By Aare Afe Babalola, SAN, CON
Since the Immediate Past Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Hon. Justice Mahmoud Muhammad, retired gracefully from the pinnacle of Nigeria’s Judiciary in November last year, the issue of who steps into his big judicial shoes has been generating some heat. To borrow the lingo of the politicians, the appointment of the next CJN has been heating up the (judicial) polity. But why this brouhaha, why the melee?
From time immemorial, the Law profession has been jealously regarded as a noble and honorable profession with its beauty lying among other things in the fact that they are regarded as learned. Judges were respected by Lawyers and the people generally. Judges were seen as the replica of God on earth. No wonder Ray Ekpu, a frontline Nigerian Journalist and one of the top Executives of the rested Newswatch Magazine once said among other things that: “…indeed the seat of a judge is the throne of God.”
It was these among other factors that fascinated, attracted and persuaded me to study Law. After I obtained my First Degree in Economics through Private Studies from the University of London in 1959, I had some juicy and mouth-watering offers from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and Mobil and some other reputable organizations then, but I turned them all down despite the accompanying perks and proceeded to read for my LL.B, also by private study.
After my LL. B, I had to proceed to England for my Bar Examinations because there was no Law School in Nigeria then. It was when I was in England that I had further insight into why the Legal profession enjoyed so much respect among members of the society. The dinners in the Inns of Courts with topmost Judges, Law lecturers and Queen’s Counsel had the effect of training the minds of news inductees and bringing them into contact with the convention and tradition of best practices in the age-long profession.
To drive the point home, it was part of the tradition that each of the new inductee’s family names, their precedents, occupations and their general history were inscribed on their certificates to admit them into the Bar.
When I came back in 1963, there were Judges and Lawyers from Europe, West African countries and West Indies around. I met the high standard of practice and decorum that were the hallmark of legal practice in Europe on ground. The respect among Lawyers and particularly for the Judges was palpably deep and genuine.
But today, many extraneous factors have crept into the appointment of judges so much so that people working in public limited liability companies have been appointed judges to satisfy geographical spread. Mind you, these are people who have not been to court before, who have never practiced and yet they are being appointed judges only to satisfy some interest alien to the administration of justice. Pray, what sort of judgments do we have with this type of sloppy appointment to the Bench? And in some instances, State Governors want to have a hand in the appointment of Judges.
It is on record that appointment of Judges in those days was by invitation to practising Lawyers who have demonstrated integrity, learning and decorum of someone deserving of being invited to the Bench, but all that seemed to have changed.
Appointment of Chief Justices of Nigeria:
From time to time, appointments to the Supreme Court Bench were from the Bar, the High Court Bench and the Court of Appeal. Furthermore, the appointment of the CJN in the last 21 years for example, has been from the Bench. The table below will engender a proper understanding Chief Justices of Nigeria are appointed.
Past Chief Justices of Nigeria, present, pre-apponitment postion, judicial experience and nationality
1 Sir Stafford Sutton 1956-1958 President, WACA 5 B
2 Adetokunbo Ademola 1958–1972 High Crt Judge 9 N
3 Taslim Olawale Elias Ph. D (57 yrs old) 1972–1975 Fed. A.G. — N
8 Darnley Arthur Alexander (55 yrs old) 1975–1979 C.J. High Court 11 B
9 Atanda Fatai Williams 51 yrs 1979–1983 Appeal Judge, Western State 9 N
10 George Sodeinde Sowemimo 51 yrs 1972–1985 C.J; High Court — N
11 Ayo Gabriel Irikefe (50 yrs old) 1972–1987 Judge, High court 6 N
12 Mohammed Bello (45 yrs old) 1987–1995 C.J., High Court 14 N
13 Muhammad Lawal Uwais (43 yrs old) 1995–2006 Justice, C.A. — N
14 Salihu Moddibo Alfa Belgore (49 yrs old) 2006–2007 Justice, C.A. — NIlorin, Kwara State
15 Idris Legbo Kutigi (52 yrs old) 2007–2009 Justice, C.A. —- NNiger State
16 Aloysius Iyorgyer Katsina-Alu (57 yrs old) 2009–2011 Justice, C.A. —- NBenue State
17 Dahiru Musdapher (60 yrs old) 2011–2012 JCA 24 N
18 Aloma Mariam Mukhtar (61 yrs old) 2012–2014 JCA 28 NAdamawa State
19 Mahmud Mohammed (58 yrs Old) 2014–2016 JCA 20 NJalingo, Taraba State
20 Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen 2016 (Acting) JCA — NCross River.
From the above table, it could be gleaned that since the appointment of Hon. Justice Muhammad Lawal Uwais in 1995 as the Chief Justice of Nigeria, all CJNs have been products of the Court of Appeal.
And so the foggy and foreboding cloud surrounding the appointment of the next CJN after Hon. Justice Muhammad as a result of which unnecessary interferences have crept in is a development that should not have arisen in the first instance. The precedence of appointing the most senior Jurist on the Supreme Court Bench as the CJN should not be dispensed with as any departure from that time-tested practice is bound to rock the boat and we will all be worse for it.
The appointment of the most senior Justice as the CJN having become a norm and institutionalized has continually fanned the embers of stability and autonomy of the Supreme Court. While the Court of Appeal has become an ever-flowing recruitment fountain for the Supreme Court, the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria has become the entitlement of the most senior Justice.
This should remain so. The case of Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen cannot be different. If this time-honoured practice since 1995 has been followed, the current acrimony about the appointment of the next CJN would have been avoided. Fortunately, the Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, has forwarded Hon. Justice Onnoghen to the Senate for confirmation as the arrow head of Nigeria’s Judiciary. Hopefully, the Senate will do justice to the matter with dispatch and lay the matter to rest finally.