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CJN: Racing against time

AS you read this, outgoing Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed will have just 120 days to his 70th birthday and to wave bye, his job as Nigeria’s Fifth Citizen. The crisis on the Bench has coincided with the misfortune of a high turn-over of CJNs, relative to any other “serious” and growing democracies. Is this a mere coincidence? If you draw a quick comparison with the United States of America whose Chief Justice, Justice John G. Roberts has out-stayed about seven compatriots in Nigeria, with the possibility of many more CJN since his job is for a lifetime except he defaults in character, one would have a deeper appreciation of the voids we grapple with today in our justice system.

The hollowness can’t be about the quality of minds that have superintended our justice sector as CJNs. With all humility, I have related at different layers of affinity with the last seven, starting with Mohammed Uwais, through Alfa Belgore, Idris Legbo Kutigi, Aloysius Katsina-Alu, Dahiru Musdapher, Aloma Mariam Mukhtar and the incumbent. They are different in their ways, but the requisite fecundity to lead was never in doubt. But apart from Uwais who got lucky with more than a decade in office, others simply struggled to pack a lot into what wasn’t more than a brief moment when you consider the quantum of time needed to bring about enduring change in the system. Little wonder, Uwais remains a major factor in the system, 10 years after.

Belgore’s case is the most instructive. He was a six-month CJN. Heralded into office squabbling with erstwhile confidant and classmate Uwais, he stepped straight into President Olusegun Obasanjo’s impeachment flavour. His days were more consumed trying to extricate judiciary from the impeachment mess in Plateau, Oyo, Ekiti et al.

Dahiru Musdapher came with huge reform promise. The system was almost stymied by the Katsina-Alu/Ayo Salami imbroglio. Musdapher, the reformer, had just about two years. His hastily put-together Uwais-panel report was birthed in controversy. The report, its reformative potential and huge promises are sepulchered in a vague shelf grave today.

It is easy for the public to blow Mukhtar’s achievements to high heavens. But ask system persons for the cost of those laudable achievements, particularly in the area of judicial discipline. She didn’t build a strong institution. She made herself the institution. The question is, is a strong CJN preferable to a strong judiciary? But an iron hand doesn’t always build. It strikes fear for a while, then its pain becomes bearable. That is always the point of deviance. Aloma’s two hands as CJN were cast in unbendable iron.

For the unassuming Mahmud, the Taraba-born soldier-turned-jurist moment on the job is brief too but has had to grapple with an unprecedented challenge.

Thursday night, Mahmud did appear like a tumble, by leading the National Judicial Council (NJC) to officially stop judges under corruption probe from performing judicial duties. From the immediate reactions, interpretative reading of the open-ended not-easily decodable statement from Soji Oye, council’s spokesperson and perceivable short and long-term implications, it could be seen that genuine fixing of the nation’s broken system won’t be about Mahmud’s seeming weakness, plot to side-step Walter Onnoghen as next CJN, DSS raid or Buhari buster. These are mere symptoms and quick fixes.

The justice system is long broken and crashing on the head of a few judges and senior administrative officers won’t deliver the desired repair mileage. The immediate future doesn’t look promising too. The system requires both leadership and structural stability. If the succession-by-seniority which the Buhari administration has failed to dismantle despite concerted efforts, is sustained, then the next three occupants of the CJN seat won’t also enjoy relative timing to go an appreciable hog.

Despite the uncertainty, Onnoghen as CJN-designate is expected to assume leadership on November 11 and lead for just four years. Next-in-line Tanko Mohammed also has about three year. Judiciary must become a strong institution to endure and relative stability is needed at the leadership level to consolidate on desired reforms, considering the reluctance of successors to carry on with predecessors’ agenda, even when institutionalised.

The first step is to review the retirement age of juridical officers, particularly at the Supreme Court. With modern gadgets and good health, an average judge of the apex court should be able to last 80 years. Justice Oguntade left the apex court in 2010. Now at 76, he is going abroad to serve as an ambassador. Uwais left in 2006, he is being chairing all chair-able committees with lots of vigour at 80. While a suggestion by Musdapher that CJN job should be for a lifetime won’t be desirable yet in our clime, judges with right appointment timing to become CJN, should come in as young as possible to ensure durability even if the 70 is retained as retirement age. A CJN at 55, should be a class act after 15 years of unbroken experience. Political and judicial leadership in the North was credited with fashioning a deliberate apex court promotion arrangement that consolidated its grip on the judiciary after early Southern dominance which was due to late entry of Northerner elements. Every zone is understandably scheming now and reading the it-is-our-turn script. Fine, nothing outrageous about it being political. It is also ideologically-partisan in America. But let all zones bring their young and bright, who won’t be too old when others are serving out their terms. With the current structure, there is hardly any magic that can bring any enduring reforms. Until then, let every other occupants fill the buckets with their much.