In a rare show of dissent over the Supreme Court panel that affirmed the election of President Bola Tinubu on Thursday, a retiring Justice of the Court has picked fundamental holes in its constitution, pointing out that it was wrong for two geopolitical zones to be left out of the seven men who decided the appeals of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and former Governor Peter Obi.
Stepping down earlier this Friday from the apex court, number two man on the highest bench, Justice Musa Dattijo Muhammad, declared in Abuja that the refusal to fill the vacant slot of South East on the apex court bench, was deliberate, blaming it on “absolute powers vested in the office of the CJN….
“With the passing of my lord, Hon. Justice Chima Centus Nweze, JSC on 29th July 2023, the South East no longer has any presence at the Supreme Court. My lord, Hon. Justice Sylvester Nwali Ngwuta JSC died on 7th March 2021. There has not been any appointment in his stead for the South East.
Representing the north-central zone and retiring, he noted regarding the zone: “My lord Hon. Justice Ejembi Eko JSC who also represented the zone retired on 23rd of May, 2022. It has been a year and five months now. There has not been any replacement.
“As it stands, only four geo-political regions- the South-West, South-South, North-West and North-East are represented in the Supreme Court.
“While the South-South and North-East have two serving justices, the North-West and South-West are fully represented with three each.
“Appropriate steps could have been taken since to fill outstanding vacancies in the apex court. Why have these steps not been timeously taken?
“It is evident that the decision not to fill the vacancies in the court is deliberate. It is all about the absolute powers vested in the office of the CJN and the responsible exercise of same….
“To ensure justice and transparency in presidential appeals from the lower court, all geo-political zones are required to participate in the hearing.
“It is therefore dangerous for democracy and equity for two entire regions to be left out in the decisions that will affect the generality of Nigerians.
“This is not what our laws envisage. Although it can be posited that no one expected the sudden passing of Hon. Justice Nweze JSC, yet, it has been two years and seven months since previous justice from South-East died and no appointment was made.”
Justice Muhammad, who clocked 70 this Friday after 47 years in the judiciary, accused the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, of abusing the powers of his office.
“Through the years, I rose to become the second most senior justice of the country’s apex court and Deputy Chairperson of the National Judicial Council.
“Considering the number of years I have spent in judicial service and the position I have attained by the grace of the Almighty, I feel obligated to continue the struggle for reforms for a better Judiciary and would be leaning on the earlier submissions of those who had exited before me….
“As presently structured, the CJN is Chairman of the NJC which oversees both the appointment and discipline of judges, he is equally Chair of the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), the National Judicial Institute (NJI), the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) that appoints Senior Advocate of Nigeria. “In my considered opinion, the oversight functions of these bodies should not rest on an individual alone. A person with absolute powers, it is said, corrupts easily and absolutely.
“As Chair of NJC, FJSC, NJI and LPPC, appointments as council, board and commitment members are at his pleasure. He neither confers with fellow justices nor seek their counsel or input on any matter related to these bodies. He has both the final and the only say.
“The CJN has power to appoint 80 percent of members of the council and 60 percent of members of FJSC. The same applies to NJI and LPPC.
“Such enormous powers are effortlessly abused. This needs to change. Continued denial of the existence of this threatening anomaly weakens effective judicial oversight in the country,” he added.
On the take-home pay of the highest judicial officers, Muhammad gave an insight into what has long remained hidden.
“It may interest one to know that the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court earns more than the Justices. While she earns N1.2m per month, justices take home N751, 000 in a month.
“The CJN on his part takes home N400, 000 plus. The salary of a Justice, curiously, drops rather than increases when he gets the added responsibility of being a CJN.
“That the unjust and embarrassing salary difference between the justices and the Chief Registrar still abides remains intriguing to say the least.”
Admitting that the Judiciary got a budgetary boost from N70 billion in 2015 to N165 billion today, he lamented that “Justices and officers welfare and the quality of service the judiciary render have continued to decline.”
He recalled that President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the invasion of homes and arrest of some judges in 2016 over allegations of corruption, adding: “Not done, in 2019 the government accosted, arrested and arraigned the incumbent Chief Justice before the Code of Conduct Tribunal for alleged underhand conduct.
“With his retirement apparently negotiated, he was eventually left off the hook.
“In 2022, a letter signed by all other justices of the Supreme Court, including the current Chief Justice, the aggrieved protested against the shabby treatment meted to them by the head of court and the Chief Registrar.
“In the event, his lordship Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad disengaged ostensibly on grounds of ill-health.
“My lords, distinguished invitees, ladies and gentlemen, it is obvious that the judiciary I am exiting from is far from the one I voluntarily joined and desired to serve and be identified with. The institution has become something else.”