Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar makes history as the first female Chief Justice of Nigeria. Here is her history of firsts, her unwritten story and the challenges she must confront
This week, at a brief but momentous ceremony inside the Council Chambers of the Presidential Villa, Justice Mariam Aloma Mukhtar will take oath of office as the Chief Justice of Nigeria. Mukhtar replaces Dahiru Musdapher, who has attained the statutory retirement age. She is the 13th indigenous head of the judiciary. As the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, the fact that Justice Mukhtar will succeed Musdapher was not in doubt, given that the most senior among the jurists has always been appointed into the office of CJN.
But the most fascinating element of the appointment since President Goodluck Jonathan forwarded Mukhtar’s name to the National Assembly for confirmation is her gender. Mukhtar will thus be making history as the first female head of the judiciary.
For a nation besmirched with corruption and other vices, the joy with Mukhtar’s confirmation as Chief Justice is, to say the least, rare. From the low level judicial worker to lawyers and justices–serving or retired–the consensus is that Justice Mukhtar is not just eminently qualified to be CJN, but the time could not have been better to give her the job. Mukhtar is coming at a time Nigerians are getting frustrated by the seeming indifference of the judiciary to the fight against corruption.
Her remarkable career path and successes explain why many are happy with her choice for the job and are confident in her ability to make a big difference in the two years she will spend in office.
In the view of many senior lawyers spoken to last week, Mukhtar has the right mix of strength of character and integrity to halt the descent of the judiciary into a big farce. Confidence in the Nigerian judiciary has been eroded by years of corruption by judges at all levels, especially those serving in the state high courts and election petitions tribunals.
Justices on election petitions panels see such as the passport to riches. So bad is it that justice is usually reserved to the highest bidder, with retired judges allegedly being used as go-between by crooked politicians. In 2008, Justice Thomas Naron, who chaired the first Osun State Election Petitions Tribunal, was involved in a big scandal when evidence of his phone calls to Kunle Kalejaiye, lawyer to ex-governor Olagunsoye Oyinlola, were published by TheNEWS. That a judge, and a lawyer handling a case before him, would be exchanging calls and text messages embarrassed the judiciary. Yet, that the National Judicial Council, NJC, the country’s highest judicial body and headed by the Chief Justice of the Federation, is also tainted is no longer in doubt.
The boldest evidence of that is the “Salamigate scandal” and the controversies that trailed the alleged interference of former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu in the affairs of the Court of Appeal in the Sokoto State Election appeal. The judiciary was severely battered by that singular incident, which remains unresolved, following President Goodluck Jonathan’s foot-dragging over the implementation of the resolution of NJC, which recommended that the suspended Court of Appeal President, Justice Isa Ayo Salami, be reinstated.
Mukhtar’s predecessor in office, Justice Dahiru Musdapher, admitted to many failings of the judiciary which previous Chief Justices of Nigeria were too shy to own up to. He instituted some reforms aimed at improving public perception of the institution as well as enhance speedy and effective justice delivery through the engine room of the judiciary, NJC, of which the new CJN is a member.
Having been at the Supreme Court for not less than seven years, Mukhtar had ample opportunity to prepare herself for the job and is expected to hit the ground running.
Questions are, however, being asked about the nature of reforms that she can introduce to the judiciary to reposition it for quality service delivery, given the seemingly short period she has to stay in office.
This magazine learnt that Mukhtar earned the reputation of a no-nonsense judge right from her days as a magistrate and High Court judge in the Kano State Judiciary. Femi Falana, Lagos lawyer and human rights activist, who said he appeared before Mukhtar for the first time at the Kano State High Court, confirmed this last week. “I was very impressed with the way she conducted the case, which had to do with the pilfering of funds of a trade union–National Union of Food, Tobacco and Beverages. Since then, I have followed her career on the bench. She has carved a niche for herself as a no-nonsense judge,” he said. The famous lawyer added that Mukhtar has distinguished herself as lady of justice and not of technicalities and commands the respect of lawyers and judges because of her integrity. Mukhtar served in the Jos Division of the Appeal Court twice and was the Presiding Judge of the Division before her elevation to the Supreme Court in 2005. Top Kekemeke, Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, Plateau State branch, who said he appeared before Mukhtar many times in Jos, described the jurist as “a woman of great legal stature, a responsible jurist and very lucid legal mind”.
Generally speaking, senior legal practitioners who spoke to TheNEWS expressed confidence in Justice Mukhtar’s capacity and integrity and believe she has all it takes to clean up the judiciary, improve public perception of the institution as well enhance the justice delivery system.
