Dissecting Chief Justice Tanko’s resignation, logic and expectations

Justice Tanko Muhammad


In this report, ISE-OLUWA IGE examines available facts on why the 16th Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad suddenly resigned his coveted office, the logic behind the pregnant decision and the expectations of stakeholders on the handling of the unprecedented crisis that rocked the Supreme Court in the last few months and what his successor must do to return the apex bench to its lofty position in the judicature.

About the noon of June 27, 2022, news broke that the number one judicial officer in the country and 16th Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad had resigned his office.

He had cited health as sole ground.

The news, indeed, came as a surprise to many stakeholders including top lawyers, politicians and technocrats.

Although, studies have shown that from age 50, there is indeed the tendency to lose muscle at a faster rate, physical strength getting weaker, while one is more vulnerable to some health challenges, many still doubted if ill-health was the principal ground for his decision.

 CJN’s resignation

Indeed, top sources in the judiciary had however told Vanguard  hours after his resignation that the Chief Justice himself (as he then was) did not plan to throw in the towel, the reason his family members and support staff were themselves confused when the news broke, calling others in the corridors of power to confirm if it was not another fake news in town.

It would be recalled that Vanguard had less than two weeks ago broke the news that 14 justices of the Supreme Court had planned to confront the Chief Justice  Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed over his style of administration which they claimed had no regard for their welfare. As reported, they eventually did!

The development was however the climax of a simmering crisis that has been on since last year, and their Lordships, after being pushed to the wall with no solution in sight, decided to write a formal memo to the CJN. All the allegations soon found their way to the media.

In the internal memo jointly signed by the 14 justices of the court, they complained of non-replacement of poor vehicles; accommodation problems; lack of drugs at the Supreme Court clinic; epileptic electricity supply to the Supreme Court premises; increase in electricity tariff; no increase in the allowances for diesel; lack of Internet services to residences and chambers and poor take-home pay that could no longer take them half way.

The memo which read in part said: “At the meeting, Your Lordship agreed that welfare committee be constituted to compile and forward our demands. On March 24, 2022, the welfare committee submitted to Your Lordship request for review of electricity allowance because of the increase in electricity tariff nationwide.

“The welfare Committee also submitted our request for diesel allowance, because of the epileptic electricity supply, the astronomical hike in the price of diesel and the fact that justices require electricity to work at home. The Committee also requested for the restoration of our monthly Internet allowance, because we require uninterrupted Internet service in order to have access to materials online to write our judgments. Your Lordship received and ignored these demands since March 24, 2022.

“At the Justices meeting, we intimated your Lordship that some Justices sworn on November 6, 2020, were yet to be accommodated by the court. Your Lordship promised to take up the issue that day. To date, Your Lordship has not taken any step in this direction.

“With regard to Justice’s vehicles, several are due for replacement, while the new Justices have not received their full complement of vehicles to date. Moreover, some of the vehicles supplied to the Justices are either refurbished or substandard. Your Lordship has not taken steps to address this problem.

“The state of health care in the court has deteriorated; the Supreme Court clinic has become a mere consulting clinic. Drugs are not available to treat minor ailments. There is general lack of concern for Justices who require immediate or emergency medical intervention.

“Your Lordship has not addressed the issue of our rules court. The Rules of Court are the immediate tools employed by Justices to dispense justice to court users.

“Your Lordship has kept the amended Rules of Court for almost three years now, awaiting your signature. We strongly believe the new rules will aid speedy dispensation of Justice.

“Recently, the Chief Registrar served justices with an internal memo, that electricity would be supplied to the court between the hours of 8am and 4pm daily, for lack of diesel. The implication of this memo is that the justices must finish their work and close before 4pm.

“ Your Lordship with all due respect, this is the peak of the degeneration of the Court; it is the height of decadence, and clear evidence of the absence of probity and moral rectitude. Your Lordship, this act alone portends imminent danger to the survival of this Court and the Judiciary as an institution, which is gradually drifting to extinction. The Judiciary is an arm of Government.

