Tanko Muhammad: A Justice’s Inexcusable Gaffe

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Justice Tanko Muhammad’s embarrassing response to questions put to him during his confirmation screening by the Senate last Wednesday remains an unfortunate talk of the town, writes Davidson Iriekpen

The social media has been abuzz with clips from the screening of the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Ibrahim Muhammad, by the Senate since last Wednesday. Muhammad was appointed in acting capacity in January after the ‘illegal’ suspension and eventual removal of the then CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen.

His screening and confirmation by the Senate last Wednesday did not end without a drama and what many Nigerians have described as a gross display of incompetence and ignorance needed to discharge his function not only as CJN but as Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC), Chairman of Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) and Chairman of the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee (LPPC).

The drama ensued when the Senate Minority Leader, Eyinnaya Abaribe, asked the acting CJN to explain if the Supreme Court under his watch would be more concerned with delivering judgments based on the merit of cases or technicalities of such cases.

Abaribe had asked, “In the 2018 case of Akeredolu vs Abraham, the Supreme Court said, ‘technicality in the administration of justice shuts out justice’ and went further to say, ‘it is therefore better to have a case heard and determined on its merit than to leave the court with the shield of victory obtained on mere technicality’.

“This is the Supreme Court, so we are very happy with that. But My Lord, just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court also said, ‘The correct order is to declare the judgment of the trial tribunal a nullity as a result of one of the panelists not sitting on the day proceedings were held’.

“And so Nigerians are really worried. Where would the Supreme Court stand under you? Where would justice be and what can we expect from the Supreme Court under you?”
Responding, Justice Muhammad defined technicality, saying there are technicalities in Nigerian laws, because the laws were inherited from the British. He defined the term as something technical and went ahead to compare a technicality with the inability of a judge to effectively ‘drive’ an aeroplane. He however, failed to say if the apex court under him would ensure that the need to ensure that justice is served would supersede mere technicalities.

He said, “Permit me distinguished senators to ask what a technicality is? It is something, which is technical. By definition, it is something that is not usual and may sometimes defy all the norms known to a normal thing. Now, we have technicalities in our laws and this is because these laws we have inherited were from the British.
“The British people, centuries ago, introduced what is known as technicalities in their laws. Now, if something is technical, it is giving a leeway for double interpretation. It may be interpreted in one-way by Mr. A and another way by Mr. B.

“Now, if something which is technical comes before the court, what we do in trial courts is to ask people who are experts in that field to come and testify. We rely on their testimony because they are experts in that field. Ask me anything about an aeroplane, I don’t know; ask me to drive an aeroplane (sic), I am sure if you are a passenger and they told you that the flight is going to be driven (sic) by Honourable Justice Ibrahim Tanko, I am sure you will get out of the plane, because it is something that requires technicality and if I have any technicality, my technicality will only be limited to law. Therefore, it is something that has to do with the perception or the way you will be able to achieve the goals you want to achieve.”

An attempt by Justice Muhammad to answer another question bordering on the interpretation of the constitutional powers of the executive and legislative arms of government was also blocked by the Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, fuelling speculations that Lawan was simply doing the President’s job.

Not only has the video clip gone viral on the Internet and social media, it has equally sparked an interesting debate about his capabilities. Many are therefore asking, if he could not define technicality, which is a common terminology in law, and upon which he had on many occasions predicated many of his judgments and decisions, how would his sagacity to deliver a sound judgment be trusted?

On July 5, 2019, for instance, Justice Muhammad led the seven-man panel that determined the Osun State governorship tussle between Senator Ademola Adeleke of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Gboyega Oyetola of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
Reading the verdict of the apex court, it was clear the majority led by the acting CJN, which gave judgment to Oyetola, based their decisions on technical breach of procedure rather than on the substance and merit of the case against the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

From the lead judgment read by Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, it was clear that Adeleke lost the case at the Supreme Court not on the basis or evidence on the actual matter at hand, but simply on a technicality that one of the tribunal judges was absent during the petition, thereby rendering the tribunal judgment in his favour null and void.
Invariable, the Supreme Court set aside a judgment that confirmed that the election was rigged by both INEC and security agencies, without any form of consequence to those people, but instead chose to permit the biggest beneficiary of the crime to continue in an office he usurped.

The view expressed by many is that just as the election was allegedly rigged by INEC, the case was also rigged at the courts, because the absence of the judge was not caused by the legal team of Adeleke but an error by the court, so why should it be used to punish or deny him of his mandate?

Many observers also believe that the response of Justice Muhammad at the Senate confirmation has exposed the kind of persons President Muhammadu Buhari assembles to run the affairs of the country. Many Nigerians still recall a viral video of the then Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, who could not pronounce the word “transmission”, which caused the police force and the nation serious embarrassment at the time.

Also, the acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mr. Ibrahim Magu, during an interview in a live television, seriously embarrassed the country when he was asked how he hoped to effectively institutionalise the fight against corruption in the country and he referred to the new building the commission just inaugurated at the time as evidence of institutionalising corruption.

Even President Buhari himself has on many occasions embarrassed the country with his responses to questions put to him by journalists and Nigerians.
Reacting to Justice Muhammad’s gaffe, a former Minister of Education, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili, said his confirmation hearing has revealed the depth of leadership crisis in the country. In her Tweet, she said the leadership crisis cuts across all the tiers and arms of government across the country.

“Do we need to be told that there’s a quality of leadership crisis in our country? It’s across board: the executive, legislature judiciary; federal, state and local. That Senate hearing with Justice Tanko merely reminded us of the depth of our leadership crises. Better own our crisis.”
While Ezekwesili was mild with the acting CJN, Samson Edegbai was not. He called for Justice Muhammad’s resignation, saying his response to questions put to him on the floor of the Senate would be a calamity to the innocent.

“Let him resign. The bench should be for intelligent and sagacious individuals. An ignorant judge is a calamity to the innocent,” he said.
Olakunle Abudu, on his part, said the acting CJN’s response to the question put to him was a huge embarrassment not only to the judiciary, but the country. He wondered which employer would give an applicant or candidate with such poor response a job in his or her organisation?

“If you interview a candidate like that at your firm and the candidate responds like that, will you still consider him smart and give him the job?”
On the whole, Muhammad is just one of the many products of Nigeria’s warped system, who in all honesty cannot thrive over and above the system that produced him. He typifies the disaster that the Buhari presidency represents and so is a majority of the people the president worked with in his defunct cabinet.
Perhaps, it is forlorn hope to anticipation any significant shift in the new cabinet that has undergone needless delay in the name of searching for an ideal team let alone the style of governance. And like Ezekwesili has said, Nigeria must own her own problems.
Pix: Tanko Muhammad.jpg