•Reveals judicial officers resisted attempts to truncate 2015 polls
• After 29 years, Buhari swears in first southerner, Onnoghen, CJN
Tobi Soniyi in Abuja
The former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed, yesterday said he had no apologies for refusing to do the bidding of politicians who wanted to intimidate the judiciary.
Justice Mohammed spoke yesterday in Abuja at a valedictory session held for him by the Supreme Court to mark his exit from the bench.
His remarks came just as President Muhammadu Buhari swore in his successor, Justice Samuel Walter Onnoghen, as the acting CJN. Onnoghen will be the first person from southern Nigeria to hold the post in 29 years after Justice Ayo Irikife stepped down in 1987.
The former CJN said the nation owed the judiciary a debt of gratitude for standing firm in the face of the contrary winds that threatened to blow the country’s democracy off course.
According to him, it took the steadfastness of the judiciary to avert a replay of what happened during the June 12, 1993 presidential election that was presumably won by the late Chief MKO Abiola, during last year’s general election.
He said: “During the run up to the 2015 elections, our judicial officers withstood immense pressure, in order to guarantee a level playing field and smooth transition of government, which ensured that we were spared a re-enactment of the June 12 saga.
“In fact, the courts, thus securing the electoral process, disallowed so many frivolous matters aimed at truncating the electoral process.
“I must particularly commend the Supreme Court for refusing to be intimidated or influenced by any candidate or political party, and I make no apologies for the firm stand that we took in our decisions.
“I am proud to be a part of the Supreme Court which refused to be cowered into truncating the electoral process. I am proud to have headed this noble arm of government and steering it through some very stormy waters. I am proud of the Nigerian judiciary.”
Justice Mohammed said the independence of the judiciary must be jealously guarded in the interest of the country, warning that its independence must not be compromised for whatever reasons, if Nigeria is to function effectively and peacefully.
He said the judiciary had proved to be an institution, which must be protected, sustained and carefully handled better than any other institution.
He warned that where the rule of law was absent and due process disregarded, the sentinel of civilisation would be missing.
He reminded judges that competence in the performance of their duties required legal knowledge, skills, thoroughness and preparation, and encouraged them to continue to improve on their performance.
He also asked judges and other judicial officers to be impartial in the delivery of justice, adding that impartiality was the fundamental quality required of a judge and core currency of repute that engenders respect for the judiciary.
He said: “Diligence requires consistency in the high standards of justice delivery that is required to optimally perform at your best.
“Judicial competence will diminish on compromise when a judge is debilitated by misconduct, corruption and other vices.
“Though various dynamics and court room antics may abound, but you as judges must remain as the resolute of justice. When you do that, the judiciary will burn as a beacon of hope for the common man.”
Justice Mohammed pointed out that he initiated several reforms during his tenure as CJN and pleaded with his successor to maintain the reforms so as to make Nigeria a better nation.
Also speaking at the ceremony, the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria represented by Chief Thompson Okpoko (SAN), blamed the current travails of the judiciary on the ineptitude of both the bench and the bar to curb misconduct in the profession at the early stages.
He said: “We in the profession, both the bar and the bench, have kept a blind eye to our problems for far too long, we have looked the other way when improprieties and disgraceful conduct were manifesting themselves right in front of us.
“We have been soft in matters that required stern handling. We have allowed rules to be twisted or bent because it will adversely affect our people.
“We have sacrificed merit on the altar of geographical spread when we know that, no matter how much we spread, we cannot cover everyone and everywhere. That kind of attitude must now give way to positive thinking as to what will be the best for our judiciary system and the profession.”
To make sure that only men and women of integrity become judges, the Body of Senior Advocates called on the National Judicial Council (NJC) to review the guidelines for the appointment of judges.
The body said: “The profession must say goodbye to the immediate past era when the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) in the state appoints or recommends for appointment as judges, candidates whose only basis for selection is the appearance of the candidates’ names in the lists submitted by the state governor, his privy or some party leaders.”
It also urged the NJC to resist political interference in the appointment of judges, and called for its reform.
“The provisions of the constitution which limits participation of the five Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) members in the NJC in matters of appointment of judges ought not to be allowed to remain a minute longer,” it added.
Okpoko further promised that lawyers would rally round the next CJN in reforming the judiciary.
He charged the incoming CJN to face the challenges head on, so that the judiciary would regain its lost glory and confidence.
Also speaking at the event, the Attorney-General of the Federation (SAN) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), said collaboration should be the way forward for the judiciary to maintain its integrity and impartiality as the last hope of the common man.
Represented by the Solicitor-General of the Federation, Mr. Taiwo Abidogun, the AGF charged the new leadership of the judiciary to ensure steady progress of the judiciary.
The president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN), reiterated the association’s support for the fight against corruption, whether in the judiciary or any arm of government.
He added, nonetheless: “We maintain, however, that this must be done in accordance with due process and the requirements of the rule of law. We will not accept the style of operations adopted by the Department of State Security (DSS).
“We condemn that approach. We will not also accept that any department of government exercise supervisory powers over the NJC, as the DSS sought to do. Our constitution prohibits it.”
He observed that the recent arrest of judges presented the judiciary with the opportunity to confront the problem of corruption in the judiciary and the legal profession.
All the speakers paid glowing tributes to the retired CJN.
Meanwhile, President Buhari yesterday swore in Justice Onnoghen as the acting CJN. His swearing-in followed Onnoghen’s appointment by the president, in accordance with Section 230(4) of the 1999 Constitution.
Section 230(4) of the constitution provides: “If the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria is vacant, or if the person holding the office is for any reason unable to perform the functions of the office, then until a person has been appointed to and has assumed the functions of that office, or until the person holding the office has resumed those functions, the president shall appoint the most senior justice of the Supreme Court to perform those functions.”
The NJC had recommended Justice Onnoghen for consideration for appointment as CJN. He will be the first person from southern Nigeria to occupy the position in 29 years.
The president may have to regularise his appointment within the next 30 days.
He replaces Justice Mohammed who retired yesterday, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.