“The Supreme Court of Nigeria, just like the Presidential Villa and the National Assembly, is the seat of the Judiciary as an arm of government. The implication of the memo is that this arm of Government is potentially shut down. May God never allow that day.

“Your Lordship, this is a wakeup call. Your Lordship must take full responsibility as our leader. You must not concession your responsibility to people who have no responsibility or stake in preserving and defending the dignity of the Institution. Your Lordship occupies a position of leadership. We will not wait for the total collapse of the institution.

“We must not abandon our responsibility to call Your lordship to order in the face of these sad developments that threaten our survival as an institution. We have done our utmost best to send a wakeup call to Your Lordship. A stitch in time saves nine.

“Finally, Your Lordship the choice is now yours. It is either you quickly and swiftly take responsibility and address these burning issues or we will be compelled to take further steps immediately. May this day never come.”

Justice Tanko replies brother justices

Many Nigerians, to say the least, were scandalized when the memo hit the social media. They could not believe that the nation’s temple of Justice could be tainted with allegations of mal-administration with a tinge of corruption allegations.

However, the nation was not kept in suspense for long as the CJN, through his media aide, Ahuraka Yusuf Isah, gave a detailed response to the memo from the Justices which social and conventional media feasted upon for days.

The CJN said he had managed the resources at the disposal of the apex court judiciously and that there was nothing to hide.

The statement read in part: “The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammad would wish to confirm receipt of a letter written and addressed to him by his brother Justices of the Supreme Court Bench. Judges in all climes are to be seen and not heard, and that informed why the CJN refrained from joining issues until a letter, said to be personal, is spreading across the length and breadth of the society. This was akin to dancing naked at the market square by us with the ripple effect of the said letter.

“The Supreme Court definitely does not exist outside its environment – it is also affected by the economic and socio-political climate prevailing in the country.

Besides that, the apex court has, to a larger extent, been living up to its constitutional responsibility. When a budget is made, it contains two sides, that’s the recurrent and the capital, yet the two are broken down into items.

The Federal Government releases the budget based on the budget components. And it’s an offence to spend the money meant for one item for another.

“The accusation so far, in summary, is that more or all ought to have been done and not that nothing has been done; which is utopian in the contemporary condition of our country.

“Before eight new Justices were appointed in 2020 onto the apex court bench, there was no additional budget to provide new chambers with equipped library, legal assistance, residential accommodations, and logistics for them.

“The Apex Court has to make do with the resources at its disposal to meet their needs over time. All the Justices of this Court have at least a legal assistant, except some may opt for more.

Justice Tanko’s explanation fuels S’Court justices’ anger

The response from the CJN which was meant to douse the tension at the apex bench appeared to have heightened the conflagration as he accused them of leaking the memorandum to the public thereby decided to dance naked in the market square instead of massaging their egos.

Although he held a couple of meetings with his brother justices after the memo, the situation appeared worse while stakeholders including the Body of Benchers and Senate Committee on Judiciary intervened by setting up separate panels to probe the allegations and redolve the matter once and for all.

Logic of Justice Tanko’s resignation

The embattled Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko who was said to be battling some health challenges was no doubt rattled by the altercations between him and his brother justices.

He had thought that the matter would be handled internally but the leakage of the memorandum to the media festered the crisis.

According to a top lawyer, Mr Abiodun Jelili Owonikoko, “For that high office, events of the last few months will unsettle anybody that has integrity regardless of what might have actually happened. So, he has, by throwing the towel at this time, in a way, rescued the total image of that institution (the Supreme Court).

“It shows that for people of honour, whenever their integrity is challenged or questioned, they will do what is right and put the institution above their personal interest. I hope other public officers of high standing like the CJN in other arms of government when the occasion calls for it, will have the respect for due process and institutional integrity.

“ There is no doubt that what has happened is not tidy which got to a point that all justices put the weight of their collective displeasure across to the head of the court. Hopefully, whoever is coming either as substantive or in acting capacity would have learnt one or two lessons especially all of them who collectively cried out for a change,” he added.

Besides, the memorandum having leaked, has become a subject of probe by the National Judicial Council (NJC) headed by him.  

