Stigmatized by Prevailing Circumstance

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Onnoghen and Muhammad

Nseobong Okon-Ekong, Deji Elumoye and Solomon Elusoji write that the controversy which caused some disquiet following the emergence of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad assumed an unfortunate ridiculous twist at his confirmation by the Senate  

Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad became Nigeria’s top judiciary official under a cloud of controversy. Walter Onnoghen, the erstwhile Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) had just been suspended by the Presidency last January 25 and summoned by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, the court system set up to prosecute public officials, when President Buhari appointed Muhammad as the nation’s acting CJN. There were cries of partisanship and high-handedness, but the appointment stuck. This month, President Buhari sent Muhammad’s name to the legislature, to permanently confirm him as CJN. The Senate acquiesced, confirming Muhammad on July 17 after a screening session that lasted from 11:43am to 1:18pm.

Little did Muhammad know he was going to act for a record six months. At the time, Justice Muhammad was next to Justice Onnoghen in hierarchy and by tradition, seniority on the bench counted most in the nomination of CJN. Even during the military era, seniority of the Justices of the Supreme Court were strictly adhered to in appointing the CJN. So, it didn’t come as a surprise when Justice Muhammad was nominated. President Buhari was only following tradition.

At long last, Justice Muhammad’s name was eventually forwarded two weeks ago to the Senate for confirmation as CJN by President Buhari in line with the provisions of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (As Amended).

The President had in a three-paragraph letter to the Senate President, Dr. Ahmad Lawan, dated July 10 entitled ‘Appointment of Chief Justice of Nigeria’ President Buhari and read at plenary stated that “in accordance with section 231(1) of Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), which gives the President powers to appoint a Chief Justice of Nigeria, on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council and subject to the confirmation of the appointment by the Senate. I have the honour to forward the nomination of Hon. (Dr.) Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad for confirmation as Chief Justice of Nigeria.

“It is my hope that this request will receive the usual expeditious consideration of the Distinguished Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Please accept, Senate President, the assurances of my highest consideration.”

Section 231(1) of the constitution had stated emphatically that, “The appointment of a person to the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.”

In line with that constitutional provision, the National Judicial Council had at the end of its meeting on July 9 recommended Justice Muhammad for appointment as CJN to President Buhari who thereafter forwarded his name to the Senate for confirmation.

In one week, the upper chamber set the machinery in motion by inviting Justice Muhammad to appear before it last Wednesday for proper screening. He was led to the Senate Chambers by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Senator Ita Enang. Justice Muhammad put his age at 66, meaning he has four years to serve before attaining the retirement age of 70. During the session, he answered questions put to him by some Senators including those with legal background like Deputy Senate President, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege; Minority Leader, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe and Senator Opeyemi Bamidele. The jurist was on his feet throughout his close to two hours screening which was moderated by Lawan as Chairman of the Committee of the Whole.

Sporting a black cap and red tie, Muhammad fielded questions from the senators, offering insights into the workings of his mind. He advocated for a tougher stance on corruption and a financially independent judiciary, carefully marshalling his arguments. But on one occasion, he misunderstood a question from Senate Minority Leader, Eyinnaya Abaribe, who was trying to find out Muhammad’s take on whether the Supreme Court should decide cases based on legal technicalities. Rather than deal with question, Muhammad went off gambit, talking about how a Judge could not be expected to be an expert on every subject matter on earth. It was a ludicrous moment. Or was the CJN simply playing the ostrich?

In answer to one of the senator’s questions, Justice Muhammad described magistrates as the most corrupt strata of the judicial arm of government. He also said technical cases provide a leeway for double interpretation of judgements. To him, justices of the Supreme Court and other judges deserve better pay as their current salaries are ridiculous and laughable. Responding to a question on rampant corruption cases among judicial officers, Justice Muhammad while alluding to the fact that some judges are corrupt, however, said the level of corruption among the magistrates was alarming.

He said, “Talking about corruption in the society and judiciary in particular, I always say that the Nigerian judiciary is part and parcel of Nigeria, therefore I am not surprised if I see some justices that are corrupt but that such judges who are corrupt should be identified and prosecuted under our laws.

“The most worrisome of this trend is at the lower ebb of our judiciary. For those of us at the lower court, that is, the Magistrate. This is where the corruption arises. I was a Magistrate then we had a white man who was Chief Judge of our state we inherited him, he will kill any trace of corruption but unfortunately it rubbed  down on us and this eventually happened in all cases.”

He went further to explain that, “Corruption is in built in the person who wants to be corrupted because if there is no corruption, there shall be no person who will be corrupted. Left to me the corrupt judges should face same music as other Nigerians.”

