‘Why new S’Court justices cant resume now’


By Ise-Oluwa Ige

In this report, Ise-Oluwa Ige digs out the reasons behind the delay in the inauguration of 11 new justices of the Supreme Court almost two full months after the Nigerian Senate had confirmed their appointment


On December 21, 2023, the Nigerian Senate approved a list of 11 new justices for the Supreme Court of Nigeria (SCN).

The senators had cleared the justices at the plenary through a voice vote after the Chairman of the Committee on Judiciary, Mohammed Monguno (APC, Borno), reported that his committee received the curriculum vitae of the nominees, invited them for screening and found that they demonstrated inspiring competence required for the performance of their assignment.

Monguno also noted that the nomination and appointment satisfied the constitutional provision of section 231 (3) of the 19theConstitution which states that an individual needs 15 years experience in the bar to be qualified for appointment into the Supreme Court bench.

He said there were no petitions or criminal records against any of the nominees and that the committee members were satisfied with the nomination of the justices and, therefore, recommended their confirmation.

The list of the justices itself was sent to the upper chamber of the National Assembly by President Ahmed Bola Tinubu following recommendation of the candidates by the National Judicial Council (NJC) from the shortlist received from the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) for the top job.

On the recommended list were Haruna Tsammani  representing the North East; Moore Adumein (South South); Jummai Sankey (North Central); Chidiebere Uwa (South East); Chioma Nwosu-Iheme (South East) and Obande Ogbuinya (South East).

Others were Justices Stephen Jona Adah (North Central); Habeeb Abiru (South West); Jamilu Tukur (North West); Abubakar Umar (North West); Abubakar Umar (North West) and Mohammed Idris (North Central).

Section 231 (2) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria spells out the process of appointing justices for the SCN.

The section provides: “The appointment of a person to the office of a Justice of the Supreme Court shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC) subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.

By implication, both the executive and the legislature play distinct roles in appointing justices for the apex bench.

The appointment process into the Supreme Court bench would be inchoate until the two other arms of government have fully played their roles as spelt out in the constitution.

But almost two months after the justices were cleared by the senate and more than two years when the Supreme Court has been itching to get more competent hands to fill vacant seats in the court, the 11 new justices are yet to be inaugurated.

The Supreme Court has kept mum on the issue ditto for the Presidency in spite the alarm raised by a retiring justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Musa Dattijo Muhammad on October 27, 2023, in Abuja that with his exit, the number of justices serving on the apex court had dropped to 10, its lowest in the contemporary history of the court.

The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola had himself consistently lamented that  the apex court has been battling with workload crisis arising from manpower shortage, explaining that the situation gets worse for the third arm of government because in every little disagreement, Nigerians rushed to court and in every lost case, they rushed to appeal even up to the Supreme Court, no matter how little the issue might be.

He had said that alone had obviously accounted for the several appeals pending in Supreme Court, adding that though the court received scathing criticisms from members of the public over its over-bloated docket, yet the institution is neither in any position to regulate case inflow to the court nor has the supernatural powers to attend to all in one-fell-swoop.

What is delaying the inauguration of the 11 new justices?

Vanguard’s Law & Human Rights’ launched an investigation into the cause of the dalay and found out that the 11 new justices are yet to be inaugurated simply because the Supreme Court was having challenge providing them required working tools.

According to an impeccable source at the Supreme Court who spoke with Vanguard on condition of anonymity, the justices’ inauguration was deliberately delayed.

His words: “You were aware some justices of the Supreme Court were sworn in on November 6, 2020. As tradition demanded, they were supposed to be given three assorted brand new cars each: A Mercedes Benz, a Land Cruiser and one utility vehicle.

“But at that time, the justices of the Supreme Court were given only a Land Cruiser which some critics said were refurbished. A Hilux was added after one year while the Mercedez Benz was late in coming. Because of the breach of that tradition, the hell was later let loose.

“We want to avoid such unnecessary bad image for the Supreme Court this time around. What is sure is that the justices have been appointed already. The Senate has given approval. That approval cant be withdrawn.

“All that is left now is for necessary working tools to be provided. We do not want to inaugurate them without providing the necessary things that may attract bad press for the institution,” the source added.

The source also told Vanguard that apart from the issue of cars, accommodation was another.

“You will agree with me that the issue of accommodation for serving justices of the Supreme Court has been a recurring challenge.

“This is the first time we are having a full complement of 21 justices. They cant live in the air. They must be made comfortable. The Supreme Court will have to acquire apartments for them.

“I can confirm to you that the Supreme Court has gone far. But the court is yet to get comfortable accommodation for all of them.

“Until that one is sorted out, they may have to tarry,” he said.

Another source and member of the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), who also pleaded anonymity, told Vanguard that the affected new justices have been asked to use the opportunity of the delay in inaugurating them to quickly conclude all outstanding cases they have at the Court of Appeal on the account that they would not have the opportunity of going back to sit on such cases as justices of the Court of Appeal.

The source reminded Vanguard of what happened sometimes in May 2020 when the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision by a seven-man panel of Justices led by Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour (now retired), nullified the entire proceedings that led to the conviction of a federal lawmaker representing Abia North Senatorial District, Dr Orji Uzor Kalu, his company—Slok, and a former Director of Finance in Abia State, Jones Udeogu, for allegedly using the firm to defraud the Government of Abia State in the eight years Kalu held sway as governor of the state.

