With less than a week left for the incumbent Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed to retire, the time to appoint a successor is fast running out for President Muhammadu Buhari.
Investigations by THISDAY have also revealed that the president may have queried two of his ministers – Rotimi Amaechi and Ogbonnaya Onu – over allegations that they tried to influence the outcome of Supreme Court rulings on the election appeals for Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Abia, Ebonyi and Ekiti States.
Justice Mohammed will retire on November 10when he will turn 70, the mandatory retirement age for justices of the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.
By virtue of Section 231 of the 1999 Constitution, it is the prerogative of the president to appoint a CJN.
Section 231(1) explicitly provides: “The appointment of a person to the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC), subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.”
At its emergency meeting held on October 11, 2016, the NJC had recommended Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen for consideration as CJN.
If his name is submitted and he is confirmed by the Senate, Onnoghen will be the first person from the southern section of the country to occupy the post in almost three decades. Justice Ayo Irikife was the last southerner to occupy the post of the CJN between 1985 and 1987.
However, with less than a week to the retirement of Justice Mohammed, the president is yet to forward the name of his nominee to the Senate for clearance. This can still be done within the next few days, however.
Going by convention, the most senior justice has always been appointed CJN. In this regard, Justice Onnoghen is favoured to emerge as the next CJN.
However, in law, the president is not bound to accept his nomination. He also cannot bypass the council in making the appointment.
If for any reason, the president does not want to appoint the recommended justice, he is at liberty to ask the NJC to recommend to him another suitable candidate for the office.
A source at the Senate told THISDAY that the Senate president was yet to receive any letter from the president regarding the appointment of a new CJN.
Section 230(4) of the Constitution is also instructive. It provides that “if the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria is vacant or if the person holding the office is for any reason unable to perform the functions of the office, then until a person has been appointed to and has assumed the functions of that office, or until the person holding the office has resumed those functions, the president shall appoint the most senior justice of the Supreme Court to perform those functions”.
Investigations have also reveal that Buhari may have queried two of his ministers over the allegations that they approached Supreme Court justices to influence the court to deliver favourable judgments for the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the election appeals from Rivers, Abia, Ebonyi, Ekiti and Akwa Ibom States.
Presidency sources revealed that during the CJN’s meeting with Buhari last month on the arrest of seven judges by the Department of State Security (DSS), Justice Mohammed reportedly orally informed the president of the attempt to induce the judges.
He told Buhari that his ministers, among others, alleged that they were acting on the instruction of the president.
Justices Inyang Okoro and Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court were two of the seven justices who were arrested by the DSS. However, after they were granted bail, the two Supreme Court judges, in separate letters to the CJN, blamed their arrests on their refusal to yield to demands by Amaechi, Onu and other APC chieftains to give favourable judgments to the governorship candidates of the ruling party in the five states.
Following the revelation, Buhari was reported to have informed Justice Mohammed that he had nothing to do with the allegations, but asked the CJN to put it in writing.
On receiving the CJN’s letter against his ministers, Buhari, a source confirmed, queried Amaechi and Onu to respond to the weighty allegations.
The president’s position was in line with a statement issued by the presidency on October 30, when it advised journalists and other Nigerians to stop linking Buhari to the legal travails of the arrested judges in the country.
A statement by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, had said Buhari would be the last person to authorise anybody to induce a judge to pervert the course of justice.
However, the CJN’s decision to report the affected ministers to the president has not gone down well with them, as they are now hell bent on extracting their pound of flesh from the judiciary and the Supreme Court for daring to report them to their boss.
It was learnt that the desire to exact revenge informed the filing of the charges against the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court Gambo Saleh by the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice.
Owing to the strained relationship between the executive and the judiciary, the AGF has in recent times boycotted events organised by the Supreme Court.
One of such events was the valedictory session held in honour of a retired Supreme Court justice, Sueliman Galadima. It has always been the tradition of the AGF to attend and deliver a speech on such occasions. But the AGF did not attend and neither did he send a representative.
Meanwhile, the Special Adviser, Media and Publicity to the president, Mr. Femi Adesina, has offered reasons why members of the ruling APC and those in the president’s cabinet have not been prosecuted for corruption.
The presidential spokesman, who spoke on a radio programme, Sweet F.M’s Podium in Abeokuta, further maintained that the federal government’s anti-corruption fight was not selective.
According to him, the APC chieftains and appointees were not being prosecuted because no evidence had been put forward indicting them of being involved in corrupt practices.
“The onus lies on he who alleges to also prove (the allegation),” he said.
“The fact that any PDP member crosses to APC does not provide automatic shield. Whoever is indicted will be prosecuted,” he added.
On the arrest of the judges, Adesina said the raid on judges was only a raid on corruption and not the judiciary.
“Mr. President has said it all. No one is out to intimidate the judiciary. The DSS raid was a raid on corruption, not the judiciary,” he said.