CURRENTS with Wale Sokunbi
Let me begin by simply stating what is obvious from the headline above. That is to say that the way the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Aloma Mukhtar, presided over the public humiliation of the Abia State nominee to the Court of Appeal, Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofo, is grossly disappointing. The stage had all been set for the nominee to be sworn in alongside 11or so other nominees to the position of judges of the Court of Appeal. She was all dressed up with her guests already on ground to congratulate her on the great achievement.
All had appeared set for a beautiful ceremony for all the nominees before the CJN dropped her bombshell. She would not be swearing in Jombo-Ofo on the grounds that she is not an indigene of Abia State, but only married to a man from the state. In short, Jombo-Ofo, who had worked in the Abia State judiciary for 14 years, could not represent the state in the Court of Appeal, as she is a non-indigene of Abia trying to take the slot of the state in the Appellate Court. Since this controversy broke, Justice Mukhtar has received a strong backlash for her unpopular position. Although the CJN was reported to have based her position on Jombo-Ofo on a petition from Abia State, the fact that the nominee met all the legal requirements for the position, having been appointed by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC), as provided for in Section 238 of the Nigerian Constitution, should have been sufficient for the CJN to swear her in.
The Abia State governor was also said to have approved her selection. However, some of Mukhtar’s aides have risen to defend her position that a woman cannot claim to be an indigene of her husband’s state based on some legal provisions. The specifically cited “the Federal Character Commission (Establishment Act) Decree 34 of 1996 which states under Part II Clause II that “a married woman shall continue to lay claim to her state of origin for the purpose of implementation of the federal character formula at national level.” This provision is also said to be in Official Gazette No 74, Vol 84. However, the digging up of this questionable provision which has not been widely observed in the country to embarrass Jombo-Ofo and deny her of a well-deserved position does not portray the CJN in a good light.
This is even more so as she is a highly respected woman who is expected to be at the forefront of battles against any attempt to ridicule or mistreat women in the country. The negative implication of this archaic provision in the controversial and outdated Federal Character Commission ought not to be swallowed hook, line and sinker by the CJN. Instead, it ought to have elicited judicial activism to expunge it and others like it using the due process for doing that. Laws, I believe, are made for the good governing of society.
The society does not exist so that inexpedient laws may be adhered to. One would have expected the CJN to have identified this flaw long ago and followed the appropriate channels to ensure that it is reviewed. This is more so as the provision did not specifically outlaw any claim by married women to be indigenes of their husbands’ state of origin. Even where such law is said to exist and also contained in the Official Gazette, the CJN, when she decided to stop the appointment of the woman, ought to have done so before the swearing in ceremony. She did not need to embarrass her and those who came with her to witness what should have been a happy occasion.
Since this news broke, the Senate has rightly directed the CJN to swear in Jombo-Ofo. The thrust of the argument of the Senate is that married women would be disenfranchised if they are unable to take up certain positions in their husband’s states simply because they hail from another state. Senators frowned at the development, especially because deserving non-indigenes have been appointed to high offices in many states and married women in the past have been appointed to positions in their husband’s states of origin.
Senate majority leader, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, in particular, cited the instance of Justice Kanu Anya, who was Chief Judge of Borno State alongside a Yoruba man as the Attorney General of the State, while the Secretary to the State Government at the time was also a non-indigene. Moreover, many women in the past have held positions in their husbands’ states as they were regarded as bonafide indigenes of the states. I prefer to align with the Senators on the need to allow women be regarded as bonafide indigenes of their husbands’ states. This will further promote marriage across state divides, which will in turn increase the bonds binding the country together. Women should not have to add worries about likely implications on their career progression when making a choice of husbands.
After marriage, they ought not to be placed in a position in which they have to separate from their husbands to pursue careers in the civil service in their own states, to the detriment of their children. If Nigeria decides to pursue the retrogressive path favoured by Mukhtar, we may have a situation where younger, career-minded married women may even re-think their marriage to non-indigenes and begin to seek for new spouses from their own states. This would be a very bad development. The issue of whether a woman can claim to be an indigene of her husband’s state has, however, remained controversial for a long time. It has been one controversy under which women who married outside their states of origin are discriminated against in their own states as they are now regarded as indigenes of their husbands’ states, while they are also never fully accepted as indigenes of their husbands’ states.
This unhealthy situation should not be allowed to persist. Nigeria should be working towards a situation in which we favour merit in all things, and not enthrone parochialism of “stateism”. We should be moving towards a situation in which the best people are appointed to do whatever job is necessary. Nations that are excelling put their best forward in everything. They do not limit themselves to indigeneship clauses that can only promote mediocrity. If there are clauses in our laws that tend to promote primordial and unhelpful practices, we expect the CJN to be in the vanguard to expunge them, following laid out procedures. She should not elect to be a champion of mediocre practices that cannot take the country anywhere. The charge by anonymous aides of the CJN that Jombo-Ofo committed an offence for claiming to be an indigene of Abia State is no charge at all. She is an indigene of Abia by marriage, and all those who feel otherwise ought to have resolved the question of her true state of origin before inviting her to take Oath of Office. They are all jointly liable for this unfortunate situation.
They should not rely on funny clauses in the Federal Commission Act that has only held Nigeria backward to deprive the woman of a position she has been found to merit. Already, different organisations have backed the position of the Senate that Jombo-Ofo be sworn in. The human rights group, Alliance for Africa, has said the CJN’s position contravenes Nigeria’s obligation under international law to eliminate discrimination against women and protect women from such discrimination. Article 2 Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa and Article 2, CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women) outlaw this. Many people have also cited the constitutional provision that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of sex, religion, ethnic group or circumstance of birth on this issue. I do not really think this situation applies in this instance.
A man or woman, for instance, cannot just come from Borno State, for example, to accuse the authorities of discrimination for not being allowed to run for the governorship election in Imo State. In the present case, what is at stake is the issue of the state to be claimed by women who have married outside their state of origin. Should they be regarded as indigenes of the state of birth of their parents and other forebears, or that of their husbands? Until a definitive position that is fair to women married outside their states is taken, and clearly seen to have been taken, no woman should be treated like an outsider or limited in any way in a state she has adopted as home following her marriage.
This is more so as they are often also regarded as strangers not to be accorded any rights in their original states of origin because they have married non-indigenes. Or, is it an offence to marry outside a person’s state of origin?