BREAKING: Chief Justice #Ariwoola Attacked In Public After Supreme Court Judgement —-In a scathing critique of the “unchecked authority” wielded by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), retiring Supreme Court Justice Dattijo Muhammad lambasted the composition of the panel responsible for affirming President Bola Tinubu’s election victory on Thursday.
Muhammad, who reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 on Friday, voiced his discontent during a farewell session held in his honor at the Supreme Court premises in Abuja. This marked an unprecedented direct criticism of a sitting CJN, as Muhammad highlighted the excessive concentration of supervisory and administrative powers within the nation’s judiciary.
While the current CJN, Olukayode Ariwoola, was not a member of the panel that delivered the judgments on the presidential election appeals, he was solely responsible for appointing the panel.
Addressing the composition of the court’s seven-member panel that dismissed appeals filed by Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi against President Tinubu’s election, Muhammad contended that all six geopolitical zones in the country should have been represented.
The panel, led by Inyang Okoro from Akwa Ibom State in the South-south zone, ruled on Thursday that the appeals from Atiku and Mr. Obi lacked merit before affirming Mr. Tinubu’s election.
Out of the six regions in the country, only the South-south, North-west, and the North-east were represented on the six-member panel. The retirement of Mr. Muhammad, from Niger State, North-central, and the passing of Centus Nweze from Enugu State, South-east, in July, further exacerbated the lack of representation for these two regions on the significantly diminished Supreme Court bench.
Muhammad attributed the delay in ensuring representation from these two regions on the Supreme Court bench to the CJN, asserting that it was a deliberate action stemming from the “unrestricted authority 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.
Mr. Muhammad’s strong critique is the most recent in a series of retiring Supreme Court justices voicing concerns about a sitting CJN and various aspects of Nigeria’s judiciary, citing its lack of transparency and inefficiency.
In June 2022, 14 Justices of the Supreme Court expressed their dissatisfaction to the then CJN, Tanko Muhammad, regarding the precarious state of affairs at the highest court. The protesting judges accused the former CJN of authoritarianism and misuse of authority.
Mr. Muhammad’s remarks come less than two months after former Supreme Court Justice Abdul Aboki, during his farewell court session, emphasized the need for openness in the management of judiciary funds.
In May 2022, Ejembi Eko, who was retiring from the apex court, lamented the prevalence of corruption in the Nigerian judiciary, particularly in the handling of its financial matters.
There is no impediment preventing the Auditor-General of the Federation, the ICPC, and other investigative agencies from scrutinizing the financial records of the judiciary to uncover corruption in the management of their budgetary allocations,” Mr. Eko emphasized during his farewell court session, urging anti-corruption agencies to conduct thorough examinations of the judiciary’s financial transactions.
In his impassioned address, Mr. Muhammad reflected on his nearly five-decade-long judicial career, culminating in his ascent to the position of the second most senior justice of the Supreme Court before his retirement on Friday.
He pointed out that as the CJN and chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC), along with other key statutory judicial bodies such as the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), the National Judicial Institute (NJI), and the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC), the oversight responsibilities of these entities should not be solely vested in one individual. He cautioned against concentrating such immense authority in a single person, noting that “an individual with absolute power is susceptible to corruption.”
Mr. Muhammad asserted that, given the extent of his authority, the CJN unilaterally appoints members to various judicial institutions without consulting “fellow justices or seeking their advice or input on any matter pertaining to these bodies. His decision is both final and exclusive.”
“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.
Utilizing his extensive judicial expertise, Mr. Muhammad criticized the notable absence of representation from Nigeria’s South-east region on the Supreme Court bench.
He attributed this circumstance to the “unrestricted authority vested in the office of the CJN.”
Following Mr. Muhammad’s retirement, the North-central region now shares in the lack of representation on the Supreme Court bench, along with the South-east.
Mr. Muhammad detailed the dwindling numbers of justices from the North-central and Southeast zones on the Supreme Court bench, either due to retirement or unfortunate passing.
“As it stands, only four geo-political regions- the South-West, South-South, North-West and North-East are represented in the Supreme Court.
“While the South-South and North-east have two serving justices, the North-west and South-west are fully represented with three each,” he explained.
The retiring judge noted that “appropriate steps could have been taken since to fill outstanding vacancies in the Supreme Court. Why have these steps not been timeously taken?
“It is evident that the decision not to fill the vacancies in the court is deliberate. It is all about the absolute powers vested in the office of the CJN and the responsible exercise of the same.”
Although the CJN recently advertised vacancies in the court which currently has 10 Justices, the court is 11 short of its full complement of 21 justices.
The jurist’s intervention also touched on the issue of funding and independence of the judiciary.
He argued that while the judiciary’s budget soared from N70 billion in 2015 to N165 billion currently, Mr Muhammad said, “Justices and officers’ welfare and the quality of service the judiciary render(s) have (sic) continued to decline.”
Delving into the vexed issue of judges salaries, Mr Muhammad wondered why “…the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court earns more than the Justices. While she earns N1.2m per month, justices take home N751,000 in a month.”
“The CJN on his part takes home N400, 000 plus. The salary of a Justice, curiously, drops rather than increases when he gets the added responsibility of being a CJN.
“That the unjust and embarrassing salary difference between the justices and the Chief Registrar still abides remains intriguing to say the least.”
Despite the diatribes, the CJN had kind words for Mr Muhammad.
Mr Ariwoola described Mr Muhammad as “a jewel of inestimable worth and an icon worthy of celebration and adulation.”
He recalled that the retired judge as his “second-in-command in the hierarchy of the Supreme Court…skillfully aided and supported me virtually in every sphere of administration.”
Mr Ariwoola further said Mr Muhammad embodies “hard work, industry, discipline and high moral rectitude.”
The CJN acknowledged Mr Muhammad’s bluntness, saying he is “never known to be afraid to say things the way they are; and also never shies away from calling a spade by its name, irrespective of whose ox is gored.”