Retired Supreme Court Justice Musa Muhammad Dattijo yesterday lamented what he described as the unpredictable nature of recent decisions of Nigerian courts, saying the judiciary he exited “is far from the one l voluntarily joined and desired to serve and be identified with.”Justice Dattijo, who was at a valedictory court session held in his honour after attaining the statutory retirement age of 70 years from the bench of the apex court, also lamented the absolute powers of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, adding, “a person with absolute powers, it is said, corrupts easily and absolutely.”
He said a number of respected senior members of the bar, who cited the cases of AAhmed Lawan, the former President of the Senate and the Imo Governorship appeals, claim that decisions of even the apex court had become unpredictable.Justice Dattijo said: “It is difficult to understand how and where, by these decisions, the judicial pendulum swings. It was not so before, they contend. In some quarters, the view is strongly held that filth and intrigues characterize the institution these days! Judges are said to be comfortable in companies they never would have kept in the past. It is being insinuated that some judicial officers even campaign for the politicians. It cannot be more damnifying.”
He continued: A couple of years ago, appointment to the bench was strictly on merit. Sound knowledge of the law, integrity, honour, and hard work distinguished those who were elevated. Lobbying was unheard of. I never lobbied, not at any stage of my career, to secure any appointment or elevation. As much as possible the most qualified men and women were appointed. That can no longer be said about appointments to the bench.
“The judiciary must be uniquely above board. Appointments should not be polluted by political, selfish, and sectional interests. The place of merit, it must be urged, cannot be over-emphasised. Public perceptions of the judiciary have over the years become witheringly scornful and monstrously critical. It has been in the public space that court officials and judges are easily bribed by litigants to obviate delays and or obtain favourable judgments.”
Recently, fresh allegations have been made that children and other relatives of serving and retired judges and justices are being appointed into judicial offices at the expense of more qualified candidates lacking in such privilege and backing. It is asserted that the process of appointment to judicial positions are deliberately conducted to give undue advantage to the ‘children, spouses, and mistresses’ of serving and retired judges and managers of judicial offices. At the Court of Appeal, it is also asserted, presiding Justices are now being appointed out of turn.”
Speaking on the welfare of judicial officers and the budget of the courts, the newly retired JSC, argued that beyond the issue of judicial officers’ salaries that had remained static for 15 years, “it is instructive to enquire what the judiciary also does with its allocations. Who is responsible for the expenditure? An unrelenting searchlight needs to be beamed to unravel how the sums are expended.”
He adds: “President Muhammadu Buhari in 2016 ordered the forceful entry into the houses and the arrest of justices some of whom were serving at the apex court. Not done, in 2019 the government accosted, arrested and arraigned the incumbent Chief Justice before the Code of Conduct Tribunal for alleged underhand conduct. With his retirement apparently negotiated, he was eventually left off the hook.
In 2022, in a letter signed by all the other justices of the Supreme Court, including the current Chief Justice, the aggrieved protested against the shabby treatment meted to them by the head of court and the Chief Registrar. At the centre of the friction was their welfare and the cavalier attitude of the Chief Registrar thereto. In the event, his lordship Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad disengaged ostensibly on grounds of ill-health.
“Now, it must be said, Chief Femi Falana is right that the safeguard in our appointment procedures against judicial appointments for improper motives is increasingly being compromised. Certainly, by Rule 8.3 of the Judicial Code of Conduct “any judge who takes advantage of his judicial office for personal gain or for gain by his or her relative or relation abuses the power vested in him!!!.“My lords, distinguished invitees, ladies and gentlemen, it is obvious that the judiciary I am exiting from is far from the one l voluntarily joined and desired to serve and be identified with. The institution has become something else.”
While pointing out that the present government has allocated additional N35 billion to the earlier N130 billion budgeted by the former President Muhammadu Buhari for the judiciary, he stated that, “notwithstanding the phenomenal increases in the sums appropriated and released to the judiciary, justices and officers’ welfare and the quality of service the judiciary renders has continued to decline.”Dattijo also linked the negative perception of the judiciary to the appointment of judicial officers, claiming that appointments have been polluted by political, selfish, and sectional interests.
