End Injustice For Nigeria’s Female Justices By Emmanuel Ogebe
The recent nomination of America’s first black woman for the US Supreme Court, Judge Ketanji Brown, serves as an opportunity to X-Ray the status of Nigeria’s own female justices especially in light of the month of March’s dedication to women.
On the surface it looks impressive that Nigeria has produced in 60 years of independence at least eight black female justices of the Supreme Court while the United States has not produced one black female justice in over 200 years. In fact Nigeria has produced more female justices of the Supreme Court than the total number of female US Supreme Court justices!
In the epic pantheon of judicial juggernauts, the eight Nigerian women ever to attain the status of Justice of the Supreme Court are:
Mukhtar, Alooma Mariam CJN (Chief Justice of Nigeria)
Adekeye, Oyelola JSC
Odili, Mary JSC
Ogunbiyi, Clara JSC
Kekere Ekun, Kudirat JSC
Augie, Amina JSC
Abba Aji, Uwani JSC
Ogunwumiju, Helen JSC
Justice Aloma Mukhtar became the first woman JSC and ultimately the first and only female Chief Justice of Nigeria ever.
Hon. Justice Mary Odili is the first female Justice from southeast Nigeria to attain this exalted JSC position, Justice Mukhtar was also the first from the north while Justice Adekeye JSC was first from the southwest of Nigeria.
Out of the top seven most senior JJSC today, three are women. This means in any constitutional matter or case warranting a seven-judge panel, almost half would be women if empaneled by order of seniority.
This gives women an over 40% representation in the judicial hearing of constitutional matters affecting all Nigerians and this is way above the 35% gender quota requested by Nigerian women into appointive political positions.
Of greater note is that this judicial gender representation is purely on professional merit and not simply affirmative action. Indeed as a research by the Kudirat Institute for Nigerian Democracy reveals, of the three arms of government, the judiciary which is merit-based has a higher percentage of women than the executive or legislature which are politically based.
In effect, KIND implies that but for political factors, left to professional performance, Nigerian women are capable of achieving equal or comparable representation.
Against this backdrop, the recent abandonment of gender parity bills agitated this strong reaction, from the Women In Politics Group, Makurdi in a March 1 statement, “It is particularly sad that in a month globally dedicated to celebrating women worldwide, our NASS has chosen to deny women basic human rights.
The proposed gender bills in the 5th Constitution Alteration Bills that were all rejected are Bills targeted at addressing the current gender imbalance across the legislative arm of governments across the country whilst reducing the under-representation of women in political office.
The men of the 9th NASS have reinforced the discrimination and political bias against women as enshrined in the 1999 constitution by:
Denying citizenship to a foreign-born husband of a Nigerian woman. (While it allows Nigerian men’s foreign-born wives to be awarded automatic citizenship).
Denying Nigerian women indigeneity through marriage.
Denying 35% appointed positions for women and settling for 20%.”
Incidentally, Justice Mary Odili now the most senior JSC after the Chief Justice doubles as the first woman representing both southeast and south south by nuptials – two-thirds of the south of Nigeria.
Technically speaking, although there are now two female justices of the Supreme Court of Igbo extraction in the land today or ever, neither of them is there representing their state or the southeast region.
Justice Mary Odili who is only the second female justice in the history of Nigeria to rise to number two in the Apex Court is from Imo state but married into Rivers State where she served in that state’s judiciary until she rose through the ranks to the Apex court.
Similarly Justice Amina Augie from Imo state married into Kebbi state and served in the Sokoto judiciary before rising to the Supreme Court.
Therefore NO female judge has risen to the Supreme Court from the judiciaries of southeast Nigeria or by virtue of federal character representing the southeast on the court. Both female Igbo justices arose by their adoptive marital states.
This is a sorry state of affairs largely due to trenchant internal self-discrimination within southeastern states. An accomplished female lawyer who qualified in the ‘80s with a distinguished educational profile that included postgraduate studies in The Hague – the world capital of international jurisprudence – was denied appointment to the Imo State bar on the grounds that she was married to a man from neighbouring Abia state.
