ADDRESS BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION (“NBA”), PAUL USORO, SAN AT THE COMMISSIONING OF THE ASABA DIVISION OF THE COURT OF APPEAL AND THE VALEDICTORY COURT SESSION IN HONOUR OF HONORABLE JUSTICE ZAINAB ADAMU BULKACHUWA, CFR, PRESIDENT OF THE COURT OF APPEAL HELD ON MONDAY, 03 FEBRUARY 2020
1. We thank My Lord, the President of the Court of Appeal, Honorable Justice Zainab Adamu Bulkachuwa, CFR for the privilege of joining in today’s twin celebration, to wit, the commissioning of the Asaba Division of the Court of Appeal and the valedictory farewell visit of Bulkachuwa PCA to the Division. We are particularly thrilled over the commissioning of this new Division of the Court of Appeal because it enhances access to justice for litigants and epitomizes, in a practical way, the promotion of the rule of law.
2. Some of us may recall that, once upon a time, appeals from the High Courts that today constitute the Delta State Judicial Division used to be heard in the Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal. The rigors and costs of the trips to faraway Lagos from these parts more often than not made litigants to forego their constitutional rights of appeal, notwithstanding the arguably meritorious nature of those appeal and no matter how aggrieved the litigants were, thereby denying them access to justice. It was not only the litigants who suffered these deprivations, legal practitioners in these parts were denied the opportunity to practice before the appellate court and thereby learn and acquire appellate practice experience.
3. It was therefore a great relief to litigants and legal practitioners alike when the Benin Division of the Court was opened and appeals from the High Courts that today constitute the Delta State Judiciary began to be heard at the said Division. Even then, it was expensive for some litigants to journey from Delta State to Benin for their appeals to be heard, both in terms of financial and security costs, particularly in these days of pervasive and all-around insecurity. It is therefore a huge relief and a justifiable cause for celebration that the Asaba Division of the Court of Appeal is being opened today to hear, inter alia, appeals from the High Courts of the Delta State Division.
4. Access to justice goes beyond mere physical availability of courts. It includes considerations of the costs of such access to litigants, in material terms and otherwise. We cannot have the rule of law when there is no access to justice; the more pervasive the access to justice is, the better for our promotion and sustenance of the rule of law. As an association dedicated to the rule of law, the Nigerian Bar Association is therefore greatly heartened by today’s commissioning of the Asaba Division of the Court of Appeal. Not only will it be of great benefit and relief to litigants who wish to appeal from judgments of the High Courts of the Delta State Judiciary, it would greatly deepen the pool of experience and exposure in appellate litigation for our NBA members who practice in the jurisdiction of the Division.
5. To complement the commissioning of this and other Divisions of the Court of Appeal, the NBA calls for the appointment of additional Justices of the Court of Appeal. To pave way for those appointments, we call for a concomitant amendment of the provisions of the Court of Appeal Act to allow for the appointment of sufficient number of JJCA that would ensure that no division of the Court of Appeal would have less than 6 (six) JJCA posted thereto and the particularly overworked and overloaded Divisions like Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt would have no less than 10 (ten) to 15 (fifteen) JJCA posted thereto. In the recent postings of the JCAs that we have been privileged to see, a number of the Divisions have only 3 JJCA posted thereto which means, amongst others, that (a) such Divisions do not even have the quorum of 5 JJCA for the constitution of a full court for the hearing of any matter that can only be heard a full court, in the terms of relevant constitutional provisions; (b) such Divisions will not form the 3-JJCA quorum for the hearing of ordinary matters if one or two JJCA are indisposed or unavailable for whatever reason on any day for the court’s sitting; and (c) the JJCA in those Divisions would be overworked and prone to work stress and fatigue with the resultant health challenges. Very urgent attention therefore needs to be paid to this lacuna, for, access to justice becomes meaningless and unattainable when and if the courts are incapable of sitting due to lack of quorum.
6. Our celebration will not be complete if we fail to appreciate the chief architect of today’s commissioning, i.e. the President of the Court of Appeal, My Lord, Honorable Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, CFR who bows out from the judiciary, barely a month from today, on 06 March 2020 upon her attainment of the mandatory retirement age of 70. Without My Lord’s final approval and sign-off as the President of the Court of Appeal, we would not have had the Asaba Division of the Court of Appeal and by extension, today’s celebration. On behalf of our members, we thank My Lord most sincerely even as we wish My Lord a most restful and rewarding retirement when Your Lordship finally bows out of the judiciary in a month or thereabouts from today.
7. Talking about mandatory retirement, My Lord’s looks and appearance actually belie My Lord’s age of almost 70. It surely must be the Grace of God, above all, that keeps My Lord, the PCA, looking so ageless and young. But, beyond My Lord’s looks, I recently had occasion to comment on and acknowledge that welcoming smile that My Lord wears so naturally and effortlessly at all times, that smile that puts anyone and everyone at ease when meeting and/or relating with the PCA even at first instance. That is a rare gift and quality that is not given to all; it is a quality that is so very admirable particularly in a country where public office holders mostly wear discouraging frowns and maintain barriers that keep people away.
8. The life of Bulkachuwa PCA reminds us all what the Nigerian girl-child and indeed woman can achieve with her God-given intellect and talents if given the chance and opportunity. We more often than not scoff at the idea that women are naturally gifted in multi-tasking but before us today is one illustrative example of extremely successful multi-tasking woman who has graciously and with great dexterity and enormous success combined her role as wife, mother, grandmother, aunt and high-achieving career and professional women. Even as she has pursued a most successful professional career, Bulkachuwa JCA has maintained her home, as the wife of Ambassador Adamu Bulkachuwa and the mother of six biological children and several adopted others not to mention the grandmother of several adorable grandchildren.
