Quick Justice Delivery as S’Court Attains Full Compliment of 21 Justices Today

With the swearing in today of 11 Justices recently elevated to the bench of the apex court, Nigerians are set to experience speedy dispensation of justice, writes Alex Enumah.

The bench of the Supreme Court of Nigeria has never been at its lowest it was in the last few months, with just 10 justices including the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, to deal with the huge number of cases on the dockets of the court. The situation got so bad that the court cannot constitute two panels to sit in constitutional matters.

Even in the just concluded presidential election cases, the CJN had a very limited number of 10 justices to constitute the seven -member panel that heard appeals against the presidential election.

No doubt, he also experienced similar constraint in constituting the various panels that handled appeals against the governorship election. Recall that governorship appeals from 21 states in the 2023 general elections had reached the apex court and all were decided within two months.

However, all these are about to change now with the swearing-in of 11 new justices. Spokesman of the apex court, Dr Festus Akande, in a short message to journalists last Friday hinted that, “the newly appointed 11 Justices of the Supreme Court will be sworn-in by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola on Monday at 10.00am at the Main Courtroom of the Supreme Court”.

Their inauguration coming two months after the Senate confirmed their appointment no doubt is a big relief on the current justices on the bench of the apex court.

Besides, the swearing-in will for the very first time enable the Supreme Court attain its full compliment of 21 justices. Section 230 (2) (b) of the 1999 constitution provides that, “The Supreme Court of Nigeria shall consist of such number of Justices not exceeding 21 as may be prescribed by an Act of the National Assembly.”

The last time the apex court got very close to achieving its full compliment was in 2020, when eight justices of the appellate court were elevated to join 12 of their brother justices on the bench of the apex court. Since then the bench witnessed steady depletion from 20 to its current 10 justices, a situation Ariwoola described as the lowest in the history of the country’s judiciary. While the depletion was attributed to mandatory retirement and death in the last three years, efforts towards filling vacant positions did not yield results until recently.

Recall that Ariwoola, in November last year, at the opening of the 2023/2024 new legal year while acknowledging efforts of his predecessor, Justice Tanko Muhammad to increase the number of justices at the apex court vowed to break what he referred to as a “jinx”. He had disclosed that, immediately he assumed office on June 27, 2022, he “got down to work on this urgent and immediate need in particular.

“Though we have not gotten them on board yet, I can convincingly assure the litigant public that within a very short while, the Supreme Court of Nigeria will, for the very first time in its history, get the constitutionally-prescribed full complement of 21 Justices”, he had said.

However, within few days of this assurance, a list of 22 justices from the appellate court in order of priority and reserve was forwarded from the Federal Judicial Service Commission to the National Judicial Council, for interview, following which 11 emerged successful and were forwarded to the President for appointment.

A statement from the National Judicial Council (NJC) on December 6, 2023 disclosed that those recommended had emerged successful from the NJC’s Interview Committee.

The statement signed by NJC’s Director of Information, Mr Soji Oye, added that, “all recommended candidates to the Supreme Court Bench would be sworn-in after the approval of their recommendation by President Bola Tinubu, and the subsequent confirmation of their appointment by the Senate”.

Recall that on receipt of the list, President Tinubu, without further delay sent it to the National Assembly, for screening and confirmation. The letter of the president was read before the Senators on December 20, 2023 and was referred same day to the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, for screening and further legislative input by the Senate President, Godswill Akpabio.

 By the following day, December 21, the Senate confirmed the appointment of the 11 new justices of the Supreme Court. The confirmation followed the consideration and adoption of the report of the Committee on Judiciary. Chairman of the Committee, Senator Tahir Monguno, who presented the report had told his colleagues that the nominees possessed the requisite qualifications and experience to occupy the bench of the apex court, adding that there was no petition against any of them.

Monguno, therefore, recommended their confirmation.

The new justices coming on board the apex court include Justice Haruna Tsammani, who presided over the five-member panel of the 2023 Presidential Election Petition Court and Justice Stephen Jonah Adah, a member of the panel.

Others are Justice Jummai Sankey, Justice Chidiebere Nwaoma Uwa, Justice Chioma Egondu Nwosu-Iheme, Justice Moore Aseimo A. Adumein, and Justice Obande Festus Ogbuinya.

The remaining are Justice Habeeb Adewale O. Abiru, Justice Jamilu Yammama Tukur, Justice Abubakar Sadiq Umar and Justice Mohammed Baba Idris.

Besides easing the burden on justices of the apex court, the new appointment has also addressed the issue of balance raised by a former Justice of the apex court, Justice Musa Dattijo Muhammad.

The retired jurist, at a valedictory court session held in his honour had observed that only four geopolitical zones – the South-west, South-south, North-west and North-east – were represented in the Supreme Court with the Southwest and Northwest fully represented. But, from the 11 Supreme Court Justices appointed, both the South-east and North-central zones have the highest of three justices each, while the North-east has two, the North-west, South-west and South-south have one each.

While the three appointed justices from the South-east include Justice Chidiebere Nwaoma Uwa (Abia), Justice Chioma Egondu Nwosu-Iheme (Imo) and Justice Obande Festus Ogbuinya (Ebonyi), those from the North-central include; Justice Jummai Sankey (Plateau), Justice Stephen Adah (Kogi) and Justice Baba Idris (Niger).

These new justices are expected to bring their experience to bear in meeting the justice need of the over 200 million Nigerians. Recall that the issue of appointment had been in the front burner of national discourse for a long while, owing to the litigious nature of most Nigerians.

While the courts had just ended cases involving the 2023 general elections, it has started hearing in off-circle elections involving three states of Bayelsa, Kogi and Imo as well as pre-election matters in the Edo State forthcoming governorship poll.

Be that as it may, the appointment no doubt is a huge relief on the CJN and nine of his brother justices who hitherto had been saddled with the herculean task of providing justice for the over 200 million Nigerians. Besides the CJN, the old justices include; kudirat Kekere-Ekun, John Okoro, Uwani Abba Aji and Garba Mohammed. Others are Helen Ogunwumiju, Ibrahim Saulawa, Adamu Jauro, Abubakar Tijjani and Emmanuel Agim.

However, it is not yet Uhuru for litigants because the new appointments, may not fully resolve the challenge of effective justice delivery in the country, until there is a constitutional amendment to limit the kind of cases that reaches the Supreme Court; creation of special courts to handle political cases; and adoption of Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanism.

But, for the CJN, who will bow out of the apex court come August this year, it is one dream not just fulfilled but one to be remembered for. Besides the numerous judgments he would want to be remembered for, Ariwoola, wants it on record as the Chief Justice of Nigeria who ensured that the apex court achieved its constitutional requirements of 21 justices for the first time ever.

“That is one of the legacies I have been working assiduously to leave behind as it now seems that the Court has been somewhat ‘jinxed’ from meeting its constitutional requirement since that piece of legislation was enacted several years ago”, he had said.

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