The newly retired justice also described as “dangerous” a situation where a particular geopolitical zone of the country would be excluded from the bench of the Supreme Court hearing appeals against the presidential election.”The retired JSC also lamented the depletion in the bench of the apex court and joined others in the call for urgent additions.He pointed out: “To ensure justice and transparency in presidential appeals from the lower court, all geopolitical 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. This is not what our laws envisaged.”
Speaking further, Dattijo noted that with the passing away of Justice Chima Centus Nweze on July 29, 2023, “the South-east no longer has any presence at the Supreme Court,” adding that neither has there been any appointment to fill the vacuum created by the death of Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, on July 7, 2021.While observing that no one had expected the sudden death of Justice Nweze, the newly retired justice lamented: “it has been two years and seven months since the previous justice from the South-east died and no appointment was made.”
Besides the South-east, Dattijo also stated that with his retirement yesterday, the North-central will also now suffer the same fate as that of the South-east, “since no replacement was made for the region two years ago following the retirement of Justice Ejembi Eko and Justice Sidi Bage, some years ago.”He adds: Also, it was clear ab-initio that I will be leaving the court this day on attaining the statutory age of 70. It is then not in doubt that there has been sufficient time for suitable replacements to have been appointed. This is yet to occur.”While observing that as at yesterday, only four geopolitical zones – the South-west, South-south, North-west and North-east are represented in the Supreme Court with the South-west and North-west fully represented, Dattijo queried why appropriate steps have not been timeously taken to fill outstanding vacancies in the apex court.
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 Chief Justice of Nigeria and the responsible exercise of the same,” he said.Besides, he described as “unjust and embarrassing” a situation where the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court earns more than the justices, stating that the Chief Registrar “earns N1.2 million per month,” while justices “take home N751,000 in a month.”The retired JSC said, “That the unjust and embarrassing salary difference between the justices and the Chief Registrar still abides remains intriguing, to say the least. Valedictory session after valedictory session lapses and challenges that should be nipped are restated to no avail. Why the silence and seeming contentment?”Worries about ‘Absolute Powers’ of CJNJustice Dattijo, who was the second most senior Justice on the bench of the apex court, also called for the reduction of the powers of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola to prevent abuse of office.Dattijo who noted that his journey was calm and fulfilling until about half way through the Supreme Court years when the punctuating turbulent cracks made it awry and askew, pointed out that the power conferred on the CJN is too much for one person.“As presently structured the CJN is Chairman of the National Judicial Council NJC which oversees both the appointment and discipline of judges, he is equally Chair of the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), the National Judicial Institute (NJI) the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) that appoints Senior Advocates of Nigeria.
In my considered opinion 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. As Chair of NJC, FJSC, NJI and LPPC, appointments as council, board and committee members are at his pleasure. He neither confers with fellow justices nor seeks their counsel or input on any matter related to these bodies.“He has both the final and the only say. The CJN has power to appoint 80 percent of members of the council and 60 percnt 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.
By the provision of Paragraph 20 of Part One of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended, the NJC shall comprise the following members: the Chief Justice of Nigeria, who shall be the Chairman; the next most senior Justice of the Supreme Court who shall be the Deputy Chairman.“Regrettably, the next most senior justice of the Supreme Court like Deputy Governors of State, shorn of any official function except at the pleasure of the Governor, is neither consulted on anything nor does he have any official function. His job as No. 2 is purely as the CJN pleases.“It is incumbent that the system provides for more inclusion and consultation among the stakeholders.Justice Olukayode AriwoolaJustice Ariwoola, in his speech described as the lowest in history, the current situation where only 10 justices are on the bench of the Supreme Court.The bench of the apex court has continued to witness steady depletion in the last two years owing to retirement and death.Only a few weeks back Justice Amina Augie had retired upon reaching 70 years and yesterday, Dattijo joined the league of retired justices of the apex court.Before his retirement, there were 11 justices, however, the bench now has 10, who will sit on the numerous appeals emanating from the lower courts, especially political cases that are time bound.
Notwithstanding, Ariwoola has assured that efforts are on top gear to elevate a sizeable number of justices to the bench of the apex court.“With Justices Musa Dattijo leaving us today after the retirement of Hon. Justice Adamu Amina Augie a few weeks ago, we are now left with just 10 Justices on the Supreme Court Bench; being the lowest we have ever had in 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,” said the CJN.He paid glowing tributes to the retired justice saying, “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 Hon. 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.”