9. In celebrating this gender champion, it helps to go down memory lane to appreciate how arduous we have traveled in the road that leads to gender diversity in the Court of Appeal Bench, starting from the elevation of the first female Justice of the Court of Appeal, Honorable Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, GCON in 1987 who was elevated from the Kano State High Court Bench. That was barely 33 years ago. Mukhtar, JCA (as she then was) proceeded from there to become the first female Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and then the first female Chief Justice of Nigeria – again, an illustration of what the Nigerian girl-child and woman can achieve when and if given the chance and opportunity. Prior to the elevation of Mukhtar JCA (as she then was), our appellate courts, notably, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court were all male dominated, and this, in a society where it is believed has a higher population of females, in real terms.
10. Interestingly, after the elevation of Mukhtar JCA (as she then was), in 1987, it took another 6 (six) years before the second female Justice of the Court of Appeal, late Ige JCA was appointed to the Court of Appeal Bench in September 1993. Indeed, the number of female Justices of the Court of Appeal reached 10 (ten) only in 2005 with the elevation of Denton-West JCA – 18 years after the elevation of Mukhtar JCA (as she then was) and 12 years after the elevation of Ige JCA. As at date, out of 86 Justices of the Court of Appeal, only 23 – barely 30% - are female. With such a poor record in gender diversity, the epoch-making achievement of Bulkachuwa PCA truly calls for celebration and corrective steps in enlarging the coast of our diversity and gender inclusion.
11. I should perhaps mention that My Lord Bulkachuwa PCA arrived the Court of Appeal Bench from a sustained and illustrious judicial career that started with her appointment as a Magistrate with the Kaduna State Judiciary in 1980. My Lord’s experience and depth as a judicial officer is borne out in the judgments My Lord delivered in the Court of Appeal Bench. Bulkachuwa PCA was elevated to the Court of Appeal Bench in December 1998 from the position of Chief Judge of Gombe State where she directed the affairs and controlled the vote of the Gombe State Judiciary.
12. As a Justice of the Court of Appeal following her elevation in 1998, Bulkachuwa JCA (as she then was) controlled no vote at all. In fact, she could not have foreseen at the time that, in sixteen years, precisely in 2014, she would become the President of the Court of Appeal. All that My Lord did in 1998 was to abandon a reasonably settled, secure and comfortable life of a Chief Judge of a State and join the ranks of fairly anonymous Justices of the Court of Appeal, whose lives are filled with the tedium of reading endless Records of Appeal, listening to the submissions of Counsel and writing Judgments with no immediately discernible prospect of ever becoming the President of the Court of Appeal. It is only a very high standard of patriotism and a sense of duty and service
that would inform and drive those choices and we are the richer for them.
13. These are qualities that appear to be in short supply amongst our public office holders and it therefore galls some of us when these same public officers pretend to pontificate against and lecture our judicial officers and the legal profession on patriotism and service to country. The shoe should actually be in the other leg in the sense that it is our judicial officers, in the mold of Bulkachuwa PCA who have the right to pontificate and lecture these public office holders on patriotism and duty to country, having so glaringly earned their stripes in the career choices that they made and in the quality of the services they have provided in the course of their judicial careers.
14. There is plenty more that we could write and say on our distinguished jurist, but time and space would not permit. We however thank the Almighty for the life of our eminent jurist, Honorable Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, CFR, President of the Court of Appeal. We thank Him in particular for keeping Your Lordship alive, well, in good health, with great and enduring looks, of sound minds and, I dare add, with good humor, at almost 70. At a time that being a lawyer not to mention, being a judicial officer, is becoming an extremely risky enterprise given the contrived minefields and boobytraps that are deliberately and mischievously placed on our way by those who seek to demonize the profession and the judiciary, it is remarkable and indeed, calls for celebration and thanksgiving that Your Lordship has served our nation as high-ranking judicial officer without blemish and will be retiring shortly unscathed and spotless. Indeed, God has been kind and faithful.
15. The Nigerian Bar Association indeed rejoices with Your Lordship over your retirement and wish Your Lordship a most restful, fulfilling and enjoyable post-retirement period. We wish Your Lordship continuing good health, in sound mind, with God’s continued blessings and protection. We know that Your Lordship still has considerable energy and drive and, even though retiring, is most definitely not tired. We firmly believe that there is room for us, as a nation, to still tap from Your Lordship’s fountain of
formidable knowledge, experience and skills. As I have consistently mentioned, we can never have enough hands in and for the gigantic task of nation-building and we encourage our official institutions, including the three arms of government – the judiciary, the legislature and the executive – to invite and make use of dedicated, experienced and knowledgeable retired but still able and healthy jurists like Bulkachuwa PCA, as required and necessary. In particular, we, the NBA, will continue to knock on Your Lordship’s doors for those pieces of advice and nuggets of wisdom not to mention the welcoming smiles that are the hallmark of Your Lordship.
16. This Address will not be complete without my congratulating and extending our sincere gratitude and appreciation to Your Lordship’s immediate family who have, over the years, borne rather patiently, the harsh brunt and reality of Your Lordships’ punishing judicial schedules – and I am referring in particular to those long, arduous and lonely days, nights and weekends when Your Lordship forfeited family time in order to ponder over those arcane legal issues, researching law reports and judicial texts for the determination one way or the other of knotty and troubling issues on which rested the hopes and rights of litigants and by extension our people.
17. Now, My Lord’s growing brood of grandchildren are likely to and may have Your Lordship mostly to themselves, subject of course, to the caveat that I have already entered, to wit, the fact that, Your Lordship, by God’s special Grace, still being of sound mind and good health, remain on the country’s reserve bench and may be called to national duty in the continuing task of nation-building. I thank My Lord, the President of the Court of Appeal, for the privilege of this Address.
Paul Usoro, SAN