Lawyers were unanimous that the failure of an Abuja High Court Chief Judge, Justice Ishaq Bello, to scale through screening for nominees to be appointed as jurists at the International Criminal Court (ICC) is a big loss to Nigeria. His low ranking by the International Court, according to them has absolutely nothing to do with the competence and standing of Nigeria’s Judiciary. AKEEM NAFIU reports
Some senior lawyers have rued the verdict of the Advisory Committee on Nomination of Judges for the International Criminal Court (ICC) based in the Hague, Netherlands, which found the Nigerian nominee and Chief Judge High Court, Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Justice Ishaq Bello, unworthy of a seat at the War Crime Tribunal.
The lawyers while noting that the ugly development was not only embarrassing but also a huge loss to Nigeria, however, believed it was not enough indication that the nation’s judiciary was sliding to the bottom. President Muhammadu Buhari had sometimes in June nominated Justice Ishaq Bello, who is the Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court, as a judge at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.
Apart from Bello, 19 others were nominated for the ICC job from United Kingdom, Belgium, Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Mexico and Brazil, among others. This is in conformity with the tradition in which member states of the ICC are expected to nominate their candidates of which only six judges will be elected to fill one-third of the court’s 18 judicial seats. The elections scheduled for the 19th session of the assembly of states parties will be held at the United Nations, New York, from 7th to 17th December, 2020.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) which took off on 1st July, 2002, investigates and also tries individuals charged with the gravest crimes of concern to the international community: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression.
A Nigerian, Chile Eboe-Osuji, currently sits as the President of the Court. Eboe-Osuji, who has been a judge of the International Criminal Court since March 2012 was elected President on 11th March, 2018 by his colleagues at a plenary session.
His election into the Presidency of the International Criminal Court is for a three-year term. As ICC’s President, he plays a key role in providing strategic leadership and coordinates with other organs while also seeking concurrence of the prosecutor on matters of mutual concern. In line with the Rome Statute, the ICC President is responsible for the proper administration of the Court. Other Nigerians who had served at the ICC were Charles Onyeama, father of Geoffrey Onyeama, current Minister of Foreign Affairs, TaslimOlawale Elias and Prince Bola Ajibola.
Justice Ishaq Usman Bello
Justice Ishaq Usman Bello was born on 5th January, 1956 in Zaira, Kaduna State. He attended Ahmadu Bello University and began his career in Sokoto State. He was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1983 and has served on several Bar and Bench committees before his appointment as a member of the National Judicial Council (NJC). Prior to his nomination, Justice Ishaq Bello was on October 2017 appointed as the Chairman of the Presidential Committee on Prison Reforms and De-congestion, now Presidential Committee on Correctional Service Reforms and De-congestion by the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami (SAN).
In carrying out the assignment, the judge visited 36 prisons and ordered the release of 3,822 inmates. He was the judge who also presided over the famous ‘Apo Six’ case starting from 2005. And in 2017, Justice Bello convicted two police officers over their involvement in the murder of two of the six civilians.
Ifeanyi Ozor, Chinedu Meniru, Augustina Arebu, Anthony Nwokike, Paulinus Ogbonna and Ekene Isaac Mgbe, popularly referred to as the ‘Apo Six’ were shot while returning from a night party by the police officers.
ICC’s verdict on interviews
The ICC’s Advisory Committee had on 2nd October, 2020, released the results of interviews conducted for the 20 nominees to be appointed as Jurists at the War Crime Tribunal with the Nigerian candidate, Justice Ishaq Bello, coming last in the rankings as he was declared incompetent and having “a very limited knowledge” of the job. The Committee came up with the verdict after conducting virtual interviews for the 20 candidates presented for the election between 12th and 28th August, 2020.
In September, the Committee came up with its criteria to determine the suitability of the 20 nominees out of which six judges will be elected at the 19th Session of the Assembly in December.
The parameters, according to the panel, are as follows: *Highly qualified: the candidate excels in terms of the experience and knowledge about the Court and its jurisprudence; it is very likely that he/she would be able to make an important contribution to the work of the Court.
*Qualified: the candidate has some relevant experience and knowledge about the Court; he/she could contribute to the work of the Court. *Only formally qualified: the candidate meets the requirements set out in the Rome Statute for election as a judge, but it is uncertain if the candidate could make a noteworthy contribution to the work of the Court. *Not qualified: the candidate does not meet the formal requirements set out in the Rome Statute.
