Although Nigeria has a robust procedure for appointing judges into courts of records, this process is often observed in the breach.
Merit is often sacrificed for family connection or political patronage.
Speaking at the Nigerian Bar Association’s Annual General Conference in August, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari made a case for continuous improvement of the selection processes for appointment of the men and women who serve on the bench. “First we must cast our nets wider in search of judges, especially at the appellate level. Second we must put in place primarily merit-based selection processes including mandatory tests and interviews for all applicants for judgeships”, said the president.
One would have expected the president to insist that the net be cast wider and the process be more rigorous to select a qualified candidate for nomination as an International Criminal Court (ICC) judge. Viewed from both the perspective of the nomination process and suitability, Ishaq Bello is not a good candidate for appointment as a judge of the ICC.
Although Bello has considerable years of experience as a high court judge, he is a product of a flawed nomination process, has a poor record of upholding justice, and participated in a process that recommended unqualified lawyers for appointment as judges.
Ordinarily, his experience should have put him in good stead for the ICC job. Before he was appointed a judge, he had worked as state counsel, magistrate, and deputy chief registrar of Nigeria’s highest court, the Supreme Court. He was appointed judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory in 1997, and chief judge in 2015.
As chief judge, Bello regularly visits prisons to free those who have spent more years awaiting trial than years they are likely to serve on conviction. In October 2017, he was appointed chairman of a Presidential Committee on Prison Reforms and De-congestion (now Presidential Committee on Correctional Service Reforms and De-congestion). Since its inauguration, the Committee has released over 3768 individuals from 36 correctional facilities across the country.
That is perhaps where the positives end.
His handling of the trial of policemen charged with extra judicial killings of six traders in Abuja in 2005 left a dent in Bello’s career as a judge. It took him 12 years to conclude the trial. The delay was a deliberate ploy to help one of the officers charged with the murder escape justice.
Then his judgment was even more bizarre. At the trial, a witness testified that a senior police officer personally shot at the victims, while also ordering his subordinates to shoot them. In his judgement, Justice Bello convicted the subordinates, but acquitted the senior officer. He argued that contradictory witness testimony and unavailability of the senior officer’s fingerprints after the arrest made it impossible to establish his culpability. Many who followed the trial felt that that reasoning was strange. He eventually sentenced two junior policemen to death, although there were no fingerprints of the two either. The victims’ relatives are of the view that Justice Bello deliberately helped the senior police officer escape justice for reasons unrelated to the evidence.
The injustice allegedly perpetrated by Bello’s tainted judgment could not be redressed on appeal because the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami refuses to file an appeal despite pressure from the relatives of the victims of the extrajudicial killings. Abubakar Malami recently recommended Bello for nomination for the ICC job and has refused to issue a fiat to a private prosecutor to appeal the judgment. Bello, the senior police officer and Abubakar Malami are from the same part of Nigeria and share similar backgrounds.
Early this year, Bello played a key role in recommending unqualified lawyers to be appointed as judges of courts where he presided as the chief judge.
In 2018, a senator (member of Nigeria’s upper legislative chamber- the Senate) led armed thugs to invade the chambers of the Senate, from where he stole the mace – the legislative symbol of authority. Following civil society pressure for the senator to be prosecuted, Bello, sitting as chief judge, issued an ex parte order barring police and other security agencies from arresting the senator for interrogation. That ruling is against long established precedent that courts have no power to stop law enforcement agencies from carrying out their constitutional duties. Worse still, Bello issued the order without giving the law enforcement agencies an opportunity to be heard.
The process that led to Bello’s nomination is shrouded in secrecy. It smacks of cronyism, a trait that the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari has become notorious for. Applications were not invited from suitable candidates. Civil society organizations were shut out. No interview was conducted.
Nigeria should not be allowed to infect the world with her cronyism.