By Olukayode Ariwoola, Chief Justice of Nigeria
I feel highly exhilarated to welcome you to this special session marking the commencement of the 2022/2023 legal year. I am very much passionate about this occasion because it is the first legal year ceremony that I am presiding over as Chief Justice of Nigeria. The topsy-turvy that took the centre-stage of the last legal year was quite intriguing. For the first time in the history of the Nigerian Judiciary, we had different kinds of events that not only beat our imagination but equally shaped and recalibrated the entire architecture of the justice sector. As we rightly know, in everything that happens in life, we must always give thanks to God Almighty who has chosen us to either be participants in the process or spectators of the process. Nothing happens by mere coincidence. Everything that comes into being is divinely ordained by God Almighty. My advice to everyone is to always brace up to face the challenges that nature throws at us at every twist and turn of our lives.
The prosperity of the Nigerian judiciary is the responsibility of all of us. We must not shy away from the challenges staring us in the face because if the judiciary fails, there will certainly be no country to call Nigeria. Those wishing us bad and even engaging in different forms of unwholesome conduct to sink the ship, will certainly not be comfortable with the likely result that would emerge from such unpatriotic effort. Nigeria is a project in our hands that must be collectively nurtured to prosperity and Eldorado. We cannot run away from those vices that confront us as a nation, rather, we have to fasten our belt and face them head-on.
The inspiring words of Sir Winston Churchill, a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940- 1945, should always play out in our consciousness whenever we seem to be confronted by herculean situations like those that beclouded the Court in the outgone legal year. According to him, “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseen and uncontrollable events.” Close watchers of the various events that dotted the outgone legal year, will readily agree with me that we all became slaves and victims of so many unforeseen and uncontrollable events and circumstances that were freely unleashed on us.
We have been made to understand and appreciate the fact that no one, no matter how powerful he or she is, that can stay the hand of destiny. It is my fervent belief that everything we saw and experienced as an institution a few months ago, were destined to happen, hence they did. The good thing about it is that we all came out unscathed and are working assiduously to upscale our zeal and commitment to the growth and prosperity of the Nigerian Judiciary; and equally make it a pride to showcase to the comity of nations. We have hit the ground running and I can assure the entire nation that nothing would be left to chance and no ground would be left uncovered. Litigants across the various courts in the federation should be rest assured that their cases will be given due attention; as we will not rest on our oars to ensure that justice is served at the doorstep of everyone that seeks for and equally deserves it.
Though an occasion of this nature calls for celebration, nevertheless, we must, as a matter of necessity, spare a moment of our time for introspection in order to ruminate on all the events that took place in the past year. From all indications, the voyage thus far couldn’t have been adjudged to be smooth. However, the good thing is that it has been tremendously adventurous and instructive. In those areas we have excelled, we will put in our best to raise the tempo while in the areas of shortcomings, we shall do a quick self-assessment with a view to forging ahead with the right vision and mind-set. From a holistic assessment, the Supreme Court, and by extension, the Nigerian Judiciary, has fared well in the outgone year, even though the horizon was blighted by some unpleasant challenges that radically defied every imaginable human intervention. The intercessions, admonitions and support of well-meaning Nigerians had, largely, offered us the required impetus and courage to remain firm and resolute in making an indelible mark in the sands of time. As the new legal year unfolds, we look forward to putting in place a Judiciary that will certainly be the pride of Nigerians, home and abroad. As we relish the successes attained in the past year, we also pray for more in this legal year.
The 2021/2022 legal year, which ended on Friday, 20th July, 2022, was roundly remarkable. I was appointed in acting capacity on Monday, 27th June, 2022, after the voluntary retirement of the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Dr Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, GCON, on health ground. As usual, several unsubstantiated rumours and falsehood rented a better part of the airwaves to misinterpret the events that eventually heralded the voluntary retirement of my predecessor. I will like to make it clear at this occasion that there has never been any division at the Supreme Court and there will never be any. We are seasoned judicial officers at the highest echelon of the Nigerian Judiciary that always engage impregnable internal administrative mechanisms to accommodate and address our diverse views. All communications within the system are done through Internal Memos and that was exactly what was done. So, the misleading information that widely made the rounds about “Protest Letter” is not only strange but unfounded. Nevertheless, the conviviality we have always been savouring as brother justices still remains intact and we are glad to let the world know that we are enjoying it.
