For being a woman of many firsts: first female lawyer from Northern Nigeria, first female judge of the High Court in Kano State judiciary, first female justice of the Court of Appeal of Nigeria, first female justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and first female Chief Justice of Nigeria; for being liberal but highly principled, calm but very fearless, quiet but very cerebral with strong aversion for acts inimical to due process and the course of justice; and for elevating the performance and the image of the bench which had unpleasantly dipped at the time she emerged the CJN, by wielding the big stick against misfits and crooks on the bench without fear or favour, Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, GCON, is the Bar and Bench Watch ICON for the week.
Aloma Mariam Mukhtar is a Nigerian jurist and former Chief Justice of Nigeria from July 2012 to November 2014.
She was born into the lovely family of Muktari Mukhtar on November 20, 1944. Although her father, Mukhtar was an Hausa by tribe from Kano State and her mother was from Misau in Adamawa State, she was born in Lagos and speaks Yoruba more fluently than any of her native languages.
She was very fond of dad and mum not only because of the love they showered on her from birth, but also because of the critical roles they played in making her achieve her ambition in life.
That was why she was very devastated when she lost both of them in a space of one year. Specifically speaking, her mother, Hadiza Mukhtar, and her father, Muktari Mukhtar, died exactly one year apart.
According to Justice Mukhtar, “It was a devastating period for me, for they were both very loving parents, who spared nothing to ensure I achieved the goal I set for myself.”
Justice Mukhtar who hails from Kano State attended St. George’s Primary School, Zaria, St. Bartholomew’s School, Wusasa, Zaria in Nigeria. She did her secondary school education outside the country as she attended Rossholme School for Girls, East Brent, Somerset, England.
At the time she attended the Rossholme School for Girls in Somerset County in England in 1960, she was one of the first black persons to reside in East Brent. “It was the most harrowing experience initially, because I was always inundated with most ridiculous questions, like whether people lived on trees in Africa, and if it was true that Africans had tails like monkeys.
“Some months after my admission into the school, another Nigerian joined me, and I became relieved as their inquisitions were transferred to her, and with the two of us in that community, they became more accommodating,” Justice Muhktar reminisced.
At various times, she had ambition to become a nurse, a librarian and a radiographer. But immediately after her A/L programme at the Reading Technical College, Reading, Berkshire, England, three male friends of hers ‘teased’ and cajoled her into studying law. “I say teased because I never thought I would be able to sit for lengthy hours reading books, the way I see them do,” she said.
According to her: “I heeded their advice and headed to the High Commission to meet with Malam Suka (Northern Students Affairs Officer) again. As soon as I entered his office, he looked at me with frustration in his eyes and asked if I had made up my mind about going back to Reading. He had a dream for me to further my education up to a Master’s Degree level in the University.
“At that time my view was that a minimum qualification would suffice for any woman, and I conveyed this to him. He gave me a stern look and said “yarinya nan kina da taurin kai” meaning I was a stubborn girl. I am afraid this description followed me!! Anyway, he agreed to process an admission for me into one of the Inns of Court to see if I could become a lawyer as I had earlier told him I wanted to try. He succeeded in enrolling me into the Middle Temple and also into the Gibson and Weldon School of Law on Chancery Lane London.
“There were only eight females in that set, and only three of us became Judges. Some became successful Private Practitioners, and one became a business woman,” she said.
After completing her Law programme, she was eventually called to the English Bar in absentia in November, 1966 and to the Nigerian Bar in 1967.
After law school, a letter of appointment was already waiting for her as a pupil counsel in a justice ministry. Mukhtar therefore began her career in 1967 as Pupil State Counsel, Ministry of Justice, Northern Nigeria and rose through the ranks. She worked in Office of the Legal Draftsman and Interim Common Services Agency and she was already enjoying practice with no plans to go into the bench.
According to her, “In 1971 the state was short of Magistrates and there was backlog of cases especially in Maiduguri. The late Alhaji Buba Ardo (bless his soul), after pondering the situation, invited me to his chambers to discuss the problem with me. He wanted me to become a Magistrate. I was disturbed and it was palpable, for he immediately added that it would be temporary until they are able to recruit lawyers from outside the state.
