The appointment of Aloma Mukhtar as the first female chief justice of Nigeria is seen as one move that opens a new chapter in the history of not only the Nigerian judiciary but also the value attached to the education of the girl-child in northern Nigeria
“We can only pray that Justice Mukhtar will improve on the condition in which she found the judiciary at the moment… improve the public perception of the judiciary and also ensure that there is steady dispensation of justice.” With these words, David Mark, president of the Senate appeared to have clearly outlined a job description for Aloma Mukhtar, first female chief justice of Nigeria, CJN, whose appointment was confirmed last week by the Upper legislative chamber.
While confirming Mukhtar’s appointment after over an hour of gruelling questioning, Mark promised that the legislative arm of government would work together with the judiciary and the executive arm of government to ensure that “there is justice, equity, and fairness and there is progress and discipline in the country.”
Mukhtar’s appointment is coming at a time when the judiciary has come under intense criticisms for alleged involvement in corruption while its image in the eye of the public is at one of its lowest ebbs. And the new CJN is not oblivious of this challenge. While responding to questions from the legislators, Mukhtar said, “It is sad that the ordinary man on the street feels that he cannot get justice.” She added that, “I will ensure that this perception changes. There will be a cleansing by the National Judicial Commission based on petitions.” The new CJN also promised to reposition the judiciary and deal with the “bad eggs giving the judiciary a negative image” in order to regain the trust of Nigerians. In this regard she would have to surmount a lot of obstacles, which had worked against some of her predecessors including Dahiru Musdapher who told this magazine last month that “most of the problems really affecting the judiciary are political.” According to him, “people are not satisfied normally in politics... In Nigeria these days, the stakes in political elections or issues are very high,” and that the typical Nigerian politician ensures that he wins; “If he does not win, the judiciary is compromised; and if he wins, the judiciary is alright,” he said.
For many Nigerians, the new CJN must surmount all obstacles. Joe Okei-Odumakin, president, Campaign for Democracy, CD, is one of those who have such expectations. “Information about her says she is an upright woman and I hope she will rub off on our integrity challenged judicial system. She should be able to restore the confidence of the people to the battered institution,” Okei-Odumakin said.
The CD president would also want Mukhtar to weed out corrupt judges and bring sanity to the temple of justice. “She should carry out reforms to decongest prisons so that all those awaiting trials who have no business in the prisons can regain freedom. The compassionate side of a woman should make this possible for her. She should initiate a wide range of reforms that would restore the pride of our judiciary,” she said.
As far as Okei-Odumakin is concerned, Mukhtar has no reason to do otherwise. “I believe that it is not compromise that brought her to the top and it would be a betrayal of historical responsibility she carries to learn compromise in the closing chapter of her career,” she said.
Fred Agbaje, a Lagos-based lawyer does not however entertain any fears about the ability of Mukhtar to live up to expectations. “Mukhtar has exhibited rare (professional) qualities that distinguish her. She is a thorough, coolheaded lawyer and I don’t see her as a person who will be compromised. She is an unparallel character who has the wherewithal to turn the Nigerian judiciary around for the better. She will be the best CJN that the country has ever had; quote me. I sincerely believe that she will make a change in the legal profession,” Agbaje said.
This view is equally shared by Nnaemeka Amaechina, a lawyer. Amaechina who said he had been reading Mukhtar’s judgments since her days in the court of appeal said, “We in the legal profession are expecting a lot from her because we know that she is capable of offering a lot. Obviously, we expect that she will do a lot to bring up the standards of the legal practice, particularly in the appointment of lawyers to the Bench. The judiciary needs to be sanitised and going by her record, I know that she can do it.” The record Amaechina is talking about may include the fact that Mukhtar is one of the justices who gave a dissenting judgment that is widely acclaimed in legal circles and the academics in the Yar’Adua versus Buhari presidential election result dispute in 2007. In that judgment, Mukhtar alongside Justices George Oguntade, (now retired) and Walter Onnoghen, held that there was substantial non-compliance with the Electoral Act 2006, which vitiated the election of the late president.