By virtue of this special court session, we are, for the umpteenth time, assuring all Nigerians that we are, more than ever before, committed to serving you to the best of our ability in this new legal year. Even if it requires us stretching ourselves and available resources beyond limit, we will graciously oblige that. The times we are in, are quite perilous! All hands must be on deck to make the best out of the unpleasant situation. The rate of high calibre crimes in the land is increasing by the day. Never in the history of Nigeria have we experienced such before. Security of lives and property can no longer be guaranteed; and as this is happening, so are cases streaming freely into the courts for adjudication. That has made the task before us more daunting. No one can afford to sit on the fence at this crucial point we have found ourselves.
To our fellow judicial officers across the various strata of courts, I urge you to be on guard and be the master of the game. You cannot afford to put up any lackadaisical attitude at this crucial period of our national history. Some politicians may be on the prowl looking for who to entrap in their usual dragnet of political stratagem. You must not fall for it; and you must not allow yourselves to be used, else the sledge hammer of justice will descend heavily on you. Always remember that the moment the food in the clean bowl is finished, the status of the bowl changes to ‘dirty.’ Don’t allow anyone to use and dump you. Let your conscience be your guide and guard. You must apply the law rightly on all matters that come before Your Lordships. You should always see yourselves as being eminently qualified to take charge of every situation or challenge that confronts you. Don’t allow the soft spot in you that may easily fall for material lust blight your emotions and power of resistance. As judicial officers, we must imbibe the culture of conservatism and live a life of solitude to avoid any company or communication that will corrupt our good manners and violate our judicial oath.
I am a team player, a compassionate leader and ardent listener who will never wish away any suggestions and advice that may come from my brother justices, other judicial officers, lawyers and members of the public, particularly those that bear the progress and growth of the Nigerian Judiciary in their hearts. We are open to constructive admonitions and criticisms. We cannot afford to be a recluse unto ourselves. Whenever you see us going wrong, kindly draw our attention to it and the necessary amends will be made. No one can claim to be a paragon of virtue, so, we are equally not caste in that mould either. My ascension to this office is to better the lot of the Nigerian Judiciary by upholding the sanctity of the rule of law and the Nigerian Constitution which I had sworn to protect even with my last drop of blood. In the course of time, you will begin to see the face of the new, invigorated Nigerian Judiciary that is poised to reposition everything that needs repositioning for better and timely justice delivery. The onus rests squarely on all of us to make this country great again in whatever form that we can bring about the desired change.
Also within the legal year under review, some of our brother Justices retired from the Supreme Court bench. Hon. Justice Mary Peter-Odili, JSC bowed out on Thursday 12th May, 2022, while Hon. Justice Ejembi Eko, JSC immediately followed on Monday, 23rd May, 2022. Hon. Justice Abdu Aboki, JSC who just got into the Supreme Court on the 6th of November, 2020, followed suit by equally bowing out on Friday, 5th August, 2022, having also attained the mandatory retirement age of 70 years. The valedictory court session to honour His Lordship was, however, held on Thursday, 15th September, 2022, as a result of our annual recess. Their Lordships’ enormous contributions and indelible works in the Nigerian judiciary which were well eulogised and celebrated at the various ceremonies held in their honour will, for a very long time to come, remain as reference points in our jurisdiction. We are seriously missing them already, even though they just exited not long ago because they have put in their best to build and sustain a high reputation that will continually make us unique and proud as judicial officers.
The Corruption and Financial Crime Cases Trial Monitoring Committee (COTRIMCO) under the leadership of Hon. Justice Suleiman Galadima, CFR, JSC (Rtd), has been very active in fast-tracking the trial of corruption and financial related crimes in the country. They have been working closely with the various anti-graft agencies in the country to accelerate the trial of all pending and emerging corruption cases. Their unwavering commitment to that cause has largely helped to bring about a remarkable rise in the dispensation of corruption and financial crime cases in the country. Between October 2021 and September 2022, a total number of 3,563 convictions were made through the collaborative effort of the Committee. There were equally large number of forfeited cash and non-cash recoveries made within the period. Also, within the window offered by the 2021/2022 legal year, the Supreme Court entertained a total number of 1,764 cases, comprising of motions and appeals. Out of these, we heard 816 Civil, 370 Criminal and 16 Political matters, making a total of 1,202 motions. Similarly, the court considered a total number of 562 Appeals, comprising of 341 Civil, 186 Criminal, and 35 Political. A total number of 154 Judgments were delivered in the year.