According to Mr. Paul Erokoro, a Senior Advocate, the nation is lucky to have Justice Mukhtar as the new CJN. “I think the country is lucky to have that lady as the Chief Justice of Nigeria at this time. We are, indeed, in for very pleasant surprises. I have appeared before Justice Mukhtar in many cases and I tell you, she is a very sound jurist. I rate her very highly. In any case, every justice of the Supreme Court is an AAA justice, one can never make it to the apex court with less A credential,” he said.
To Mamman Mike Usuma, also a Senior Advocate, Mukhtar is a monumental consolation, not just to legal practitioners but also to the administration of justice in Nigeria.
Lending his voice to the issue, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, Senior Advocate, stated that Justice Mukhtar brings a breath of fresh air to the judiciary and pointed out that her integrity has remained intact despite the crises that have rocked the judiciary.
“Justice Mukhtar is always at peace with herself, that is an indication of inner poise. You can never find her ruffled in any matter. She exudes calm and confidence and possesses an in-depth knowledge of the law. She has all it takes to impact positively on the image of the judiciary and the justice delivery system. It is not a matter of how long, but how well and I believe she has all it takes in intellect, character and candour to bring about a robust and effective judicial system in Nigeria. Her tenure indeed promises to be very interesting and we look forward to a robust and efficient judiciary under her leadership,” he said.
Hassan Liman, SAN, who has known Justice Mukhtar since the 1990s, when she served in Jos, described her as an upright and straightforward judge that does not tolerate lawyers playing to the gallery. Basheer Abdullahi Sufi, Chief Registrar of Kano State High Court, described her as a hardworking, dedicated woman of principle who doesn’t tolerate nonsense. “She executes her work without fear or favour. She is more than an Iron Lady. Justice Mukhtar has the capacity to overhaul the judiciary. Just wait and see what will happen. She will make a lot of changes. She is not corrupt and she will never allow corruption,” Sufi said. Describing her as a role model, Sufi said it is a thing of joy for him that he is occupying the seat Mukhtar occupied between 1974 and 1977 in Kano.
Sulaiman Jawondo, immediate past chairman of Nigerian Bar Association, Ilorin branch, described Mukhtar’s appointment as a good one, given her record of professional competence and incorruptibility. She said the emergence of Mukhtar as CJN is proof that with commitment, tenacity and courage, one will get to the top.
“You remember this is the person who was supposed to be the CJ of Kano State, where she was serving, but for some reasons that had nothing to do with her competence or ability to discharge the duties of law, she was denied. But because she knows very well that she is committed to what she is doing and that she is doing the right thing, she didn’t bother. Perhaps, if she had become the CJ in Kano State, she would have retired in that position. Now, she will be retiring as the CJN, the first female for that matter. That shows that God is always with one who does the right thing and believes in doing the right thing irrespective of obstacles on his or her way,” he submitted.
To human rights lawyer, Festus Keyamo, Mukhtar has deep knowledge of law and is always stable, calm and courageous.
“She is a pleasant woman of the Nigerian bench. She is a mother figure and a beauty to appear before at the law courts due to her deep knowledge of the law and the legal procedures. There is no better way to celebrate competence on the Nigerian bench than to have her as the Chief Justice of the Federation,” Keyamo said. Keyamo added that unlike the men, the female judges are not so tainted by corruption.
“I don’t want to sound sexist, but most women on the Nigerian bench have proved incorruptible. It may be due to the fact that they are under less pressure than their male counterparts. Moreover, they are difficult to approach for corrupt engagements.
“Mukhtar is a staunch legal personality who will make the bench proud,” he opined.
But Jawondo cautioned that Mukhtar cannot do the job alone. She will need the support of every stakeholder to bring the required change, he contended. Priscilla Kuye, the first female president of the NBA, described Justice Mukhtar as a woman of integrity, a hardworking and courageous judge.
“We were classmates at the law school in Lagos in 1967 and she is a friend of mine. She has a profound knowledge of the law. The profound knowledge of the law is an important ingredient that any candidate who wants to occupy that post must have,” she explained.Ven. Panvil .A. Dabang, Principal of Saint Batholomew School, Wusasa, Zaria, which is now a primary/secondary school expressed joy that one of its products, Mariam Binta Aloma Mukhtar is now a CJN.
‘‘The motto of the school is” learn and worship” . So, I believe that Justice Mukhtar has actually learnt some basic truth from the school in her days as a pupil, who passed through the school and this must have kept her steady over these years. We are indeed very happy to have one of our products at that level of her career . We hope she will continue to remain very dogged and truthful, fair and just as she carries out her duty.We also expect her to remember her alma mata’’.
– Babajide Kolade-Otitoju, additional reports Felix Nnamdi/Abuja, Madu Mmeribe/Kano, Stephen Oni/Ilorin and Folarin Ademosu/Lagos