This sort of background perhaps emboldened Amaechina to add that, “justice in Nigeria should be delivered according to the law and not according to who bids highest. Both the rich and the poor should have equal access to justice. We expect her to make this happen and I personally believe that she can do it given her antecedent.”
Agbaje on his part said Mukhtar’s judgements are sound and she is one of the greatest Nigerian women to have appeared on the Nigerian judicial landscape. “She is a woman of substance whose ability to change things I have no doubt about,” he said. Okei-Odumakin said it could not have been otherwise. “It is no mean feat for a woman to make it to the highest echelon of the judiciary in Nigeria. It must have taken her a lot of hard work and diligence. She has broken the glass ceiling and she would spur many more women to aim far higher than the sky,” she said.
And she sure knows what she is saying. Considering her background as a Kano State indigene and the attitude of parents in that part of the country towards educating the girl-child, Mukhtar’s emergence as CJN is indeed an incident that could spur many more parents in the region to see the value in educating their girl-child. Statistics from UNICEF, a United Nations agency indicate that only about 20 per cent of women in the northern part of Nigeria can boast of having ever been to a school at all. UNICEF also put the girl-boy ratio in schools in the northern part of Nigeria at 1:3. In other words, for every three boys in school there is only one girl. The reason for this is said to be largely socio-cultural. But with the emergence of Mukhtar as CJN, it is believed that she could become a symbol and catalyst for change in the northern part of Nigeria. This change is desirable particularly now that some religious extremists in the region are campaigning against Western education, killing and maiming people in the name of Boko Haram, which literally means that Western education is sinful.
“She has a place in history with her many firsts and that says a lot about her life”, Okei-Odumakin said. Indeed, Mukhtar is no stranger to history. The woman who resumes office this week Monday as CJN following the retirement of her predecessor, Dahiru Musdapher, has been a trailblazer for Nigerian women on the Bench in many respects. She was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1967 a year after she was called to the English Bar and became the first female lawyer of northern extraction. Mukhtar began her legal career as a pupil counsel in the Ministry of Justice of Northern Nigeria in 1967. She was later appointed Magistrate Grade I, North Eastern government (1969 – 1973), thus, scoring another first as the first female Magistrate in the northern region.
She made another history with her appointment as the chief registrar, Kano State Government Judiciary (1973 - 1977) and judge, High Court of Kano State in 1977 and justice, Court of Appeal in 1987. Mukhtar is the first female judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court on June 8, 2005. After her, it took four years for the second lady, Justice Olufunlola Adekeye, to get the attention of the National Judicial Council, NJC, which has the responsibility of recommending qualified judicial officers for the position.
Muktar has been a life Bencher since 1993 and a life member of the Federation of Women Lawyers. She was also the vice president of the National Association of Women Judges of Nigeria. In 1989, Mukhtar was honoured by the Federation of Women Lawyers and in 1991 she was decorated with a Gold Merit Award by the Kano State government.
In 2003, she was, again, honoured by the International Association of Women Lawyers, and in 2004, the Fellowship of the Nigerian Law School was conferred on her. Born 68 years ago, Mukhtar had her primary education at St. George’s School, Zaria and also at St. Bartholomew’s school, Wusasa, also in Zaria from 1950 to 1957. She also attended Rossholme School for Girls in East Brent, Somerset, England for her GCE O’Levels in 1962 and went for further education at the Technical College, Berkshire England. She later read law at Gibson and Welder College and was subsequently called to the English Bar in absentia.
With Mukhtar at the helm of affairs, the judiciary in Nigeria is believed to be in for some positive firsts. For instance, it will be her lot to complete the process of amendments to the 1999 Constitution begun by Justice Musdapher, her immediate predecessor. About 24 hours before her clearance by the Senate, Musdapher had presented to the House of Representatives some proposed amendments to the constitution. The amendments, which expected to improve on the administration of justice, also had the input of Mukhtar. What however remains to be seen is whether she will have enough time before her statutory retirement at the age of 70, which is just less than two years away.
In spite of that, Mukhtar’s appointment as the new CJN is believed to have opened a new chapter in the history of the judiciary in Nigeria as well as in the value attached to the education of the girl-child in the northern part of Nigeria.