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On Monday last week, Governor Murtala Hammanyero Nyako of Adamawa State swore in Justice Nathan Musa as the state’s Acting Chief Judge. In most climes this would have passed off as a normal and uneventful deed, but the event in Yola was a very big deal because with his swearing in, Musa became the fourth acting Chief Judge of Adamawa State since July 2011 when the substantive Chief Judge, Justice Bemare Bansi, retired from the bench.
Soon after Bansi retired, there was clamour for Nyako to nominate a substantive replacement in line with Section 271 of the amended 1999 Constitution. Nyako did no such thing. In fact, he did not so much as appoint an acting Chief Judge for the state until members of the state branch of the Nigeria Bar Association [NBA] went on strike. They said at the time that the shabby treatment accorded to the judicial arm of the state government was in sharp contrast to what happened in 2008 when Governor Nyako was dethroned by a court and State Assembly Speaker James Barka was immediately sworn in as Acting Governor.
The lawyers’ protest ended when Nyako swore in the state judiciary’s most senior judge, Justice Bathimawus Popo Lawi as Acting Chief Judge. For the next six months he failed to nominate a substantive CJ for consideration by the National Judicial Council [NJC] and subsequent confirmation by the House of Assembly. In March last year, when the NBA again protested that Lawi had overstayed as Acting Chief Judge, Nyako appointed another judge, Justice Ishaku Banu as the acting Chief Judge. Three months later, Banu was replaced by another Acting Chief Judge, Justice Bobboi Umar, who has now given way to Justice Nathan Musa.
What game is Admiral Murtala Nyako playing in this matter? A good indicator of it manifested last October when he sent the name of his wife, Justice Binta Murtala Nyako of the Federal High Court, to the NJC as his nominee for state Chief Judge. Mrs. Nyako is a respected judge in her own right who creditably handled many sensitive cases when she presided over the Federal High Court in Abuja some years ago. Yet, her nomination as CJ by her own husband was widely seen as nepotistic, insensitive, politically clumsy and morally indefensible. More than that, it violated the strict seniority system of the judiciary because Justice Binta Nyako is junior in rank to several judges of the Adamawa State High Court.
No wonder that NJC turned down the recommendation and advised Governor Nyako to submit another name in accordance with judicial seniority. It is important to recall that at the same sitting, NJC also turned down recommendations from the governors of Kwara and Osun States for appointment as CJs of their states on the same grounds of seniority or lack of it. Governor Abdulfatah Ahmed’s nomination of Justice Suleiman Durosinlorun Kawu was rejected, as was Governor Rauf Aregbesola’s nomination of Justice Oyewole.
Since then, Governor Murtala Nyako has not nominated a new substantive CJ. This, even when NJC wrote a letter to him in December advising him to forward the name of Justice Bathimawus Popo Lawi, the state’s senior judge, for confirmation as the substantive CJ. He instead allowed the game of musical chairs to continue with the recent elevation of Justice Nathan Musa to act as CJ. Justice Musa is the third ranking judge of the Adamawa State High Court who will be leading two of his seniors. This is a very messy situation in a profession as highly seniority conscious as the Bench. It is also a situation totally not envisaged by the 1999 Constitution, which specifically said the governor should appoint the most senior judge as acting CJ in the event of a temporary vacancy.
Governor Nyako’s messy handling of the state’s top judicial office has been partly attributed by his critics to the difficult political terrain that he has found himself in since the rise of his arch foe Alhaji Bamanga Tukur to the PDP’s national chairmanship last year. In recent months the fight by the two men over control of the state’s local government councils and the state PDP chapter burst into the open, leading to many suit cases filed in the courts. It was no small ammunition in the critics’ cannon that two days after he was sworn in, acting CJ Justice Nathan Musa sat in his court last Wednesday and granted an ex-parte order sought by Nyako’s political allies to halt the state PDP’s local government and state congresses which were being railroaded by Bamanga’s men. The acting CJ may have done his work in good faith, but it didn’t look good at all in the eyes of suspicious observers.
This affair is a very big minus for democratic processes and fair play in this country. Politicians must not be seen to be openly manipulating the succession process in the judiciary for their own selfish ends. We urge Governor Murtala Nyako to heed the advice of NJC and nominate Justice Bathimawus Popo Lawi, the senior judge of Adamawa State, as the next substantive Chief Judge. It is not too late to end this very messy affair.