The CJN, therefore, charged the legislature both at federal and state level to review the nation’s criminal laws. He said, “I am charging the legislature both in the state and federal levels to take a holistic look at our criminal laws. Let us amend them, let them take care of all the lapses in our laws. Let us provide adequately so that it will serve as guide to these anomalies. It is the duty of the legislature to sensitize the society.

“Much as the judiciary would like to work but what is given to us is limited by law but I believe the legislature at both federal and state levels have every power to legislate or to amend the existing legislations in this country.”

On technical judgements delivered in the past by the Supreme Court, Justice Muhammad defended the verdicts saying such judgements were subject to double interpretation. According to him, “If something is technical, it is in a way giving a leeway for double interpretation adding that, “It may be interpreted one way by Mr. A or it may be interpreted the other way by Mr. B.”

He also posited that, “If something technical comes before the court, what we normally do is the trial court will 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 on aero plane I don’t know, ask me to fly an airplane I am sure if they told you that that flight is going to be piloted by Tanko I am sure you will jump out of the plane. Because it is something that is limited to technicality. My technicality is in law. Therefore, it is something that has to do with the perception of the way you think you can achieve the goals for what you want to achieve. Several of our laws are dependent on technicality.  But remember when we come we have what is known as rules of interpretation. We resort to rules of interpretation. There are several rules of interpretation. It is through that we resolve the problem that is technically raised.

We have technicalities in our laws and this is because these laws that we have inherited from the British. The British had for some time ago introduced what is known as technicalities in their laws.”

Commenting on the independence of the judicial arm, Justice Muhammad emphasised that what is drawing the judiciary back is lack of financial autonomy. According to him, “We are not asking for anything more than what is provided in the budget but believe me if you go to some states you will find out that they judiciary is refused even the normal monthly grant. They have houses, offices to maintain, and where they are collecting revenue they are not supposed to dip their hands into the revenue because their revenue must go back to the state.”

He also decried the meagre salary earned by Justices of the Supreme Court, saying “What is the allowance of the Justice of the Supreme Court? His salary, what does it amount to? If I tell you, you will laugh!

“I cannot go begging or asking for something. The legislature I am sure has every right and every power to see that things are put right,” Justice Muhammad added.

After the screening exercise, Lawan thanked Justice Muhammad for honouring the invitation of the Senate and promised that the legislature would be willing to collaborate with the judiciary in solving identified problems. Lawan specifically mentioned the issue of the meagre salary being earned by the judges and stressed the need for the matter to be looked into so that there won’t be unnecessary influence from the public.

Justice Muhammad, thereafter, took a bow and left the Senate chambers before the Senate reverted to plenary to consider the confirmation of the CJN. When the Senate President put the question of whether or not to confirm Justice Muhammad as CJN before the senators, the lawmakers unanimously approved his confirmation.

Justice Muhammad came through the ranks. He was born on December 31, 1953 at Doguwa, Giade Local Government of Bauchi State. He attended primary school at Giade Primary School from 1961 to 1968. Then he proceeded to Government Secondary School, Azare from the year 1969 to 1973. Between 1975 and 1976, he attended Abdullahi Bayero University College, Kano, for his IJMB, then proceeded to read Law at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, from 1976 to 1980. He attended Nigerian Law School from 1980 to 1981.

After Law School, the CJN enrolled for a Master’s Degree in Law (LLM) at ABU on a part-time basis in 1982, while he also took up an appointment as Magistrate Grade II at the Bauchi State Judiciary. He rose to Senior Magistrate Grade II from 1984 to 1986., after which he was appointed as the Provost, College of Legal and Islamic Studies, Bauchi from 1986 to 1989. He would later return to ABU in 1987 to pursue his Doctorate Degree (PhD) in Law, also on a part-time basis. He obtained his PhD in 1998.

He was appointed Chief Magistrate/Deputy Chief Registrar, High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja from 1990 to 1991. From 1991 to 1993, he was appointed as Kadi (Judge) of the Sharia Court of Appeal, Bauchi State. In 1993, he was elevated to the position of Justice of the Court of Appeal, until 2006 when he was appointed as a Justice of the Supreme Court. He was sworn in on January 8, 2007. By the time he was appointed CJN, Muhammad had spent more than one decade at the nation’s highest court, bearing witness to some of the most turbulent periods in Nigerian judiciary history.

The Supreme Court of Nigeria (SCN), is the highest court in Nigeria. Under the 1999 constitution, the Supreme Court has both original and appellate jurisdictions, has the sole authority and jurisdiction to entertain appeals from Court of Appeal, having appellate jurisdiction over all lower federal courts and highest state courts. Decisions rendered by the court are binding on all courts in Nigeria except the Supreme Court itself. The Supreme Court is composed of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and such number of justices not more than 21, appointed by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council, (NJC) and subject to confirmation by the Senate. Justices of the Supreme Court must be qualified to practice law in Nigeria, and must have been so qualified for a period not less than fifteen years. Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria have a mandatory retirement age of 70 years.