A report of the Advisory Committee on Nomination of Judges on the work of its seventh session dated September 30, 2020, indicated that the Nigerian nominee, Justice Ishaq Bello, does not have the required skill needed for the ICC job. The report however highlighted Bello’s extensive judicial experience in criminal proceedings, as well as his articulate and knowledgeable stance regarding criminal law and procedure at the national level. In their assessment, Justice Bello was assessed as having “a very limited knowledge” of the workings of the ICC, hence is only formally qualified for appointment as judge of the Court.
The report reads: “The committee noted that the candidate, currently Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory, Nigeria, has extensive judicial experience in criminal proceedings. The committee noted that the candidate was articulate and knowledgeable regarding criminal law and procedure at the national level.
“The committee noted that the candidate does not have direct experience in international criminal law and procedure based on his answers to questions regarding the functions and powers of pre-trial and trial chambers and the admissibility of evidence collected in violation of legal provisions, and did not have in-depth knowledge of the Rome Statute or the jurisprudence of the International Criminal Court. He demonstrated, however, good general knowledge of how a judicial body should work in a multicultural environment.
“Based on both his professional experience as well as his answers during the interview, the committee concluded that the candidate is, subject to the issue of language, only formally qualified for appointment as judge of the International Criminal Court.” The other 19 nominees for the ICC job also received the following ratings: Althea Alexis-Windsor of Trinidad and Tobago (highly qualified); Khosbayor Chagdaa of Mongolia (only formally qualified); Jasmina CosicDedovic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (highly qualified), Joanna Korner of the United Kingdom (highly qualified), Laurence Massart of Belgium (highly qualified); Prosper Milandou of the Republic of Congo (only formally qualified); Miatta Samba of Sierra Leone (highly qualified); Monica Sifuentes of Brazil (qualified) and Raymond Sock from The Gambia (only formally qualified).
Others are: Aisse Tall of Senegal (only formally qualified); Victor Tsilonis of Greece (highly qualified); Barreto Gonzalez of Colombia (only formally qualified); Ben Mahfoudh of Tunisia (highly qualified); Flores Liera of Mexico (highly qualified); Gberdao Kam of Burkina Faso (qualified); Gocha Lordkipanidze of Georgia (qualified); Peralta Distefano of Uruguay (highly qualified), Salvador Crespo of Ecuador (only formally qualified) and Ugalde Godinez of Costa Rica (highly qualified).
The unimpressive performance of Justice Bello at ICC’s interview has been generating reactions from some senior lawyers. The lawyers while speaking on the issue at the weekend said the choice of the Nigerian nominee by President Buhari may not be the best for the country.
They advised that to avert such a huge loss in the future, those in authority should strive to present the best candidate using laid down criteria. The lawyers were also convinced that despite Justice Bello’s flop, Nigeria judiciary still remained one of the best in the world. Speaking on the issue, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mr. Seyi Sowemimo, said the performance of Justice Bello has not robbed Nigeria of its legions of outstanding legal minds.
He said: “Nigeria is still blessed with outstanding legal minds but we need to present the best candidates in order to secure a placement on any international body. These bodies appoint people on the basis of merit and not federal character or personal connection.” Another member of the Inner Bar, Mr. Olukayode Enitan, said government could have done better by not bypassing those Nigerians who were versed in international criminal law, treaties and conventions.
Enitan said: “In my view, the “limited knowledge” of the job used in describing the performance of the jurist candidate relates to the work of the International Criminal Court, which is a highly specialised Court and not to the job of judging civil, commercial and even local criminal cases which his Lordship must be doing in a most competent manner bearing in mind that he was groomed on that before going to the Bench.
“The ranking of his Lordship in that interview has absolutely nothing to say about the competence and standing of the Nigerian Judiciary which remains one of the best and hardworking judiciary in the world. Whilst I do not know what criteria was used in picking a nominee, the government could have done better by not bypassing those Nigerians who are versed in international criminal law, the treaties, and conventions guiding it and these abound both locally and in the Nigerian diaspora.
I will see it as a lesson in the need for us as a nation to always ensure that we put forward those who are perfect fits for positions using the laid down criteria.” Dr. Fassy Yusuf said “while it is sad that the Honourable Justice Ishaq Bello of Nigeria was not found qualified to be appointed a Jurist of the World War Crime Tribunal, this development should not in any way diminish the worth, competence and credibility of Nigerian jurists. There are about 3,000 jurists in the country and the disqualification or incompetence of one of them should not be a criterion or basis for the assessment of all.