Vanguard reports that a couple of former justices of the Supreme Court including Justice Muhammad Lawal Uwais, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu and Justice Nkanu Onnoghen including himself (Tanko J.) as Acting Chief Justice had appeared before the Council at separate times and the outcomes were disastrous for the Supreme Court institution.

It was clear that there was sense in his decision because delaying the step he took would definitely have further damaged his integrity and the institution he represents.

There were also indications that the Presidency was interested in changing the leadership of the judiciary as it did in 2019 ahead of the general election for the purpose of being in firm control of situation.

Top sources at the Presidency told Vanguard that Justice Tanko was forced to sign the already prepared resignation letter honourably with a promise to be conferred with the second highest national honour or be given Justice Onnoghen treatment. The Chief Justice of Nigeria as he then was had no option under the circumstance other than to append his signature to the document and bid the judiciary bye.

The moments he tendered the letter, President Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), unlike his style, did not waste time to swear in the next most senior justice, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, as the acting CJN at the Council Chambers of the State House, Abuja.

Stakeholders’ expectations on the handling of the S’Court crisis

However, notwithstanding the fact that Justice Tanko caught many unaware with his resignation on the ground of ill health, only few had sympathy for him while others felt that he must not be allowed to rest peacefully until he has accounted for all the budgets he supervised their implementation as the chief accounting officer of the court.

Specifically, Senior Advocates of Nigeria, lawyers, civil right groups and some branches of the Nigerian Bar Association began to call for the probe of the erstwhile Chief Justice of Nigeria, Ibrahim Muhammad.

For instance, a respected silk, Rasheed Adegoke, SAN, advised that the former CJN should be investigated to set the records straight.

“If we want to set things right, there’s nothing that says that he should not be probed. If there had been allegations of misdeeds under his administration, the essence of the probe is to ensure that the records are even clean so that people will know what actually transpired.

Another senior lawyer and son of a former Justice of the Supreme Court, Mr. Emmanuel Ogebe,  in a statement, accused the former CJN of doing only the bidding of President Muhammadu Buhari.

He urged the acting CJN, Justice Kayode Ariwoola to immediately appoint an Independent Counsel to investigate the Supreme Court’s finances pursuant to his powers under the ICPC Act.

Also, a Law scholar and consultant to the Supreme Court of Nigeria, Dr Ola Olatawura who commented hours before Justice Tanko resigned, said Justice Tanko had actually  turned the office of the CJN to personal fiefdoms, working with a cabal of corrupt bureaucrats and agents.

He said the allegations against the CJN by his brother justices were weighty and should not be swept under the carpet.

“There should be an investigation by a neutral and independent body. It is an opportunity for cleaning the Augean stable. The ICPC and Code of Conduct Bureau should lead as the investigation of the claims border on abuse of office, corruption, and misappropriation. Body if Benchers should keep off.

He said if the allegations against the CJN  were found to be false, all justices involved in the allegations should be retired for bringing the SCN to disrepute.

Olatawura said It was wrong for instance for Justice Tanko’s administration to have appointed Justices without ready and available accommodation.

“In fact this is an NJC condition for appointing state HIgh Court  judges. The situation creates avenues for corruption by SCN bureaucracy,” he said.

Having said that, I must say that “the complaints by the 14 justices are more the result of envy than a noble concern for probity and excellence in the court.

“Justices and judges are sufficiently remunerated and taken care of, although some things can still be added. Their condition is 10x better than justices of the 70s and 80s. However their standard of performance is well below par, particularly when compared to the old justices.

“Our SC case law is now replete with errors, low and muddled depth of jurisprudence, lack of scholarly analysis, and counter – productive decisions.

To improve the quality of judgments, and therefore justice, at least two measures should be taken:

a) Amicus Curia role and officers should be introduced and standardized in the Supreme Court. An Advocate General Office  should be set up to manage, consider, and participate in all public and constitutional law litigation.

b) Standards. of legal assistants employment should be reassesed. There should be evidence of a strong research capacity with a minimum number of publications spread across reputable journals in constitutional law, public law, business law and international law.

