purported error pursuant to *Order 23 Rule 4* of the Court of Appeal Rules. With the greatest respect, the Chief Registrar’s approach to this matter is most untenable, as it flies in the face of reason and also does not conform with our extant laws on the subject. Whilst, acknowledging the fact of human fallibility and the possibility of mistakes occurring, the fundamental nature of this “error” and the impact it has on such a consequential part of the Judgement, make it extremely difficult to accept, without more, the aforementioned assertion by the Chief Registrar.
11. It is for this reason that I urgently call on the PCA, My Lord, Hon. Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem, as the Head of the Nigerian Court of Appeal to provide, for the benefit of Nigerians and, indeed, the world, a hopefully cogent explanation and clarification of this quagmire. It is the very least My Lord can and should do in the circumstances.
12. It is imperative that His Lordship makes a categorical statement on this matter because the stakes are way too high and the current situation in the Judiciary (and indeed the country) too dire for the issue to be left in the hands of Registry officials.
24 November 2023