A retiring Justice of the Supreme Court, Musa Dattijo Muhammad, opened the Pandora box on Friday with his brutal criticism of the “absolute powers” of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), when he faulted the composition of the panel that gave the Supreme Court judgments that affirmed President Bola Tinubu’s election victory on Thursday.
Drawing on his wealth of experience as a judge, he also faulted the absence of the South-east region from the Supreme Court bench, a situation he blamed on “the absolute powers vested in the office of the CJN.”
Muhammad, who clocked the mandatory retirement age of 70 on Friday, dropped the bombshell at the valedictory session held in his honour at the Supreme Court complex in Abuja.
His outburst was the first-of-its-kind frontal criticism of a sitting CJN, whom he said enjoyed over-concentration of oversight and administrative powers across the nation’s judiciary.
The incumbent CJN, Olukayode Ariwoola, was not part of the panel that delivered the judgments of the Supreme Court on the presidential election appeals on Thursday, but he was solely responsible for constituting the panel.
Speaking on the composition of the court’s seven-member panel, which dismissed the appeals filed by Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Labour Party (LP) respectively against the election of President Tinubu, Muhammad said all the six geopolitical zones in the country ought to be represented.
The seven-member panel, led by Inyang Okoro, who hails from Akwa Ibom State in the South-south zone, ruled that Atiku’s and Obi’s appeals lacked merit before affirming Tinubu’s election. Of the six regions in the country, only South-south, North-west and the North-east were represented on the panel.
To worsen the case for South-east and North-central, with the retirement of Muhammad, who hails from Niger State (North-central) and the death of Centus Nweze who hailed from Enugu State (South-east) in July, the two regions no longer have representatives on the severely depleted bench of the apex court.
The retiring judge blamed the tardiness in ensuring the two regions had representatives on the Supreme Court bench on the CJN, saying it was deliberate and “is all about the absolute powers vested in the office of the CJN.
“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,” the judge warned.
Muhammad’s attack is the latest from a retiring justice of the Supreme Court aiming at a sitting CJN and different aspects of Nigeria’s judiciary’s systems.
Muhammad’s criticism comes less than two months after a former Justice of the Supreme Court, Abdul Aboki, during his valedictory court session, called for transparency in the expenditure of funds belonging to the judiciary.
In May 2022, Ejembi Eko, who was also retiring from the apex court, decried the corruption in the Nigerian judiciary, especially in the handling of its finances.
“Nothing stops the office of the Auditor-General of the Federation, the ICPC and other investigatory agencies from opening the books of the judiciary to expose the corruption in the management of their budgetary resources,” Eko had said at his valedictory court session, calling on anti-graft agencies to probe the financial records of the judiciary.
In his tirades, Muhammad said with the CJN as chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC) and other statutory Judicial bodies like – the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), the National Judicial Institute (NJI), and the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC), “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.”
Muhammad asserted that the CJN given his enormous powers, appoints members of the various judicial institutions without conferring “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 the power to appoint 80 per cent of members of the council (NJC) and 60 per cent 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,” Muhammad noted.
HOWEVER, the CJN, Justice Ariwoola, who confirmed that the Supreme Court now has 10 justices on its bench, the lowest number of justices in history, assured that efforts are in top gear to elevate a sizeable Justices to the bench of the apex court.
He said: “With Justice Musa Dattijo Muhammad leaving us today after the retirement of Justice Adamu Augie few weeks ago, we are now left with just 10 Justices on the Supreme Court Bench, being the lowest we have ever had in the contemporary history of the court.
“However, I can confidently assure all the litigant public that efforts are in top gear to get on board a sizeable number of Justices to boost our rank and complement the tremendous effort we have been investing in the business of the Court.”
Waiving aside the criticisms and extolling Muhammad, the CJN described him as a model of excellence that transcends the legal profession. He said, “I am so emotionally overwhelmed, and at the same time, profusely exhilarated to personally witness this uncommon valedictory session.
“This is not because I have never witnessed or presided over valedictory sessions before; but for the fact that we are honouring a quintessential Judicial icon with dazzling qualities and alluring stature who could, in one breath, be classified as a model of excellence that transcends the legal profession.
“My Lord Justice Musa Dattijo Muhammad in whose honour we assemble here today is an epitome of jurisprudential finesse; an insuperable lion with an irrepressible voice in the temple of justice.
“We are here to identify with an accomplished jurisprudential iconoclast that has offered the best of his intellect to the advancement of the legal profession through his several years of unblemished and incontrovertible adjudications at different levels of Courts in Nigeria.
“His Lordship has, by all standards, made an incisive inroad into the revered history books of the Nigerian judiciary as that gallant and eminent Justice at the Supreme Court bench who inviolably held sway in the discharge of his judicial functions.
“As second-in-command in the hierarchy of the Supreme Court, my Lord, Justice Dattijo, skilfully aided and supported me virtually in every sphere of administration. He is a specimen of hard work, industry, discipline, and high moral rectitude.
“He willingly offered every support and encouragement that any leader would always wish to enjoy from a deputy to effectively meander the often stormy coast of court administration.”