By UthmanYawa-Siraja

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Justice Fati Abubakar

Last week, Hon Justice Fati Lami Abubakar, wife of the former head of state, Gen Abdulsalam Abubakar, and mother-in-law of the current governor of Niger State, Dr Abubakar Sani Bello, retired from the services of Niger State government  as chief judge of the state. By all yard sticks, she is a great woman, who had achieved renown by dint of conscientious and constant application of hard work to her work first as state counsel, solicitor general, attorney general and commissioner of justice, judge, and head of the judiciary. In many of these roles, she was first: she was the first woman in Niger State to become the solicitor-general and permanent secretary in Niger State Ministry of Justice; the first female commissioner of justice and attorney-general in the state; the first woman to become a high court judge, and the first woman to become the chief judge of Niger State. She retired as chief judge in a blaze of glory, honoured in a valedictory court session, which took place at the Niger State High Court Complex, Minna, April 12. The session was witnessed by several legal luminaries, among them both serving and retired chief judges or judges of Federal Court of Appeal, Federal High Courts, or state High Courts from all over the country. Dr Bello, her son-in-law, who fate or coincidence appointed to be sworn into office by Justice Fati Abubakar as the sitting CJ of the state in May 29, this year, led a powerful delegation of Who’s Who in the state to honour this impeccable and incorruptible judge.

The governor did not make any speech at the occasion, but others did. The Chairman, Nigeria Bar Association, Minna Branch, Alh Adamu Umar Aliyu, described the outgoing chief judge “as a courageous and fearless judge, who has built a good name for herself… in her duty as distinguished high court judge.”

Gimba Alhaji Gabi, a chief magistrate, eulogized the retiring chief judge “as an upright judge, a decent woman, a loving wife, a caring mother, and eminent stateswoman. She is surely leaving the Niger State judiciary better than she met it, and her footprints should be followed for the betterment of the institution.”

The roll call of the legal luminaries present at the occasion included Her Lordship, Justice Mary Odili, Judge of Supreme Court of Nigeria; His Lordship, Justice Musa Mohammed Dattijo, Judge of Supreme Court of Nigeria, and Her Lordship, Justice Zainab Adamu Bulkachuwa, President of Court of Appeal.

Among the serving chief judges of states in attendance were those of Zamfara, Sokoto, Kogi, including the chief judge of the Federal Capital Territory namely Justice Aishat Ahmed Usman, Justice Aishat Aliyu, Justice Nasir Ajana, and Justice Isyaku Bello respectively.

The former chief judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Musa Abdullahi, the former chief judge of Niger State, Justice Jibrin Ndatsu Ndajiwo, her predecessor in office, and other judges of other state jurisdictions were present also present at the valedictory session.

BIRTH

Hon Justice Fatilami Abubakar was born in Minna, the capital of Niger State, 65 years ago, on April 12, 1951, to late Alh Umaru Audi, the Wazirin Minna and a highly educated public administrator, and late Hajiya Nana Asmau. She attended Our Lady’s High School, Kaduna, where she put up an excellent performance in her First Leaving Certificate examination. From there, she proceeded to the famous Queen Elizabeth College, Ilorin, in 1965. In 1969, she obtained the West African School Certificate in Division 2. In January, 1970, she got admission into the Federal Government College, Sokoto, where she sat for the Higher School Certificate and came out with flying colours. Determined to obtain more knowledge, she was admitted into the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, in 1972.She read law, graduating in 1975. She enrolled in Nigeria Law School, Lagos, in 1975, and qualified to practice law as solicitor and advocate of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in July 1976. Subsequently, she served under the one year National Youths Service Corps Scheme in Minna between August, 1976 – July, 1977.

Hon Justice Fati Abubakar has an impressive and diverse record in legal practice. She started work as inspector of Area Courts under the defunct North Western State and worked as state counsel with the judiciaries of Niger, Kaduna, and Kano States, including the Federal Ministry of Justice, in Lagos. She did private legal practice in Jos in 1980 with Biriye Chamber, under the late Gally Brown Peterside.

She was appointed as solicitor-general and permanent secretary, Niger State Ministry of Justice, in 1985, became commissioner for justice and attorney-general, and in 1989 was appointed High Court judge, the position she held before her elevation to the office of chief judge of the state in June 5, 2013.

