For his courage, exceptional literary writing style with unimaginable depth and breath of reasoning; for his thoroughness and forthrightness at the upper bench, thereby symbolising judicial excellence; and for his decades of selfless service to the nation and immeasurable contributions to the judiciary, government and people of Nigeria, Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais, GCON, is the Bar and Bench Watch Icon for the week
Born in Zaria on June 12, 1936 to the family of Mallam Abdullahi Uwaisu and Hajiya Hajara Uwaisu, the young Uwais began his primary education at the Native Authority Elementary School, Kaduna and later at Tudun Wada Elementary School where he had the likes of the late Alhaji Rilwan Lukman, a former Minister of Petroleum as classmates.
He was in 1950 admitted to Zaria Middle School. He spent just two years there before he proceeded in 1952 to Barewa College, where he was a classmate and housemate of the late General Murtala Muhammed, a former Head of State.
While at Barewa College, Zaria, he used to secure vacation jobs with establishments such as Paterson Zochonis Ltd (PZ), the Veterinary Department of Zaria Native Authority and the United African Company Ltd (UAC).
The salaries he earned from those establishments made him to be one of the “big boys” in his class in those days.
It was during his years at the college that he developed interest in reading Law as he was inspired by the law practice activities of such lawyers like the late Mr Noel Grey , who then lived and practised in Kano, Mr Beckley ,who later became a judge of Lagos State High Court, the late Mr Sawyer ,who then lived and practised in Lokoja as well as Alhaji A.G.F. Razak (SAN) who was the first indigenous lawyer from the Northern Nigeria.
When he completed his secondary education in 1957, he applied for the Northern Nigeria Government Scholarship to study Law in U.K. He was invited in 1958 for the interview but the invitation got to him late and he missed it. As a result of this, he resigned his appointment as Accounts Clerk with the Nigerian Tobacco Company to join the civil service as Publicity Assistant in the Ministry of Information, Kaduna in 1959.
His experience in the said Ministry later assisted him greatly when he served as the Editor of Law Reports of Northern States of Nigeria between 1974 and 1978.
Justice Uwais later attended the Institute of Administration, Ahmadu Bello University from where along with other of his colleagues left for England where they were called to the English Bar and thereafter enrolled at Nigerian Bar on 17th January, 1964.
Some of his colleagues who studied in England with him were Hon. Justice Mustapha Akanbi, a former President of the Court of Appeal, late Hon. Justice Shehu Usman Mohammed, a former Justice of the Supreme Court, late Justice Umaru Maidamma, a former Justice of the Court of Appeal, late Hon. Justice Anthony Aina Ekundayo, a Judge of Kwara State High Court and late Justice Adamu Minjibir, a Judge of Kano State High Court.
He was later posted to the Ministry of Justice of the Northern Nigeria as a Pupil State Counsel from where he rose through the rank to eventually become the Solicitor –General and Permanent Secretary of the North-Central.
His lordship was elevated to the Bench as Acting Judge of the High Courts of North Central, Benue –Plateau and North Eastern States of Nigeria in 1973 and he became substantive Judge the following year.
He later acted briefly as the Chief Judge of Kaduna State in 1976 and on 1st January 1977 was elevated to the Federal Court of Appeal along with others including Hon. Justice Mustapha Akanbi who eventually retired as the President of that court.
Hon. Justice Uwais was at the Court of Appeal till August 1979 when he was elevated to the Supreme Court together with Hon. Justice Augustine Nnamani of blessed memory.
Hon. Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais sat on the Supreme Court Bench for 27 years out of which he presided over the court as the Chief Justice of Nigeria for 11 years.
As at today, no justice of that court has spent close to three decades on that apex court bench in Nigeria.
He was the first Chief Justice of Nigeria to retire at the age of 70.
During his stay in the court he served under 5 Chief Justices of Nigeria (CJN) who were: Hon. Justice Darnley Alexander, Hon. Justice Atanda Fatayi –Williams, Hon Justice George Sodeinde Sowemimo, Hon. Justice Ayo Gabriel Irikefe and Hon. Justice Mohammed Bello, all now of blessed memories.
Before retiring from the Supreme Court Bench, Justice Uwais worked with not less than 54 Justices of the court.
On June 12, 2006 when he was retiring as justice of the Supreme Court for clocking the mandatory retirement age of 70 years, fiery Lagos lawyer and indefatigable human rights activist, late Gani Fawehinmi (SAN) of blessed memory known for saying things the way they were described Uwais thus: “Justice Uwais, CJN conducts himself with decorum when he is presiding in the Supreme Court. He exudes the lustre and aura of the mastery of proceeding and has complete control of the court.
“Though firm, he does not intimidate counsel however young at the Bar. He gives respect to every counsel and patiently allows each one to present his or her argument without inhibition, browbeating or intimidation.
“The National Judicial Council under his leadership has been effective in fighting corruption on the Bench. In conclusion, no other Chief Justice of Nigeria had achieved these feats.”
After retiring from the Supreme Court, Uwais chaired a panel on electoral reform that submitted a report on 11 December 2008 with recommendations that included establishing commissions to deal with Electoral Offences, Constituency Delimitation and Political Parties Registration and Regulation.
Some of the powers vested in the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the State Independent Electoral Commissions would be transferred to the new commissions.
The committee recommended proportional representation in elections to the Federal and State legislatures and to the local government councils. The report also recommended that the head of the Independent National Electoral Commission should be appointed by the judiciary rather than the President. This recommendation was rejected by President Umaru Yar’Adua.
Yar’Adua forwarded a modified version of the Uwais report to the legislature in 2009, drawing considerable criticism since many felt that recent elections had been deeply flawed and that basic reforms were required.
In March 2010, Acting President Goodluck Jonathan forwarded an unedited version of the report to the National Assembly for approval, by implication saying that the recommendations should be implemented in their entirety before the 2011 national elections.
The issue of power to appoint the INEC head remained controversial. Before Jonathan had resubmitted the report, the Senate Committee on the Review of the Constitution had rejected the recommendation to transfer this power to the judiciary.
After the resubmission, deputy chief whip of the Senate, Mohammed Mana, argued that letting judiciary appoint the INEC chairman violated the principle of separation of powers, since the judiciary was responsible for hearing the cases arising from elections.