Vanguard indeed recalled that the Supreme Court had in the lead verdict that was read by Justice Ejembi Eko, held that the trial High Court Judge, Justice Mohammed Idris, acted without jurisdiction in the case when he convicted Kalu, his firm, Slok Nigeria Limited and a former Director of Finance in Abia State, Jones Udeogu since he was no longer a judge of the Federal High Court as at December 5, 2019, when he sat and delivered the judgement that convicted the defendants for allegedly stealing about N7.1billion from Abia state treasury.

According to the Supreme Court, Justice Idris,  having been elevated to the Court of Appeal before then, lacked the powers to return to sit as a High Court Judge.

It held that the Fiat that was issued to him by the Court of Appeal President pursuant to section 396(7) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, was unconstitutional.

The apex court held that no statute in Nigeria empowered the Court of Appeal President to give vires to a Justice of the appellate court to return to the High Court to deliver judgement in a pending criminal trial, stressing that the Court of Appeal President, “acted ultra-vires his powers when she purportedly gave the authorization” with respect to Kalu’s case.

The Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeal President, by issuing a letter to Justice Idris to return to the Federal High Court to conclude the trial of Kalu and his co-defendants, usurped the power of President Muhammadu Buhari to appoint Judges for both superior courts, as well as the power of Chief Judge of the High Court to assign cases to Judges under him.

But the source hinted that the 11 new justices of the Supreme Court would be inaugurated very soon as their services are very much required at the apex court.

S’Court to get full complement of 21 justices for the first time since 1999

Hopefully, when the justices resume office by the end of the month, the Supreme Court would have a full complement of 21 justices for the first time since 1999 with five others representing the North West; four of the justices representing the South West geo-political zone of the country, three representing the South East, another three representing the North East, three others representing the South South, and the remaining three representing the North Central.

Whereas, Section 230 (2) of the 1999 Constitution allows the sitting President to appoint a Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) and other justices of the Supreme Court not exceeding 21, the highest number of justices appointed to the Supreme Court ever was 20 since the constitution was promulgated into law.

Specifically, that history was made on November 6, 2020 when eight (8) newly appointed Justices of the Supreme Court were sworn into office, upping its membership from 12 to 20.

Vanguard reports that all through the tenure of Justice Muhammad Lawal Uwais between 1995 and 2006 and the first quarter of 2020 during the tenure of the immediate past Chief Justice Tanko Muhammad (2019-2022), the highest number of justices appointed to the apex bench was 17.

However, most times, the number of justices on the Supreme Court oscillated between 11 and 14 all through the 1995 and 2022 legal years.

Besides, while Section 14 (2) of the 1999 Constitution requires that the composition of the Supreme Court like all agencies of the government of the Federation, shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of the country, as at today, the Supreme Court is presently composed of 10 justices from only four geo-political zones of the country.

Specifically, the Supreme Court is presently composed of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola (South West) and 9 other justices from only four geo-political zones of the country.

The 9 other justices are Kudirat Kekere-Ekun (South West), Uwani Musa Abba Aji (North East), John Inyang Okoro (South-South), Lawal Garba (North West), Helen M. Ogunwumiju (South West), I.N. M. Saulawa (North West), Adamu Jauro (North East), Tijjani Abubakar (North West), and Emmanuel A. Agim (South South).

But as soon as the new Supreme Court justices are inaugurated, the number of justices would jump up to 21 as can be seen below.

New Supreme Court Justices

S/NoName of JusticesState of OriginGeo-Political Zones
1Olukayode AriwoolaOyoSouth West
2Kudirat Kekere-EkunLagosSouth West
3Helen M. OgunwumijuOndoSouth West
4Habeeb AbiruLagos  South West
5Chidiebere UwaAbiaSouth East
6Chioma Nwosu-IhemeImoSouth East
7Obande OgbuinyaEbonyiSouth East
8Uwani Musa Abba AjiBornoNorth-East
9Adamu JauroGombeNorth East
10Haruna TsammaniBauchiNorth East
11John Inyang OkoroAkwa IbomSouth South
12Emmanuel A. AgimCross RiverSouth South
13Moore AdumeinBayelsaSouth South
14Lawal GarbaZamfaraNorth West
15Jamilu TukurKatsinaNorth West
16I. M SalauwaKatsinaNorth West
17Abubakar UmarKebbiNorth West
18Tijani AbubakarJigawaNorth West
19Mohammed IdrisNigerNorth Central
20Stephen Jonah AdahKogiNorth Central
21Jummai SankeyPlateauNorth Central

Table showing names of justices, their states of origin and their geo-political zones

From the table above, the North West geo political zone will have the highest number of justices (5 justices) on the Supreme Court bench, being the most populated of the six geo political zones in the country, followed by South West with 4 justices, being the next most populated geo-political zone in Nigeria after the North West.

Although, of the four justices representing the South West, the current Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola is due to retire from the apex bench on August 22, 2024 when he would have clocked the mandatory retirement age of 70 years.

Indeed, he is likely to proceed on pre-retirement leave any time soon.

Vanguard reports that the Federal Republic of Nigeria is divided into six geopolitical zones created not necessarily based on geographic location, but rather based on states with similar ethnic groups, and/or common political history for administrative purpose.

The six geo-political zones include North Central (also known as Middle Belt) consisting of Benue, Kogi, Kwara, Nasarawa, Niger, and Plateau States, as well as the Federal Capital Territory; North East consisting of Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Taraba, and Yobe States; North West consisting of Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, and Zamfara States; South East consisting of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, and Imo States.

Other geo-political zones are South South (also known as Niger Delta region) consisting of Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo, and Rivers States and South West, consisting of Ekiti, Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, and Oyo States.

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