The travesty in this scenario was that at the time of her marriage, the lawyer and her engineer husband were both from Imo state. However the state creation exercise created a split wherein he fell on the Abia side while she fell on the Imo side.
Secondly she lived and worked in Imo State government and never for one day lived or worked in Abia state.
Nevertheless her judicial appointment was rejected for over 25 years until she was finally appointed a high court judge in 2021.
The tragedy of this gross injustice is that had she been appointed as at when due, she would by now have been on the Supreme Court of Nigeria representing the southeast in its own right and not by proxy. Even northeast Nigeria has produced two female JJSC but not the southeast.
It is therefore ironic that south south and northwest helped appoint the first Ibo women to the Supreme Court while their home state of Imo was persecuting an Imo-born lawyer from appointment to Imo state high court even while working in Imo state civil service! In this case, indigeneity by marriage was helpful to the Ibo Justices while actual indigeneity was unhelpful to the Imo-born female lawyer.
Incidentally, this is an unfortunate pattern seen in other locations as well.
In Kano state decades ago, Justice Alooma Mukhtar was denied Chief Judgeship of the state judiciary because she was female, though muslim and an indigene, but then went on to become first female Chief Justice of Nigeria.
Similarly Justice Patricia Mahmoud was recently denied Chief Judgeship of Kano State for being a Christian female while her husband was the President of the Nigerian Bar Association despite having served in Kano judiciary her entire career. Rather she was appointed to the Court of Appeal through her home state of Benue whose judiciary she had never worked in.
While marriage State failed Justice Patricia Mahmoud and indigeneship state rescued her judicial career, Justices Elizabeth Karatu and Beatrice Iliya of Kebbi and Gombe states were not so lucky. Despite being indigenes, and the most senior judges in their respective state judiciaries, they were denied appointments as state Chief Judges in violation of the constitution. They were supplanted by junior Muslim males. Both female judges were Christian.
Despite these unfortunate and atavistic political manipulations at state levels, women judicial officers have continued to fare fairer on the federal bench.
For the first time in Nigeria’s history, it’s two federal appellate courts were headed by women – Justice Mukhtar CJN and Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa PCA, (President of the Court of Appeal.)
Thereafter the historic succession from woman justice to woman justice occurred when Bulkachuwa handed over to Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem who is now the current PCA.
As The Nation editorial said, “ “This brazen injustice that is gaining grounds in most states against female judges, who have worked hard and diligently to deserve an elevation, is not in the interest of justice, and it’s tarnishing the reputation of the judiciary.”
We join FIDA to condemn this patriarchal anomaly. Indeed, the female gender suffers a double whammy, because, apart from discriminating against her based on gender, she is also discriminated against based on state of origin, after marriage. We saw that in Cross River and Rivers states, not long ago. By a narrow definition of state of origin, a woman is denied the highest accolade, after giving her services to a state, sometimes both in her state of birth and state of marriage.”
In addition, religious discrimination also factors in. Justice Patricia Mahmoud from north central was denied Chief Judge of Kano in the northwest the same year that Justice Amina Augie from southeast was appointed a JSC representing northwest. Though both married into northwestern states, Justice Patricia Mahmoud maintained her Christian name while Justice Amina Augie adopted a Muslim name (nee Anne Eva Graham.)
Justices Elizabeth Karatu and Beatrice Illiya were northeast and northwest indigenes denied for gender and religion thus creating the bizarre situation that a southeastern woman who marries in the northwest and adopts Islam is more acceptable than an indigenous Christian female judge.
East or west, women judges are stressed and the time has come for them and other females to be treated fairly.
Only one woman has headed another federal arm of govt – Hon Patricia Etteh was Speaker of the House of Representatives though technically that is a lower chamber of a bicameral legislature and therefore debatable as a partial arm of govt. Across the country, the same applies as more women have headed the judicial arm of state governments than any of the other arms. Women have made strides where chauvinist barriers are not in place.
A society cannot progress beyond the progress of its women.
Emmanuel Ogebe, Esq, an expert on the Nigerian judiciary and head of the US Nigeria Law Group writes from Washington USA