UNODC Commemorates the International Day of Women Judges: Interview with Honourable Justice Binta Fatimat Murtala Nyako

On the International Day of Women Judges, UNODC sat down with Honourable Justice Binta Fatimat Murtala Nyako, one of the longest serving judges of the Federal High Court of Nigeria, to talk about women in the Nigerian judiciary and what the day means for Nigeria.

Honourable Justice Nyako is a human rights advocate and judge of the Federal High Court of Nigeria. Prior to her appointment to the Federal High Court in July 2000, Justice Nyako served as a State Counsel at the Katsina State Ministry of Justice from 1983 to 1993, eventually becoming the Solicitor General of Katsina State in 1989. Following her three-year tenure as Solicitor-General, she was appointed Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice of Katsina State and held office from 1994 to 1996. In 2018, Justice Nyako, led a team of judges, to preside over mass trials of terrorism related offences, that were heard before special courts of the Federal Hight Court in Kainji, Niger state.

Justice Nyako was previously the President of the National Association of Women Judges in Nigeria and is currently the incoming President of the International Association of Women Judges. Justice Nyako was one of two Africans to be elected as a member of the International Association of Judges in 2012.


UNODC: My Lord, it is a great privilege to sit down with you and have a conversation about women in the Nigerian judiciary, and the important role women play in strengthening the criminal justice system more broadly. Can you tell us what inspired you to become a judge?


Initially I studied law, and was the first female from my home state of Katsina to have studied the subject. It was also a logical evolution. Having risen through the ranks to become Attorney General, at the end of my tenure, the next natural step was the judiciary. Also, during my years of practice, I realized that law is an area where a lot of women are not represented -  especially in the Northern part of the country. I thought it would be good to break into this field and see how I could contribute to it and mentor other women, so that they could also break into the legal field, which initially looked as if it were reserved for men.


UNODC: The International Day of Women Judges is observed every year to recognize the contributions made by women judges and promote fair gender representation to strengthen the judiciary and judicial integrity. From your experience, what are some challenges to ensuring fair gender representation in the Nigerian judiciary?


In the Nigerian judiciary, we all represent different parts of the Federation. From my part of the country, women judges are not a very common feature, and I cite my home state of Katsina, which is a predominantly a Muslim state, governed by Sharia. By contrast, in the Southern region of Nigeria, there are several female legal practitioners who have been in the legal sphere for a long time, so it is less challenging for women to enter the judiciary in this region. For example, in Lagos state, there are more female judges than male judges on the Bench of the Lagos State Judiciary. Whereas, in Katsina, of the total number of judges in the state, only three are female. There are also several other states with only one female judge on the bench of the state judiciary.

Part of the challenge would not be farfetched from being cultural and religious. Cultural in the sense that women up until recently have been restricted to the private sphere. It was unheard of for women to go to work in the mornings, sit in court the whole day and come back in the evening, where they would still need to write judgements for the cases they are hearing. It was acceptable for women to pursue careers as medical doctors or nurses, for instance. But for women to go into the Sharia field was a challenge.

Then, there is also the issue arising from the nature of the job as a judge which requires you to move to different parts of the country. Judges are often required to sit on tribunals and conduct other exercises, which means leaving home and of course you cannot take your children, particularly if they are of a schooling age. It is a big juggling game for a woman to be on the Bench of the Nigerian judiciary.


UNODC: In your opinion, what are some effective methods that can be applied in Nigeria to promote the equal participation of women judges at all levels of the judiciary?


Even though the government may have a role to play, the burden of balancing the imbalances does not lie exclusively on the government. In my own capacity, I always advocate for equal opportunities for the genders. For instance, seats on the Bench of the Nigerian judiciary should not be preserved for men. Appointment to the Bench should rather be a matter of merit, so everyone should be allowed to apply and the best brain gets the job. In terms of statistics on the number of law students in Nigerian universities, you will find that the female students outweigh the male students. But by the time the female law students finish their studies, joining the judiciary may not necessarily be their priority. A lot of women opt to follow the entrepreneurial route and establish businesses that are not law-related. However, this can be something that could be prevented if the atmosphere of being a judge is made more conducive and family oriented. Changing this atmosphere could potentially encourage more women to join the Bench.


UNODC: The Nigerian government has made several efforts to achieve a more gender-aware criminal justice system, such as the establishment of the Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) and Gender Response Unit in the Federal Ministry of Justice. What do you think the judiciary can do to improve justice delivery within the context of SGBV, by ensuring that the courts become more gender-responsive and victim-centered?


Every good criminal trial begins with a good investigation. So, I commend the Federal Ministry of Justice for establishing the SGBV and Gender Response Unit and reaching out to UNODC to support its mandate on strengthening the capacities of investigators and prosecutors in handling SGBV cases.

If a criminal justice practitioner involved in handling an SGBV case is not sensitive to the pains of victims of sexual violence, they will not be able to appreciate what needs to be done to effectively investigate and prosecute a case. The inclusion of women in the investigation, prosecution, and trial of SGBV offences cannot be overemphasized. I remember very clearly, a long time ago, a victim mentioned that she had gone to the police station to report an incident of rape, and the police officers simply looked at her and responded: "Did you not enjoy it?" That level of insensitivity comes from a lack of appreciation of the gravity of sexual violence, and the seriousness of the psychological effects of such offences on the victims. In addition, there is also a lack of appreciation of the issue of re-victimization. We must not forget that SGBV cases are criminal cases, so all criminal justice practitioners working on these cases require specialized trainings that focus on the psychological and rehabilitative aspects affecting victims.

I am also very encouraged by the numerous states in Nigeria that have established family courts to hear SGBV cases. It is important that SGBV cases are afforded the seriousness they deserve, by the establishing specialized courts at the High Court level, not just the Magisterial level, where the judges undergo specialized trainings to handle SGBV cases. Then, the atmosphere of the court should also be conducive to responding to the sensitivities that come with handling victims and witnesses, including juvenile victims, witnesses and perpetrators. I recall during my time as a prosecutor many years ago, I prosecuted a case of molestation. I brought a witness to court, and she burst into tears because the legal regalia worn by the counsel was different and intimidating to her. When I had initially interviewed her prior to her appearance in court, I was just ordinarily dressed without my robes. However, in court, the witness saw all the counsel in legal regalia, and that frightened her. So, if the ambiance of the court is made conducive to guard against these sorts of instances and more, victims and witnesses would be encouraged to come forward.

Because I sit on the Bench of the Federal High Court, I do not hear SGBV cases, but I have participated in several seminars and activities on this topic. However, within my portfolio as a judge of the Federal High Court, I do hear terrorism cases in my court, which could also feature elements of SGBV offences. So, I have a deep appreciation for the gravity of such cases.


UNODC: As the President-elect of the International Association of Women Judges, do you have any last comments to make on the International Day of Women Judges?


I wish to commend and appreciate the Government of Qatar, that stood by the United Nations to ensure that this day was declared. I also congratulate the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ), for bringing the day to the fore and celebrating it.

We must also emphasize the efforts of the National Association of Women Judges in Nigeria (NAWJN). NAWJN has been very active in its capacity, having conducted several programmes recently and in the past. Currently, the IAWJ is implementing a programme in Nigeria, called the Co-Impact. This programme is centred-on mentoring young women seeking to join the legal profession.

Generally, the IAWJ and NAWJN, stand for victims and those who cannot speak - the silenced and oppressed. This is something that should be celebrated. Even though the judiciary is meant to be seen and not heard, through the actions of these Associations, we will be able to send the message across that the judges are watching as their brother's keeper.