The task before President Zainab Bulkachuwa
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.