“Particularly with their large number now, we now need Deputy CJN 1 and 2 with powers and functions. They have refused to follow suggestions for modernisation. About 4 of them have clearly destroyed the legacies of the old  SCN to enrich their families, empower their sects, and repress new talents and visions.

An erudite Professor, Samson Erugo, SAN, also was of the view that the latest developments in the judiciary called for sober reflection, adding that an investigation into the situation was not out of place.

Also contributing, the Chairman of Council of Legal Education and member of the inner bar, Chief Emeka Ngige, SAN, described the CJN’s resignation as a welcome development even as he added that the Auditor-General of the Federation should discharge his responsibility.

The Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, Makurdi branch, Maimuna Ikwulono, said the allegations against the retired Justice should be investigated “so as to help administration of justice.”

 Also, the Chairman of the Ilaro branch of the NBA  in  Ogun State, Talabi Oluwantonwo, expressed shock at the speedy manner the executive accepted the resignation letter of the CJN without probing him on the allegation.

“They should probe him first before accepting his letter of resignation instead of giving him a national award.”

The Chairman, Centre for Anti-corruption and Open Leadership, Debo Adeniran, also stated that the former CJN should be probed.

“It is a good thing he honourably resigned and didn’t allow himself to be thrown out like Onnoghen but then, apart from the NJC, the Body of Bencher, the anti-graft agencies should do their separate jobs on him and at the end of the day, he should be given adequate punishment, if found guilty. This is necessary to serve as deterrent for others,” he submitted.

 Also, a former Secretary of the NBA, Asaba branch, AF Bridebra, joined others to demand for an investigation of the Supreme Court under Muhammad.

 “If there is any place we need transparency, it is the judiciary. The man (Muhammad) should be probed.

 “The man was rumoured to have been involved in corrupt activities, so he should be probed. Not only him but it should be extended to all Supreme Court judges and NBA.

 “The judiciary, as far as I’m concerned, is dying. Every state judge needs to be investigated; this is the beginning of the End-SARS revolution in the judiciary.”

 The Chairman of the NBA Section on Public Interest and Development Law, Dr Monday Ubani, said, “Resignation does not stop investigation, if they so desire. One is that there must be the desire to look at the allegations raised by his colleagues, especially on issues of mismanagement of resources.

Meanwhile, the NBA Chairman, Port Harcourt branch, Prince Nyekwere,  said the allegations of corruption levelled against the retired CJN remain to be proved.

In her reaction, the Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, Mrs Idayat Hassan, said the centre would go beyond calling for just probes.

The Convener, Human Right Writers Association of Nigeria, Emmanuel Onwubiko, noted that no Nigerian should be above the law and hence, the allegations against the former CJN should not be swept under the carpet.

A former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr OCJ Okocha (SAN) In a telephone chat,  said Justice Tanko’s resignation was very surprising to him.

“However, my take is that those allegations against him are very weighty and the NJC will look into it. This kind of thing (allegations by the 14 Justices) has never happened in the entire years of my practice as a lawyer since 1978, over 46 years ago. I think they are weighty allegations that should be investigated using the due process of the machinery put in place by the Constitution. That is to say the NJC. That is the only body that is empowered by the Constitution to look into any allegation of financial mismanagement as you said or as we have heard; misconduct as alleged against the CJN as he then was.

“The allegations are still there. They have to be investigated so that we can move forward. The allegations can’t just stand in the air,” he added.

In an opinion article by a former presidential spokesperson, Reuben Abati, he said “Justice Ariwoola who has now taken over the mantle of leadership at the Supreme Court has his job cut out for him. The first thing is to rebuild morale within the judiciary, starting from the apex court. The second is to dispel the clouds left behind by his predecessor with regard to funds management and welfare. The third is to do everything to raise the profile and integrity of the judiciary. He has the lessons of history behind him, and the experience of his two immediate predecessors and their circumstances.

The President of Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Olumide Akpata, in a statement also  welcomed the appointment of Justice Ariwoola and pledged its readiness to work together with His Lordship and the judiciary in cleansing the Augean Stable and addressing the ills that have continued to plague not just the judiciary but the entire legal profession.

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