“However, the assessment of the panellists is an embarrassment to the country. What it shows was that we did not send one of our best for the job. Perhaps his nomination had other criteria, Nigerian factor or primordial considerations.
Our jurists are still among the best the world can showcase. For the future, transparency, probity and good conscience should guide our decisions when putting people forward for appointments. We should prevent a recurrence of this ugly situation.”
Speaking in the same vein, Mr. Ige Asemudara, said Justice Bello’s performance at the interview was not reflective of the knowledge and capacities of other judges in Nigeria. Asemudara said: “Let me state first that the performance of Honourable Justice Bello at the interview is not reflective of the knowledge and capacities of our judges generally. That is a specific situation and we should treat it specifically. For instance, I know several judges that would do exceedingly well at the interview and on the job.
“For example, my Lords Idris now JCA, Buba J, Nnamdi Dimgba J, Obiozor J, Faji J, Taiwo O. Taiwo J, RIB Adebiyi J, Obadina J, to mention but a few would do well on that job. The problem is that the nation now puts a wrong foot forward. We keep our best behind, so, we get embarrassed where we shouldn’t. “Let me add that it is correct that the standard of appointment of judges in Nigeria has nosedived considerably especially in terms of knowledge of law due to several factors.
The first factor is cronyism. The President or whoever is appointing including those recommending would rather recommend or appoint their cronies. So, merit is thrown under. Second, the quality of judges naturally declines as the quality of practitioners declines. “More often than not, most of the people practising law are those qualified lawyers who are forced by circumstances of their inability to get paid jobs to practise law.
Many times, this is due to their low grades from the universities. On the average, the universities and of course the Nigerian Law School turns out about 3, 000 lawyers every year. Half of them who are very brilliant don’t practice law.
“Some of these brilliant ones run abroad to seek greener pastures because our country is terribly bad. Some go to seek the best paying jobs in oil companies, telecommunication companies, banks, construction companies and other lucrative employments that are less tasking but highly paying.
“A quarter of the remaining lawyers go into all sorts of businesses to make ends meet. Only the last remaining quarter of those yearly churned out largely populated by the not-very-brilliant ones, are left to practice law. Most times, the judges are appointed among these ones. So, what do you expect? Some of them never had good practice or law teaching experience before appointment. Some lawyers are indolent and you already know the kind of judges they will become.
“Those who are in the ministry merely “pushing files” (not all of them though, some are hardworking) also think appointment as judges is their birthright. So, the problem has become systemic rather than individual. Until our system generally works well, we may not get the best of not just judges but other things. “Lastly, there should be specialisations even in appointments and roles.
That Honourable Justice Bello did not perform in an interview for the War Crimes Tribunal doesn’t mean he would not perform elsewhere. He should have his area of core competence. It may be civil; contract, land, tort or what have you? It may even be Sharia law.
We only need to learn to put a round peg in a round hole and not otherwise.” A rights activist, Mr. Kabir Akingbolu, also opined that the low rating of Justice Bello should not be used as a yardstick to measure Nigeria’s judiciary.
He said: “The low rating of Justice Bello is not and can never be an index of Nigeria judiciary sliding to the bottom. The truth is that because of political consideration, tribalism and favouritism, we sometimes allow parochial sentiments to guide our choices in things like this and as a result, we don’t always nominate our best eleven.
I can tell you, the president who nominated Justice Bello didn’t do so because he loves Nigeria, but because he wants to satisfy a particular interest at all cost. “Therefore, Justice Bello is never one of our best judges in Nigeria, although, there are criteria for the job which are very spectacular, it is a shame to us as a nation which prides itself as the giant of Africa to be so lowly rated. It will also teach tribalistic leaders how not to do things.
Apart from delay in justice delivery, I can tell you, despite the poor rating, Nigeria’s judiciary still remains one of the best in Africa. “It is not in doubt that people tend to be wise after a disgraceful defeat of this nature. If you check the records very well, especially the credentials of other wonderful judges we have in this country, you will discover that Justice Bello may not come above average.
I know as a standard practice that to nominate any judge for this kind of international assignment, there is the need to advertise or send letters of invitation to interested and qualified individuals to apply for the job. Then, their curriculum vitae will be scrutinized and filtered to produce the best three, one of whom may then be nominated. This is the ideal situation which if applied would have saved us the international embarrassment. May God heal our land.”