ONOZURE DANIA writes on the resignation of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, who assumed office in 2019 after his predecessor, Justice Walter Onnoghen, resigned under controversial circumstances
The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, on Monday, resigned when the dust raised by a letter written by 14 Supreme Court justices had yet to settle.
In the leaked letter, the 14 justices accused the CJN of abandoning his responsibilities and diverting funds meant for the running of the Supreme Court.
The justices further accused the CJN of gallivanting with his “spouse, children and personal staff,” while not allowing them to travel with an assistant on foreign trips.
They decried the lack of legal research assistants, despite the magnitude of cases being adjudicated.
But the CJN in a statement by his Special Assistant on Media and Communication, Yusuf Isah, titled, ‘Re: State Of Affairs In The Supreme Court And Demand By Justices Of The Supreme Court’, denied the allegations.
He explained that contrary to claims, the Supreme Court justices were provided with SUVs, cars and accommodation.
“Accommodation is being gradually provided for the few that are yet to get. There is none of the Apex Court Justices without SUV and backup cars. If any of them were not purchased but refurbished, the external and internal auditors are here in the court to take those that bought them up over it,” part of the statement read.
In its reaction to the allegations against the CJN, the Nigerian Bar Association, in a statement by its President, Olumide Akpata, called on the judiciary to entrench accountability and probity.
The ex-CJN resigned his position on Sunday as the 17th Chief Justice of Nigeria citing ill-health as the reason for his resignation.
Muhammad assumed office, following his controversial appointment in 2019 by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), in an acting capacity, pending the determination of the trial against Walter Onnoghen, the former CJN, by the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
The CJN is nominated by the President upon recommendation by the National Judicial Council and is subject to confirmation by the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
According to the Nigerian constitution, the CJN occupies the position, and only death or reaching the age of 70, whichever comes first, or impeachment by the Senate, which requires a supermajority, can result in removal from office.
Justice Muhammad from Bauchi State was born on December 31, 1953 at Doguwa-Giade, a local area in Bauchi State.
He later obtained an LL.M degree at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in 1980 and a PhD in law from the same university in 1985 and 1998 respectively.
Justice Muhammad began his career in 1982, after he was called to the bar in 1981, the same year he graduated from the Nigerian Law School. In 1989, he was appointed as Chief Magistrate of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, a position he held until 1991 when he became a judge at the Bauchi State Sharia Court of Appeal, where he served for two years before he was appointed to the bench of the Nigerian courts of appeal as justice in 1993, a position he held for 13 years before he was appointed to the bench of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 2005 but was sworn in on January 7, 2007.
On Thursday, July 11, 2019, Muhammad was nominated by Buhari as the substantive CJN, the position he held till Sunday when he resigned as the CJN.
Muhammad’s resignation as Nigeria’s 17th Chief Justice was made public on Monday.
Ahuraka Isah, Muhammad’s Special Assistant on Media and Strategy, confirmed his resignation, citing health issues and a lack of confidence from the country’s Supreme Court justices as the reasons.
Following his resignation, the Supreme Court’s most senior Justice, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, was sworn in as the acting CJN on Monday.
In line with the Supreme Court tradition, President Buhari swore in the new CJN, a jurist who was born on August 22, 1958 and until his appointment, was a Justice of the Supreme Court.
He was formerly a Justice of the Court of Appeal and was elevated to the Supreme Court bench having been elevated from the High Court of Oyo State.
On November 22, 2011, he was appointed to the bench of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and was sworn in by the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
Ariwoola started his educational career in his home town Iseyin at the Local Authority Demonstration School, Oluwole, in the Iseyin Local Government Area of Oyo State between 1959 and 1967.
Before his elevation to the Supreme Court, Ariwoola served as Justice of the Court of Appeal in Kaduna, Enugu, and Lagos divisions.