Our pending (backlog) Civil Appeals are 4,741 while the number of pending (backlog) Criminal Appeals is 1,392. On the other hand, we have 751 moribund Appeals for disposal. That brings the total number of pending (backlog) Appeals in this Honourable Court to 6,884. Out of the 4,741 Appeals in the Court’s docket, 1,495 have briefs filed and exchanged and are ready for hearing; whereas, the remaining 3,246 appeals are having about 10,000 motions, with some contentious and others innocuous in nature. As for the pending 1,392 Criminal Appeals, 461 already had briefs filed and exchanged and are ready for hearing. The remaining 931 appeals have about 2,000 different motions for hearing to determine their eligibility for hearing. However, the identified 751 moribund appeals are to be disposed of for non-compliance with the Supreme Court Rules, i.e. Order 8 Rule 8. This score card, from all indications, is impressively fascinating. I attribute the tremendous success recorded to the doggedness and team spirit exhibited by my brother Justices and the general staff of the court.
We have equally upgraded our courtrooms to a very high standard with modern communication and information technology gadgets to fast-track the dispensation of justice. Our various Courtrooms, particularly Court one and Court two, are now fully automated to facilitate online, real-time proceedings where virtual sittings could be done seamlessly. We have made some deployment of state-of-the-art technology to computerize the Courts to enable lawyers to easily front-load and cross-load evidence and exhibits of cases to accelerate the process of hearing cases. In the same vein, we have started the process of building the capacity of our stenographers to understand all the technical terms that would enhance their capacity to effectively carry out verbatim transcription of all submissions and judicial decisions made by the Court.
Available facts on judicial activities in various jurisdictions across the globe still emphatically confirmed that the Supreme Court of Nigeria remains the busiest and most hardworking Supreme Court in the world. It is on record that we work from Monday to Friday every week. We conduct sittings on daily basis. It is only on Wednesdays we do Chamber sitting to consider non-contentious matters. On Fridays, we deliver judgments and rulings. I remain eternally grateful to the Almighty God for strengthening and giving us the tenacity to accomplish the much we do on yearly basis. We are humans and equally have blood running through our veins; if no one praises us, we have the inalienable right and obligation to praise and eulogise ourselves. Self-praise is no viler an offence than self-denial. Even with the meagre resources at our disposal, we still strive to achieve so much and cover enormous grounds, at least to justify our passion to serve this country to the best of our ability. To my learned brother Justices and the support staff, I thank you immensely for the unflinching commitment and support towards the realization of our collective goals. With this strong team on ground, the future can only get better and more prosperous for the Nigerian Judiciary; and by extension, the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Even as we celebrate the huge successes recorded in the past legal year in the disposal of cases, the Nigerian public needs to be reminded on the need to do less litigation and embrace more of alternative dispute resolution to free the courts of this unnecessary over-stretching of human and material resources. As rightly observed, Nigerians are the most litigious people on earth; especially the political class. We don’t need to rush to court after every little disagreement. We have various alternative dispute resolution mechanisms across the country that we can conveniently leverage on, with a view to freeing the courts of this incessant case-overload. In every little disagreement, we rush to court; and in every lost case, we rush to appeal even up to the Supreme Court, no matter how little the issue might be. That has obviously accounted for the several appeals pending in Supreme Court. Though we receive scathing criticisms from members of the public over our over-blotted docket, we are neither in any position to regulate case inflow to the court nor have the supernatural powers to attend to all in one-fell-swoop.
We have said it repeatedly that ordinarily, most appeals should be allowed to end at the Court of Appeal; but such Constitutional provision is yet to be enacted, so we have no blame in it, rather, we are daily overburdened by that long awaited Constitutional amendment as we work round the clock to attend to the plethora of appeals. There should also be amendment of the Constitution to stop most interlocutory appeals from coming to the Supreme Court; they should be allowed to end at the Court of Appeal. The attitude of some of our lawyers too is unexciting. Some do not even mind throwing their integrity and reputation to the winds by taking briefs that they know lack substance, just for pecuniary reasons. So disturbing is the fact that even in the face of failure, they would still persuade their clients to push the case further on appeal. However, the solemn pledge we normally make, is to always work assiduously with the required speed to dispose of all cases that come before us. By the grace of God, under my leadership, that pledge will be tenaciously held and justice will be dispensed without fear or favour.
