By UCHE CHRIS
President Buhari’s appointment of Justices Oguntade and Nsofor raises questions of political patronage and our reward system.
Two of the names that stand out in the list of about 43 ambassadorial nominees sent to the Senate by President Muhammadu Buhari few weeks back for confirmation are Justices George Oguntade and Sylvester Nsofor. Both are eminent jurists, who retired from the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal Court in 2011 and 2007 respectively after attaining the mandatory 70 years. It is not often or common that such people of high quality who are already advanced in age make the ambassadorial roll.
It is not that they are undeserving of the appointments. At over 70 and having attained the highest level and distinction at the bench, it is expected that they deserve some rest and respite from public life. A man who has worked till the age 70 needs a break from the official routine of waking up early every day to attend to duty. When will he have the privacy and enjoyment of a private life with his children and grand children. It is an unnecessary burden and encumbrance to what would have ordinarily been a good life.
It is not about money; justices earn their retirement salary as pension for the rest of their life. So why work for the money you don’t actually need? Neither is it about status and social class; a Supreme Court justice is not anyway lower or belittle before an ambassador which is purely a political assignment without any special requirement or qualification. For the political class it may not really matter because it is part of the patronage and reward system. But Justices of the highest courts in the nation deserve more dignity.
Beyond the apparent good intention of the president in their appointments there is something untoward and politically sensitive about the whole issue. Ordinarily, the appointment of an 84 year old man to represent this country abroad for the next four years should present a moral and circumstantial concern to the president and the senate. Age cannot be ignored and nature cannot be managed. Both appointments have to do with the personality of the president and his sense of reward for loyalty.
Recall that the president once defended his appointment of old friends and loyalists into strategic positions as the reward for their long standing loyalty. It is the same logic and philosophy that occasioned and determined the appointments of these reputable men of law in their twilights as ambassadors. Both Justices have featured in the political career of the president and the appointments are appreciation for their service to him as an individual and not to the nation.
Justice Nsofor retired from the Port Harcourt Division of the Court of Appeal in 2007 a disappointed man. Brilliant, erudite and fearless, he could not make the Supreme Court because of quota system and his anti establishment tendencies. These qualities run in the family; he is the first cousin to late Justice Chukwudifu Oputa. Shortly before his disengagement from the bench he was part of the three man presidential election tribunal that decided the petition of candidate Buhari against the election of late President Yar’Adua. It was a split decision in favour Yar’Adua and Justice Nsofor gave the minority judgment for Buhari.
The same scenario played out again in 2011 between Buhari and former President Goodluck Jonathan. In the past 20 years Justice Oguntade had represented a special class of judges in the country. A man of acute intellect, meticulously practical and a stickler for time and hard work, he is humorous without being trivial, firm and fair put together. While at the Lagos division of the Court of Appeal, he was always a delight to watch conducting the affairs of the court.
This writer remembers a confrontation between two legal heavy weights, Chief F.R.A Williams and Chief Sofola, SAN, with the later accusing the former of intimidation, and how he deftly maneuvered the testy situation leaving everybody laughing and satisfied. He was in the five man panel that decided the case for the election of Jonathan as president. Again it was a split decision of three to two and Oguntade gave it to Buhari.
This is not coincidental. We must understand that President Buhari is setting a bad and retrogressive precedents that actions taken by public to favour an individual could become a basis for reward by the state. What about our conscience and sense of fairness? Should public officers at any level perform their duties in anticipation of future rewards when they are employed and paid by the state? Were the Justices induced to take favourable positions in the two cases involving Buhari? Why should Buhari insist on appointing them personally instead of giving them the honour of nominating anybody of their choice? These are questions the appointments raise and Nigerians need to have answers.
For instance, Justice Nsofor comes from a fairly large family with scores of reputed professionals in any area of endeavour and could have easily seconded one of them. Why burden an aging, frail looking old man with another public responsibility he left 10 years ago when he should be resting his weak bones. It is a dangerous tradition that public service is for life.
Although the senate has approved the nomination of Oguntade, it will be a disservice to the nation to confirm Nsofor. The president should grant him the privilege of nominating a replacement for himself so that he can go home and rest.