WOMEN have made significant progress with their entry into all ranks of the Nigerian judiciary.
Though they still represent the minority, Nigerian female judges have recorded achievements, occupying even the highest leadership positions in the field.
March 10 marks the International Day of Women Judges, which seeks to promote the full and equal participation of women at all levels of the judiciary, to celebrate the progress that has been made and raise awareness about the challenges ahead, says the United Nations. This is the first annual celebration.
In 2012, Nigeria swore in her first Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Mariam Aloma Mukhtar, who served till 2014, when she attained the mandatory retirement age of 70.
At the time of her appointment, there had been only three female justices of the Supreme Court, a figure that has now increased to five out of seventeen.
The margin between both genders in the field remains wide.
Mukhtar remains the only female out of seventeen CJNs in Nigeria’s history.
However, based on the current system of succession by seniority, a female judge, Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, may be appointed by the Nigerian Judicial Council (NJC) to succeed the incumbent CJN Tanko Muhammad upon his retirement in 2023.
While Supreme Court Justice Mary Odili occupies a more senior position than Kekere-Ekun, she would have attained the mandatory retirement age at the end of Muhammad’s tenure.
Women have also dominated the Lagos state judiciary.
Since 1995, when Rosaline Omotosho emerged as the first female Chief Judge in Lagos, six others have occupied the position in the state, with only women serving in that capacity between 2009-2019.
Despite the many achievements by female judges in Nigeria, a major stumbling block in attaining leadership positions in the judiciary is the statelessness confronted by Nigerian women upon marriage.
Many women who transfer service to their husbands’ states after marriage often get petitioned upon recommendation, on the basis of states of origin, regardless of years of service.
One of such cases occurred in 2012, when High Court Judge, Ifeoma Jumbo-Ofo, was recommended for the position of Justice of the Court of Appeal in Abia state.
A petition was written against her to the CJN at the time, Aloma Mukhtar, pointing out that though she had been married into the state, she was not an indigene and could not assume the position.
Mukhtar had initially stepped down her swearing-in, despite 14 years of service by Jumbo-Ofo in Abia state.
The decision was widely criticised, and after intervention by several bodies, Ofo was sworn in.
A similar situation occurred in Cross-rivers, 2020, where the National Judicial Council (NJC) had twice nominated the most senior judge, Akon Ikpeme as Chief Judge in the state, but the governor had refused to swear her in, claiming that she was from Akwa-Ibom and, therefore, constituted a security risk.
Speaking on the issue with The ICIR, Former Chairman, International Federation of Women Lawyers in Nigeria (FIDA), Racheal Adejo-Andrews, said the second in line had been put forward, even though Ikpeme had served the Cross-Rivers for most of her career.
“The governor had his own interest in the next in line and came up with the excuse that the judge is not from the state. Meanwhile, she started her career in the state and rose to the position of the most senior judge,” she said.
She noted that it had resulted in a tussle between the NJC and the state, though the council stood its ground and ensured she was sworn in.
The problem of statelessness has negatively affected women across other professions, and in reaction, a bill to bestow indigeneity on females married across state borders was presented to the National Assembly.
The bill had failed to be passed at both chambers of the National Assembly, which led to an uproar and a series of protests by women across the country.
However, after more than a week of protesting at the National Assembly Complex, the House of Reps rescinded its decision on the bill on Tuesday, reserving it for reconsideration.