In line with our commitment to the speedy dispensation of justice, we have put in place the relevant mechanisms to fast-track the administration of criminal appeals and quick determination of interlocutory appeals. The Nigerian Police Force and other security agencies involved in our criminal justice administration system are trying in their own way, but concerted effort has to be made to enable the wheel of justice move faster. They must work harder by devising more modern methods of getting credible and reliable evidence before framing their charges so that extra work will not be added to the Judges. In most cases, it is when the trial commences that they now begin to look for evidence. This act is not only condemnable but also a major cog in the wheel of speedy justice delivery. It has equally accounted for the high number of cases pending in the various courts across the country. This has now made it germane for our entire criminal laws to be comprehensively appraised and updated so that those outlandish aspects that are no more in tune with modern trends can be updated.
The public space has been replete with varied forms of debates at different fora as to whether the Nigerian Judiciary is actually independent or not. In the course of these various engagements, discussants always assess the situation from different unrelated perspectives; and that has largely accounted for the often conflicting solutions proffered at the end of each dialogue session. The Nigerian Judiciary, to a very large extent, is independent in conducting its affairs and taking decisions on matters before it without any extraneous influence. At the Supreme Court, without mincing words, we are completely independent in the way and manner we conduct our affairs, especially in our judgments. We don’t pander to the whims and caprices of anybody. If there is anybody to be feared, I must say with full confidence, that it is only the Almighty God. We will never be subservient to anyone, no matter his position or influence in the society.
Nevertheless, I will make it clear to whoever that cares to listen that when the Nigerian Judiciary is assessed from the financial aspect, we are yet to be free or truly independent. The annual budget of the Judiciary is still a far cry from what it ought to be. The figure is either stagnated for a long period of time or it goes on a progressive decline when placed side-by-side with the current realities in the market. Prices of goods and services are not getting less or friendly to buyers; while at the same time, our purchasing power is abysmally low and weak enough to transmit on the same wavelength with the market forces. The only thing I can do at this juncture, is to plead with the other arms of government and allied agencies to clear all the impediments so we can enjoy our independence holistically. This is a clarion call to the other two arms of government to make the funding of the judiciary a major priority.
Our extremely poor and pitiable salary package has become another major issue of concern that equally has to be attended to with the urgency it requires. With the advent of high profile information technology architecture, there is no more secret anywhere, so details of our total pay package is visible in the public domain. You can all access it and offer your opinion on the true financial state of the Nigerian judicial officers. With the quantum of work we do, both day and night, it is just a matter of fairness and reciprocity that we go home at the end of the month with something that can match the ever-increasing expenses. We don’t have to work like elephants and feed like ants.
I must make it clear that we will never go to any arm or agency of government cap-in-hand to get what is rightly due to us. So many events have taken place within the judiciary recently that may have served as eye-opener to all of us. If for anything, the Nigerian public has been able to know and appreciate the plight of judicial officers and other workers within the fold to now know exactly what to do to better our lot and place us on a comfortable financial pedestal to be able to discharge our statutory functions effectively and efficiently. For a long time to come, if nothing tangible is done to solve this problem of paucity of funds and poor wages of judicial officers, the issue will continually occupy the front burner of all public discourse.
The welfare package of judicial officers has to be adequately taken care of, especially after retirement. The comfort of my brother justices in various courts across the country is one of my topmost priorities; and I will pursue it with the seriousness it deserves. Retired Justices of the Supreme Court should be accorded the benefit of annual medical treatment locally and internationally, if the need arises to go for foreign Medicare. The subsisting poor medical care has accounted for the increasing deaths of most of our retired Justices and even serving Justices too, as they often retire into penury and without any befitting accommodation to rest their frail nerves. I wish to call on the relevant authorities to begin to consider the necessity of building quality houses for retired Justices henceforth to cushion the hardship they are often exposed to in respect of accommodation immediately after retirement. Most of us usually serve the government up to a period of 40 years to 45 years before retiring from the bench; thus no amount of a reward-based appreciation is too much for this painstaking service to the nation. Let us retire in peace and also live in befitting accommodation in peace.