“I did not like the proposition as I was happy with what I was doing then and did not want to leave my colleagues. He gave me an undertaking that it would be for only six months after which I would return to the Ministry. I became the first woman to be appointed a Magistrate in the Northern States of Nigeria. Of course, I never returned to the Ministry,” she said.
In January 1977, she was made a judge of the Kano High Court. That made her the third female judge in the history of Nigeria, the first female judge from the North and being 32 years of age, she was the youngest judge in the country.
“The first female Judge in Nigeria was the late Mrs. Modupe Omo-Ebo, who was appointed in November 1969. The second was Elsie Oguntoye, a Briton married to a Nigerian, who was appointed in 1976,” she said.
Justice Mukhtar rose in the Kano state judiciary to become the second ranked judge. But she stalled there. Whenever time came for the appointment of a new chief judge (in 1982 and 1985), she was bypassed for junior male colleagues.
However, “I took it in my stride and continued to work as though I was meant to be number two forever!! To me, Allah wished it that way, and if he had said ‘no,’ nobody could have commanded it to be ‘yes’.”
In September 1987, she became a justice of the Court of Appeal, the first and only woman among 28 men. It took another six years before another female judge, Late Justice Atinuke Ige, was appointed to the Court of Appeal. The number of women at the Court of Appeal had since risen to a radical 20 or more.
In 1992, Mukhtar was moved to the Ibadan Division of the Court, and at some point became the presiding justice there. In 2000, she was made presiding justice of the Jos Division of the Court of Appeal until she was promoted to the Supreme Court in June 2005.
In 2012, Justice Aloma Mukhtar made history by becoming the first female Chief Justice of Nigeria. President Goodluck Jonathan swore her in on 16 July 2012 as the 13th indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria, and conferred on her the Nigerian National Honour of the Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON).
To Justice Mukhtar, “That was the ultimate for me and I was extremely happy to be the first woman to be so sworn-in. On that day, I was also conferred with the National Award of GCON (the second highest honour in the land) by His Excellency, a feat which no woman had ever achieved in this great country of ours,” she said.
In the course of her career, she received several awards including a Gold Merit Award for Contribution to the Development of Law in Kano State (1993); recognition by the International Federation of Women Lawyers (in 1989 and 2003); inducted to the Nigerian Hall of fame (2005), conferred with the National Honor of Commander of the Order of Niger (CON) in 2006, GCON in 2012 and was honoured during the Centenary Celebration of Nigeria with the Outstanding Contemporary Public Servant award.
Described variously as being a liberal but highly principled; calm but very fearless, quiet but very cerebral with strong aversion to acts inimical to due process and the course of justice, Justice Muhktar exhibited part of her attributes when, alongside Justices George Adesola Oguntade and Walter Onnoghen, voided the 2007 electoral victory of late President Musa Yar’Adua and his then Vice, Goodluck Jonathan and sacked them from office by their epochal minority judgment.
The trio, in their dissenting judgment, held that the allegation of substantial non-compliance with the Electoral Act 2006 was proved by the petitioner.
It would be recalled that the Supreme Court, at the time, had entered a split judgment of 4-3 in the appeal maintained by the presidential flag bearer of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), Maj.- Gen Muhammadu Buhari and another 6-1 split decision in a separate appeal maintained by Alhaji Atiku Abubakar to oust Yar’Adua and Jonathan from office.
Yar’Adua presidency was saved by the majority judgment of the quartet of Justices Idris Kutigi, Aloysius Katsina-Alu, Niki Tobi and Dahiru Musdapher which the dissent verdict of Justices Muhktar, Oguntade and Onnoghen had nullified.
Her predecessors in the office of CJN from pre-independence days till she retired were: Justices Adetokunbo Ademola 1958–1972, Teslim Olawale Elias, 1972–1975, Darnley Arthur Alexander, 1975–1979, Atanda Fatai Williams, 1979–1983, George Sodeinde Sowemimo, 1983–1985, Ayo Gabriel Irikefe, 1985–1987, Mohammed Bello, 1987–1995, Muhammad Lawal Uwais, 1995–2006, Salihu Moddibo Alfa Belgore, 2006–2007, Idris Legbo Kutigi, 2007–2009, Aloysius Katsina-Alu, 2009-2011 and Musdapher 2011-2012.
She retired from the bench with unblemished record and is presently enjoying her retirement.