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L-R: Former Chief Judge of Niger State, Justice Fati Lami Abubakar, Niger State Governor, Alh. Abubakar Sani Bello, and wife, Dr. Amina Abubakar Sani Bello, and Deputy Governor of Niger State, Alh. Ahmed Muhammad Ketso, at the valedictory session held at High Court premises, Minna on 12th April, 2016. PIX: ISAH ABDULLAHI

FOOTPRINTS IN THE SANDS OF TIME

Two persuasions pre-occupy Justice Fati Lami Abubakar always: Justice (or the rule of law) and women’s rights. The first one has been served variously. Every year, in pursuit of the rule of law, she visits the prisons in the state to directly review cases of inmates that have suffered delays or inattention by prosecutorial authorities. In her maiden visit to prison formations in the state, shortly after assumption of office as chief judge, she released 25 inmates languishing in the two federal prison formations in Minna, on awaiting trial list, for over four years or more. She took a swipe at the legal unit of the State Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (SCID) for their deliberate refusal to send case files of those released to the office of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) in the state Ministry of Justice for professional legal advice. She gave the officer-in-charge of the legal unit of SCID, Mr Thadeuse Akaeze, DSP, a dressing down. “Mr OC, Legal, of the police SCID,” she said,“what do you want to achieve by keeping these people in this inhuman condition. As a lawyer, you are supposed to protect the fundamental rights of the citizens; now you are the one encroaching upon their rights, putting them in prison for years without establishing any reasonable case against them. Are you being fair to them? This is an act of unprofessionalism and wickedness to your fellow human beings. It is ungodly. You better put the fear of your Lord at the head of everything you do because you must surely give account of whatever you do here on earth after your departure to the here-after. The way you punish these Nigerians, with your position as the head of the legal unit of SCID, God will not leave you like that; you must definitely pay back, unless they, on their own, forgive you.”

In her second round of prison visit to Agaie, Bida, Kagara, Lapai, Suleja, and New Bussa, Justice FatiLami Abubakar, after perusing through various detention warrants, took time to ask the inmates in those prisons what brought them to the prison. If she was convinced with their explanations, she did not hesitate to let them go, particularly those with minor charges against them, who were on awaiting trial for over four years. Many of these had not been taken to court for proper prosecution.

For the three years she headed the state judiciary, Justice Fati Lami Abubakar freed a total of 143 inmates, with the highest number occurring during her farewell visit to the two prisons in Minna, where 71 inmates were released. Without doubt, she was committed to ensuring that the rule of law was not compromised during her watch. From her days as state counsel to her position as attorney-general and later chief judge, she did not countenance anything that undermined the rule of law. Ibrahim Isyaku, a Minna-based Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), said: “Justice Fati is a judge of inestimable discipline, as far as the rule of law is concerned.You must be prepared as a lawyer before you can appear before my Lord….If, as a young lawyer appearing before her for the first time in court, you have to get yourself prepared, otherwise you will get yourself in a mess. All she believes is that the rule of law must be allowed to take its place in law.”

Ibrahim Isyaku, SAN, disclosed that Justice Fati is the third judge that has tremendous impact on his practice. “Not a woman of many words;” he said, “her conduct, her countenance, her body language always betrays her innermost mind. You will always be on the same page with her if you understand all these. Pure at heart; she acts with the fear of her creator, and very respectful of even her juniors. It is not difficult to notice her good health; she always had radiant smile. She has a fertile mind and, above all, she is hard working.”

Justice Fati’s tenure as CJ saw the aggressive physical transformation of court structures and improved judges’ libraries. Her leadership of the state Judicial Service Commission also saw the appointments of five new judges to fill vacancies that have contributed to delay in dispensation of justice in some courts as well as embarked on staff re-organisation. The offices of the new judges were furnished to meet the requirement of the National Judicial Council, while five Highlander jeeps were also purchased for them.

She also introduced dress code for all categories of judiciary staff, and her chairmanship of Justice Sector Reforms Committee ensured the effective participation of Niger State in the Justice-for-All programme at the national level. Without doubt, Justice Fati has, within her short tenure, raised the performance of the bar, thus posing a great challenge to her successor.

While the preparations for the special court session to mark her exit was going on, some selected court buildings in Minna magisterial division were undergoing aggressive renovation, which is one her dreams for a better judiciary in the state. Without apology, she is leaving the Niger State judiciary with greater honour, dignity, and respectability as the third arm of government, better than she met it.

