The task be­fore Pres­i­dent Zainab Bulka­chuwa

Daily Trust - - VIEWS -

In a unan­i­mous vote, the Se­nate last week en­dorsed Jus­tice Zainab Adamu Bulka­chuwa’s ap­point­ment as Pres­i­dent of the Court of Ap­peal. Pres­i­dent Good­luck Jonathan ap­pointed her to the ex­alted po­si­tion on rec­om­men­da­tion of the Na­tional Ju­di­cial Coun­cil (NJC).

64 year-old Bulka­chuwa, who has been the Court of Ap­peal’s Act­ing Pres­i­dent since Novem­ber 2012, brings to her sub­stan­tive po­si­tion a long and rich ex­pe­ri­ence in the na­tion’s ju­di­cial ser­vice. Called to the Bar in 1976, she was a mag­is­trate and then a High Court judge in the old Bauchi State; was the Chief Judge of Gombe State for many years and be­came an Ap­peals Court judge in 1998. She also headed the Ap­peal Court’s Jos and Abuja Di­vi­sions, among other key ju­di­cial func­tions.

When she was nom­i­nated, Bulka­chuwa was the sec­ond most se­nior judge in the Ap­peals Court af­ter Jus­tice Dal­hatu Adamu, who pre­vi­ously acted as the court’s head. That NJC ad­justed the ju­di­ciary’s se­nior­ity tra­di­tion and chose her for the job is a tes­ti­mony to the high re­gard in which she is held by her col­leagues and su­pe­ri­ors on the Bench. The Court of Ap­peal is the sec­ond-rank­ing court of record in Nigeria af­ter the Supreme Court. How­ever, it is by far the largest and most com­plex court sys­tem in the coun­try with twelve di­vi­sions and a max­i­mum 90 judges. Head­ing such a court re­quires an as­tute ad­min­is­tra­tor in ad­di­tion to thor­ough knowl­edge of the law, since ap­peals from federal as well as state high courts, shari’a courts of ap­peal and cus­tom­ary courts of ap­peal, all come to the Ap­peals Court for ad­ju­di­ca­tion.

Her ap­point­ment and con­fir­ma­tion has now brought re­lief to this all im­por­tant court sys­tem fol­low­ing the many years of scan­dal-tinged un­cer­tainty that en­veloped it fol­low­ing the sus­pen­sion of its then pres­i­dent, Jus­tice Isa Ayo Salami in 2010. The Salami Af­fair con­trib­uted in no small mea­sure to tar­nish the im­age of the ju­di­ciary. It also desta­bilised the Ap­peal Court with its pres­i­dent fight­ing in the courts to re­gain his po­si­tion while its head­ship was en­trusted to act­ing pres­i­dents for short pe­ri­ods at a time.

This is there­fore the op­por­tu­nity to put the sor­did past be­hind and learn all the lessons from it.

The new pres­i­dent also needs to pay close at­ten­tion to other ger­mane is­sues. Only last year, the NJC had to send visi­ta­tion teams to all the Ap­peal Court’s di­vi­sions to find out why too many cases were not dis­posed off over long pe­ri­ods. The main rea­son was the short­age of judges. How­ever, a pos­i­tive step was taken to ad­dress this is­sue when just be­fore Bulka­chuwa’s el­e­va­tion, 25 new judges were ap­pointed to the Ap­peal Court, bring­ing it to full strength in terms of ju­di­cial man­power.

Hav­ing enough judges is only the first step, be­cause the NJC’s visi­ta­tion also un­cov­ered many other short­com­ings of sup­port per­son­nel, li­braries and tech­ni­cal fa­cil­i­ties. Jus­tice Bulka­chuwa did say, dur­ing her Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing, that the court lacked ad­e­quate fund­ing. It is true that too many pub­lic agencies are not ad­e­quately funded; but it is im­por­tant to look into the Ap­peal Court’s case, given its crit­i­cal role in the na­tion’s ju­di­cial or­der.

The Ap­peal Court pres­i­dent is re­spon­si­ble for ap­point­ing elec­tion tri­bunals as well as elec­tion ap­peal tri­bunals. The Ap­peal Court pres­i­dent also con­sti­tutes a tri­bunal of first in­stance for pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. This is a very im­por­tant duty that as­sumes added sig­nif­i­cance with the ap­proach of the 2015 gen­eral elec­tions. The task of con­sti­tut­ing im­par­tial tri­bunals now falls on Bulka­chuwa’s shoul­ders. Not only im­par­tial­ity, but these tri­bunals are also ex­pected to dis­charge their du­ties speed­ily in or­der to end the sit­u­a­tion whereby elec­tion pe­ti­tions are still on­go­ing many years into an of­fice holder’s ten­ure. Of course, Bulka­chuwa should never for­get that the en­tire im­broglio that led to the pub­lic spat be­tween her pre­de­ces­sor Salami and the then Chief Jus­tice of Nigeria, Aloy­sius Katsina-Alu, had to do with elec­tion tri­bunals, which are con­sid­ered to be “juicy” in Nige­rian par­lance. Bulka­chuwa, too, had her fin­gers burnt in some of the elec­tion cases when charges and counter-charges trailed her rul­ing in gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tion cases when she headed the Ap­peal Court’s Jos Di­vi­sion.

All told, this is the op­por­tu­nity for a fresh start for the Court of Ap­peal. Jus­tice Zainab Bulka­chuwa has a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity, but her ex­pe­ri­ence should guide her well in dis­charg­ing it pro­fes­sion­ally and in the in­ter­est of jus­tice.

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