Reacting to the resignation of Muhammad and the appointment of Ariwoola, the Nigerian Bar Association, in a statement, said it received the news of the resignation on the grounds of ill health.
The NBA President, Olumide Akpata, said, “In the course of previous publications and communications, I have consistently appreciated the out-gone Chief Justice of Nigeria for the cordial working relationship between the bar and the bench under our respective administrations. I must do so again today as he bows out.
“It is however impossible to consider his lordship’s retirement in isolation of the recent unprecedented developments at the Supreme Court where 14 Justices of the Court censured the outgone Chief Justice of Nigeria over his lordship’s handling of their welfare and related issues. Beyond this, there is near- universal agreement that public confidence in the Judiciary and indeed the legal profession is at an all-time low.
“There is now more than ever the need for urgent reforms in the Judiciary and to rebuild the almost dissipated confidence that Nigerians have in the Judiciary and the wider legal profession in Nigeria. These should form the immediate first tasks for Honourable Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, who is expected to now take over as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria.
“The NBA welcomes the appointment of Honourable Justice Olukayode Ariwoola and pledges its readiness to work together with His Lordship and the Judiciary in cleansing the Augean Stable and addressing the ills that have continued to plague not just the Judiciary but the entire legal profession.”
Reacting to the appointment of Justice Ariwoola, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Yemi Candide-Johnson, said the tenure of the last CJN marked a low-water mark in credibility and effectiveness of the judicial system.
He said, “It will be hard to do worse and so the change by itself is hopeful. I expect the new incumbent to take very easy steps to make judicial administration efficient and accessible and to be sure that the courts decide disputes on the merits. To limit the matters going to the highest court to matters of general public importance and to give clear directions to lower courts about effective access to the judicial resource for the greatest number of stakeholders.”
Another SAN, Olu Daramola, congratulated the new CJN. He said, “I congratulate His Lordship on his well-deserved elevation to the topmost position in the nation’s judiciary. His Lordship should work with his brethren to clear the backlog of cases in the Supreme Court. It is not acceptable that any case should be in the Court for more than five years because justice delayed is justice denied.”
Another SAN, Victor Opara, said, “I harbour no iota, scintilla or modicum of doubt that his lordship will improve upon the achievements of his predecessor in office.”
Also, Yomi Alliyu, SAN, said, “For the second time in half a decade we have justices from the private bar becoming Chief Justices of Nigeria, the last being my lord Justice Onnoghen.
“For many years from the time of My lord Justice Mariam Mukhtar, Justice Kayode Ariwoola, popularly called ‘Ariwoooo’ by the Governor of Ondo State, Arakunrin Akeredolu, has been the powerhouse of the Supreme Court in terms of following the principle of stare decisis to letter and sound principles of law for the good of the society.
“He led the Supreme Court; and wrote the leading judgment; in dismantling the hitherto finality of the judgment of the National Industrial Court surreptitiously put in the Constitution by the erstwhile powerful president of that court.
“My Lord Justice Ariwoola is expected to bring to an end overpopulating the Supreme Court with judges who never had appellate practice but rather rose from magistrate courts thereby leading to public service judgments. The first task before him is to bring experienced private practice practitioners to the Supreme Court bench to allow for cross-fertilisation of ideas and anti-establishment judgments as done in the time of Justices Elias, Eso, Oputa and Nnamani during the golden age of the Supreme Court!”
Solo Akuma, SAN, says he expects that the new CJN will speed up the appointment of Justices of the Supreme Court.
He said, “I wish to congratulate his lordship. I expect he will speed up the appointment of Justices of the Supreme Court to fill the existing vacancies created by the retirement of Justices of the Supreme Court.”
A human rights group, Access 2 Justice, applauded Justice Muhammad for relinquishing office over personal circumstances and welcomed the chance to reboot the judiciary and re-set its direction.
The convener of the group, Joseph Otteh, said the news of the resignation of Muhammad drew the curtain on his “illustrious career.”