The strict adherence to the tenets of the rule of law is a critical aspect of justice dispensation that has to be observed at all times. It is instructive that if there are no credible machineries to enforce the law and resolve disputes, people instantly resort to illegal means. What is taking place in Nigeria today is an affirmation of that. We must, therefore, appreciate the fact that justice is a handmaiden of true peace. In every dispute or disagreement, once a party is unfairly and unjustly treated, disaffection is inevitably courted and stoked; and anything untoward could happen thereafter. The courts exist to guide against such unpleasant occurrences, hence we must give justice to everyone based on the facts before us and not the faces or connections that beckon at us. We firmly uphold our allegiance to the Constitution and our God, so we can never feel intimidated while doing what is right. We sincerely have to begin to take a comprehensive approach to justice and rule of law in our individual capacities. This is a task for all of us in the criminal justice chain; particularly the Lawyers, Police, Nigerian Correctional Service, Prosecutors as well as other emerging issues beyond the criminal justice system.
It is necessary to let you know that since my appointment as Chief Justice of Nigeria, my focus has been on re-inventing our processes, providing speedy and quality administration of justice, strengthening our structures from the Supreme Court to other courts of records and stamping out corruption and all forms of underhand dealings from the system. The National Judicial Council has been working assiduously to weed out those who have refused to change from our fold and we will not relent. Any reported cases of unethical behaviour against any judicial officer will be handled with all the seriousness and urgency they require. We shall not rest on our oars. I must leave the Nigerian Judiciary better than I met it. With the full support of all my brother justices and the support staff, we shall succeed.
My Lords, distinguished invited guests, ladies and gentlemen, I will like to say that the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria comes with immense prestige, dignity and greater responsibilities as well. Traditionally, those conferred with the rank automatically become members of the Inner Bar and revered Apostles of the Temple of Justice. It is an honour no conferee can afford to toy with. The Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee took time to screen and assess all the relevant documents submitted by the applicants before arriving at its decision. I can confidently affirm that the Committee has done an excellent job. The 2018 Guidelines for the Conferment of Rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria required high standards of merit from all the applicants vying for the award. Every requirement contained in the guidelines was observed before arriving at the final list. The number of applicants for 2022 Senior Advocate of Nigeria award is 174. Out of this number, 111 are advocates and 63 are academics.
The total number of qualified applicants after the preliminary screening is 129; comprising of 73 legal practitioners and 56 academics respectively. After conducting the specified screening and filtration exercises which include a number of appearances in superior courts, recommendations by Hon. Justices of the Supreme Court and Hon. Judges of superior courts, Chambers inspections; approval on eligibility and integrity of the candidates from the Nigerian Bar Association, Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria and of course, the general public, amongst others, the LPPC came up with 62 successful candidates who, by all standards, can be regarded as eminently deserving of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. Out of this number, 53 are advocates while 09 are academics.
On behalf of my learned brother Justices of the Supreme Court and members of the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee, I congratulate the 62 successful Senior Advocates that have just been sworn-in. Your success did not come on a platter of gold. You have worked for it, so you deserve every privilege, honour and pride that come with it. The LPPC deserves enough commendation for endorsing the elevation of these 62 Legal Practitioners who have equally demonstrated dexterity and excellence in legal practice. As Senior Advocates of Nigeria, you carry on your shoulders a lot of responsibilities. You must display enormous integrity, discipline and impressive standard of advocacy as Ministers in the temple of justice. The privilege you are conferred with today does not make you extraordinary beings; you must still remain who you are, except the added status which is expected to serve as a key moderator of your attitude and behaviour. You must be reachable and approachable as well because the young lawyers need your mentoring and guidance while the court needs your presence and contribution to effective justice delivery. The Nigerian Bar Association has been very active in the pursuit of justice in the country. The leadership of the association has maintained a mutually beneficial relationship with the Bench and that is quite encouraging. I want to use this occasion to congratulate the newly enthroned executive of the NBA led by Mr. Yakubu Maikyau, SAN. With the pedigree and opulent experience that you are bringing on board, I have no iota of doubt that your tenure will bring a lot of good things to the table and the NBA will be better for it.
I sincerely thank everyone that has come here today to witness this special session heralding our new legal year. We are very grateful for your presence, even at the expense of your busy schedules. I also wish to express my gratitude to the Hon. Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN; the Chairman of Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, Professor Ben Nwabueze, SAN, who is ably represented here; the President of Nigerian Bar Association, Mr Yakubu Maikyau, SAN; and the spokesperson for the newly conferred Senior Advocates of Nigeria, Professor Kathleen Ebelechukwu Okafor, SAN, for graciously accepting our invitation to address this august gathering.
Thank you very much. God bless you all.
▪︎ Chief Justice Olukayode Ariwoola delivered this speech the special session of the Supreme Court of Nigeria to mark the commencement of the 2022/2023 Legal Year.