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A procession of high court judges led by the retiring chief judge of Niger State, Justice Lami Fati Abubakar

In December last year, Justice Fati added another first to her previous firsts. It was during the valedictory court session to honour Justice Christopher Ibrahim Auta, that she announced the establishment of the first ever Bar and Bench Forum. The forum was the collective idea of the past chairmen of Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), to serve as an avenue where all the stakeholders in the judiciary and the justice system will discuss fundamental issues that affect the smooth and speedy dispensation of the criminal justice system in the state. It is also an avenue where the shortcomings of the judiciary and its personnel will be discussed and solutions proffered. At the second edition of the forum, which was held March 17, 2016, issues raised included the state of court structures in the state, corruption among the judiciary officers, particularly within the bench, late commencement of sittings by magistrates and judges, etc that hamper the speedy administration of criminal justice system in Niger State. Some of the legal practitioners took their time to express their dismay with the way some judges berate younger legal practitioners in their courts. That act, according to them, discourages them from appearing before some of the judges, who have the penchant of using abusive words to address the younger lawyers. It was at this point that Justice Fati displayed her concern for the young wigs, counseling judges to put the young ones right whenever they were going out of their way, rather than intimidate them. This, she said, will enable the erring young lawyers to gain experience from their wealth of knowledge. She urged the judges already identified to be harassing the upcoming lawyers to exhibit a high degree of patience with them. She went down the memory lane to recall the experience she tapped from some lawyers, who were defending the late Emir of Agaie, Alh Mohammadu Attahiru, and others standing trial in a case of culpable homicide as a result of the murder of the then chairman of Agaie LG, Alh Ibrahim Tsadu between 1994-1996. She said she learnt a lot from such lawyers as Dr Philip Mosungo and Chief (Barr) Olushola Orifumishe. According to her, that particular case and the team of legal icons appearing before her boosted her knowledge in no small measure in arriving at the conclusion of the matter before her.

Perhaps, what marks her out among her contemporaries is her total commitment to the promotion of women’s values and potentials. At the same time, she detests negative stereotypes on women and gender affiliation, and always insists that women must take their rightful position in the scheme of things in the society. It was not out of place, therefore, that the idea of forming her pet project, Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA) occurred to her. WRAPA has, over the years, championed the cause of women in the country. Launched in 1999, when her husband was the country’s head of state, WRAPA is a non-profit making NGO dedicated to the promotion, protection, and enforcement of all women’s rights and the elimination of all forms of repugnant practices and violence against them. To the amazement of all, unlike other NGOs formed by spouses of presidents, WRAPA has endured in spite of Gen Abdulsalam being out of power and waxing stronger even. The secret of this lies in the fact that WRAPA was not hitched to the government or government funds; thus its survival was not dependent on the vagaries of power. Justice Fati, as the First Lady, deliberately ensured that the NGO did not depend on government, but sourced its funds from development partners and well wishers.

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Former head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, husband of the retiring chief judge, and Justice Mary Odili, one of the Supreme Court Justices, at the valedictory session, April 12, at the state High Court Complex, Minna.

TENURE ASSESSMENT

To appreciate and acknowledge the absolutely unique and remarkably outstanding contribution of Justice Fati to the legal profession, one only needs to resort to judgements written and delivered by her, according to Ibrahim Isyaku, SAN. “On a different occasion,” he said, “I had cause to justifiably refer to these judgements as factual and impartial in analysis and as presentation profound in research, detailed in logic, and very often, unassailable in her application of the law to admissible evidence.”

According to the senior advocate, every lawyer and litigant that has appeared before her had walked away with the impression of a judge that conducts herself with decorum and exudes the lustre and aura of the mastery of judicial proceedings, with complete control of the court. He said: “Having had uncountable appearances before my Lord, I think I am well placed to confirm that my Lord is firm without being intimidating, respectful to counsel without brooking discourteous disposition, and very patient….”

      In his own assessment of the retiring chief judge, Alh Zakari Bello, principal partner, The Jurist Consult, Minna, told Newsline On Sunday in an exclusive interview that Justice Fati means many things to lawyers in Niger State. He noted that her exit at this point in time, conjures mixed feelings “to many of us that have the privilege to appear before her Lord, the outgoing chief judge of Niger State. You will be a proud as a legal practitioner appearing before Justice Fatilami Abubakar because you will get your judgement as you presented evidence and facts before her. In fact, we will miss her many attributes as far as the rule of law was concerned…. She is an asset to the legal profession in Niger State and Nigeria, in general. She really served her fatherland with all sincerity and honesty of purpose. May Allah reward her abundantly.”

The Commissioner for Justice and Attorney General in Niger State, Barr Nasara Dan Mallam, said she was leaving the judiciary at the time when he was just coming into the ministry, regretting that he would not be able to tap from her wealth of knowledge and experience in the criminal justice system, under her as the chief judge. He said the little time he had stayed in office as the commissioner for justice and attorney-general, he had learnt so many things from her as far as her commitment to the administration of the criminal justice system is concerned.”

Justice FatiLami Abubakar has participated in several national and international conferences and seminars on social issues, in Africa, Europe, and the United States. In recognition of her contributions to national development, she had been conferred with Commander of the Order of Niger (CON) in 2011.

TAURARUWA