…Laments CJN’s ‘Absolute’ Powers
…Urges Overhaul of Judiciary in Retirement Address
…Why Does Chief Registrar Earn More Than Justices? – Justice Muhammad Queries Salary Disparity
A retiring Justice of the Supreme Court, Dattijo Muhammad, in a brutal criticism of the “absolute powers” of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), on Friday, faulted the composition of the panel that gave the judgements that affirmed President Bola Tinubu’s election victory on Thursday.
Mr Muhammad, who clocked the mandatory retirement age of 70 on Friday, spoke at a 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 judgements 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 against the election of President Tinubu, Mr Muhammad said all the six geopolitical zones in the country ought to be represented.
On Thursday, the seven-member panel led by Inyang Okoro, who hails from Akwa Ibom State in the South-south zone, ruled that Atiku’s and Mr Obi’s appeals lacked merit before affirming Mr Tinubu’s election.
Of the six regions in the country, only South-south, North-west and the North-east were represented on the panel of six members.
To worsen the case for South-east and North-central, with the retirement of Mr 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 Supreme Court.
He blamed the tardiness in ensuring the two regions had representatives on the Supreme Court bench on the CJN. He said it was deliberate and it “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.
Mr Muhammad’s broadside is the latest from a retiring justice of the Supreme Court aiming at a sitting CJN and different aspects of Nigeria’s judiciary’s opaque and inefficient system.
Recall how 14 Justices of the Supreme Court, in June 2022, expressed their displeasure to the then CJN, Tanko Muhammad, concerning the parlous state of affairs at the apex court.
The protesting judges had accused the former CJN of highhandedness and abuse of office.
Mr 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 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,” Mr Eko said at his valedictory court session, calling on anti-graft agencies to probe the financial records of the judiciary.
In his tirades, Mr Muhammad recalled his nearly five-decade judicial career, rising to the top as the second most senior justice of the Supreme Court before bowing out on Friday.
He said 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 jurist noted that “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.
Mr 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 LPP.
“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.
Drawing on his wealth of experience as a judge, Mr Muhammad faulted the absence of Nigeria’s South-east region from the Supreme Court bench.
He blamed the situation on “the absolute powers vested in the office of the CJN.
With Mr Muhammad’s exit, the North-central region joins the South-east in not having a representative on the Supreme Court bench.
Mr Muhammad chronicled the depletion of the Supreme Court bench either by retirement or death of justices from the Northcentral and Southeast zones.
“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 CJ.
“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 gorged.