By Joseph Edegbo
Justice Beatrice Lazarus Iliya, a female jurist from Gombe State Judiciary in northeast Nigeria, has petitioned the country’s National Judicial Council (NJC) over alleged ongoing plots by government officials in her state to prevent her from becoming the Chief Judge of the State.
Last year, the officials sidestepped Justice Iliya from becoming the substantive Chief Judge of the state, despite being the most senior Judge in Gombe State, which runs contrary to the tradition, as well as provisions of Nigeria’s constitution.
Justice Iliya acted for three month as chief Judge of the state, after retirement of the then Chief Judge, Justice Hakila Heman. She was not confirmed as substantive judge and her tenure as acting chief judge was not extended. The state government instead requested that the 3rd person in line, Justice Muazu Pindiga be made to act, instead of Justice Joseph Awak, who is the 2nd most senior Judge in the state.
In her petition Justice Iliya stressed, “I am the most senior Judge in the Gombe State Judiciary called to the Bar in 1981, while Hon Justice Joseph A. Awak and Hon Justice Muazu A. Pindiga were called to the Bar in 1983 and 1988 respectively.”
On why her State Attorney General did not forward her name for consideration, Justice Iliya states, “He based his decision to remove my name because of a petition against me written by a grain merchant complaining to the Governor that I moved into the Office of the Chief Judge when I was in acting capacity.”
The petition dated April 21, 2020 is titled, ‘Re- Presentation by Hon. Justice Beatrice L. Iliya in respect of the appointment of Chief Judge of Gombe State High Court’.
THE FULL PETITION READS;
“I was appointed the acting Chief Judge of Gombe State by a letter dated 2nd September, 2019 and pursuant to which I was sworn into office on the 4th September, 2019 in accordance with Section 271(4) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), I have served, without renewal the three (3) months provided by the Constitution from 4th September, 2019 to 4th December 2019.
“In its meeting of 21st August, 2019 and by a letter ref. No. JSC/GMS/S/ADM/21/270 dated 2nd September, 2019 the Gombe State Judicial Service Commission (JSC) shortlisted and forwarded my name, Hon Justice Beatrice Lazarus Iliya as preferred candidate and that of Hon Justice Muazu Abdulkadir Pindiga as reserved candidate to the National Judicial Council (NJC) for recommendation to the Governor.
However, while I was acting as Chief Judge, during my inaugural meeting on 30th September, 2019 at the JSC the Secretary of the JSC informed us that the NJC Secretary drew his attention to lack of accompanying documents to the JSC letter dated 2nd September, 2019 which nominated and forwarded our names contrary to the NJC Guidelines and Procedural Rules, 2014.
The missing requirements are the comments of the Chairman of the NBA Gombe Branch, comments of former/retired heads of Court in Gombe State, report of the Department of State Service, certificate of medical fitness and signed Curriculum vitae of the candidates.
Therefore, the JSC by a letter dated 2nd October, 2019 withdrew the nomination with a view to rectifying the anomalies before re-submitting our names. I am aware that all the missing requirements have since been obtained except for the report of the DSS. It is quite disheartening that the report of the DSS was unnecessarily delayed since from September, 2019 despite repeated reminders by the JSC.
Sir, my tenure in Acting capacity was not renewed, the Executive Governor appointed Hon Justice Muazu A. Pindiga in Acting capacity on the 4th December, 2019. And thereafter renewed on the 4th March, 2020 and same will be expiring on the 4th of June, 2020.
Sir, I was shocked and surprise to discover that while I was waiting for the re-presentation of our names after satisfying all the requirements of the NJC guidelines, the State JSC headed by Justice Muazu A. Pindiga on the 19th of March, 2020 had a meeting where the Hon Attorney General of Gombe State/Commissioner of Justice, Zubairu Mohammed Umar served as pro-tempore Chairman.
The Attorney General wrote a memorandum to the JSC whereby he excluded my name as a candidate to be re-submitted to the Council. He based his decision to remove my name because of a petition against me written by a grain merchant complaining to the Governor that I moved into the Office of the Chief Judge when I was in acting capacity.
He also accused my administrative skill which he said is not par with that of Hon Justice Muazu A. Pindiga.
He claimed that seniority is not a constitutional requirement for appointment of substantive Chief Judge but a convention. Based on the above the JSC removed my names and shortlisted Hon Justice Muazu A. Pindiga as preferred candidate while Hon Justice Joseph A. Awak as reserved candidate without regards to the totality of the provisions of Section 271 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 read holistically.
See also a letter dated 1st April, 2020 where the Hon Attorney General responded to a petition dated 23rd March, 2020 written to the Gombe State House of Assembly against the action of the JSC. It is instructive to say, I was also invited by the House of Assembly Judiciary committee by a letter dated 30th March, 2020.
Sir, I wish to take serious exceptions to the submissions of the Hon Attorney General against me. It is quite unconstitutional for the Attorney General or the JSC to sit over a petition against me without giving me fair hearing. The powers of supervising, assessing and discipline of a judicial officer are that of the NJC and not that of a political appointee or the JSC.
Sir, it is interesting to note that I am the most senior Judge in the Gombe State Judiciary called to the Bar in 1981 while Hon Justice Joseph A. Awak and Hon Justice Muazu A. Pindiga were called to the Bar in 1983 and 1988 respectively.