So what can Nigerians expect from Justice Muhammad? Will he bring anything new into a judiciary that has been serially accused of being weak and riddled with corruption? He has the wealth of experience and academic acumen, but does he have the vision and evangelical zeal to transform the manufacture of justice in a country sorely needing some?

Perhaps the first thing to note is that Justice Muhammad understands the gravity of the situation before him.

In 2015, at the 48th annual conference of the Nigerian Association of Law Teachers (NALT), Justice Muhammad presented a paper in which he explored the threat of perennial corruption within the Nigerian legal profession and proposed “a holistic purging” of the bench, practicing bar, and even the legal academia by naming, shaming and expelling those he described as the “miscreants”.

In January, when he was first appointed, Justice Muhammad, while administering the oath of office to members of the 2019 Election Petition Tribunals, noted that “The Judiciary is in a trying time. We must, and I repeat, we must stand to protect and uphold the integrity of this arm of government. If any other person is trying to destroy it, we should try to protect it. If we don’t protect it ourselves, no one else will protect it for us. So therefore, it is our duty to see that we protect the Judiciary wherever you find yourself.”

He also fetishizes the past, which he describes as being better than the present in terms of societal order. “Gone are the days when we used to sleep with our eyes closed in an open air space, with your room opened, nobody would enter to do anything,” he told the Senators. “I am talking of the early 60s, and I believe that up to 1975 it was something like that. It can never happen again. It may be difficult for it to happen. We have to check ourselves because the problem is with us. That is one of the ways we can sanitise society.”

To tackle the problem, Justice Mohammad proposed the amendment of laws to increase the severity of punishment and secure judiciary independence.

“Some people are willing to commit and suffer the punishment which is light,” he said. “So, they will go and spend two years only to come out and go and enjoy their millions. The legislature needs to rise to the occasion and put things right . . . Let me say generally that corruption is inbuilt in the person who wants to be corrupted or the person who corrupts because if there is no corruption then there is no person who will be corrupted.

“Left to me, they should face some music. Therefore, I am urging members of the parliament, both here and at the state level, if need be, to take a holistic look at our criminal laws and let us amend them. It is the responsibility of the legislature to sanitise the society.

“The judiciary is willing to do its job. Once they don’t have anywhere to rely on, or where what is given to them is limited, by law, certainly that is the end of it, there is nothing they can do. I believe the legislature, either at the national level or at the state level, has every power to legislate or amend the legal system through legislation to overcome these.”

Fervent activism is not something judges are known for, since the profession itself is largely conservative, but Justice Muhammad, if his appearance at the Senate and past scholarship is to be considered, is not one to shy away from reform. But, in many ways, he has also succeeded in passing the baton of responsibility for judicial reforms to the legislature, by admitting that only new legal provisions approved by the lawmakers can save Nigeria’s judiciary.

It is expected that the new CJN’s tenure will bring in the much expected judicial reform in the country and since he has also alluded to corruption among judicial officers especially the magistrates, he should be prepared to tackle the menace before it will destroy the integrity of the judiciary.

With Justice Muhammad’s confirmation by the Senate, all is now set for his swearing in as the 17th Chief Justice of Nigeria this week by President Buhari at the Presidential Villa in Abuja.

QUICK FACTS

*Walter Onnoghen, the erstwhile Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) was suspended on January 25 by the Presidency and summoned by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, when President Buhari appointed Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad as the nation’s acting CJN

*Muhammad served in acting capacity for a record six months

*Muhammad was next to Justice Onnoghen in hierarchy and by tradition, seniority on the bench counted most in the nomination of CJN

* When the Senate President put the question of whether or not to confirm Justice Muhammad as CJN before the Senators, the lawmakers unanimously approved his confirmation

* With Justice Muhammad’s confirmation by the Senate, all is now set for his swearing in as the 17th Chief Justice of Nigeria this week by President Buhari at the Presidential Villa in Abuja

*Justice Muhammad put his age at 66, meaning he has four years to serve before attaining the retirement age of 70

*The jurist was on his feet throughout his close to two hours screening which was moderated by Senate President, Senator Ahmad Lawan as Chairman of the Committee of the Whole

*Justice Muhammad described magistrates as the most corrupt strata of the judicial arm of government. He also said technical cases provide a leeway for double interpretation of judgements

*Justice Muhammad alluded to corruption among judicial officers especially the magistrates

*Muhammad succeeded in passing the baton of responsibility for judicial reforms to the legislature, by admitting that only new legal provisions approved by the lawmakers can save Nigeria’s judiciary