By Gambo Dori
REPLACING a serving Chief Justice is not a matter that is contemplated lightly and executed whimsically by any sensible leader. It is a delicate issue which would be more so when viewed against the unfolding political developments in the country at the time when the decision to unseat Justice Walter Onnoghen was taken.
The expedience of state and urgency of the moment must have compelled the President to react swiftly to charges made against the suspended Chief Justice, when it became clear that his situation had become untenable and he must, therefore, step aside or be removed from his post.
Justice Onnoghen’s obduracy in failing to see the writing on the wall and seek a dignified exit the moment the revelations about his conduct as the highest judicial officer in the country became manifest, left the President with no other option, but to take the courageous and quite appropriate measure to suspend him and as is usual in such circumstances, replace him with the next ranking judge, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad.
Many matters arose from this action. It appears that both the suspension of Justice Onnoghen and his replacement with Justice Tanko did not sit well with some people in and outside the country for reasons that are not difficult to fathom.
The outcry that was initially generated was mostly politically motivated. I am surprised that governors from Justice Onnoghen’s geopolitical zone decided to meet on this matter to support their son despite evidence of wrong doing. They even issued threats. The outcry by the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and threat to suspend their electioneering campaign on account of Onnoghen’s suspension also failed to generate any sympathy from Nigerians.
The outpouring of righteous indignation from civil society organisations and other aimless busy bodies likewise did not halt the inexorable march of justice in its course.
The meddling into the internal affairs of the country, given rise to by the Justice Onnoghen incident, by foreign governments and their envoys, regrettable though it is, did not affect the resolution of the government to deal appropriately with the case either.
Regrettably also, a lot of the negative comments and ill-feelings exhibited by those who took issue with the suspension of Justice Onnoghen entailed irresponsibly partisan condescension towards the person of the man appointed as acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko.
Predictably, the purveyors of hate could neither rise above petty religious sentiments nor sectional antagonism, when they exhibited their crass ignorance and jaundiced views on his appointment.
Normally judges do not advertise their resume. You know them by their antecedents and pronouncements. In this account, and by all estimation, Justice Tanko is not your run in the mill, pedestrian, judge.
His rapid rise in the judicial rungs since he became a magistrate in 1982 attests to that. He is eminently qualified to hold any judicial position in this country, including the post of Chief Justice of Nigeria. No product of the Faculty of Law of Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, Zaria of his time could emerge from that venerable institution as unqualified or half-baked product.
ABU’s Faculty of Law is one of the oldest in the country. Though said to start in 1962 along with the the University of Lagos and University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), dispensing legal education has long been taking place, since the 1950s, in the Institute of Administration (Kongo Campus) – one of the forerunner institutions of ABU, along with Nigerian College of Arts and Science, Institute of Agricultural Research all in Zaria, and Ahmadu Bello College in Kano. Ever since the later part of the 1950s, the legal department in the Institute of Administration had been mounting a preparatory course for students taking the English Bar Examination.
Amongst the graduates of this early legal education in Zaria are a number of former Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, including Justices M.L. Uwais (who ultimately became a chief justice), Saidu Kawu and Bashir Wali. It is this hallowed precinct that Justice Tanko came into in the mid-1970s to earn a degree in law. He later went back to the same institution to earn a Masters Degree, and as an icing on the cake, a PhD.
What made the Faculty unique at that time was that it was perhaps the only law institution that was offering the regular law course and also the Islamic law which is applicable to a large chunk of Nigeria’s population. Though Justice Tanko specialised in Islamic Law, he is a master of both. In his career trajectory he has been a Magistrate, a Provost of College of Islamic and Legal Studies, a Kadi (Judge) of Shari’a Court of Appeal Bauchi State. He was later elevated as Justice of the Court of Appeal, before he became Justice of the Supreme Court in 2006. It is this rich, varied background that Justice Tanko is bringing to the Supreme Court.
Those acquainted with the acting Chief Justice say that he also brings to the exalted office three critical traits that should make the judiciary more encompassing and less insulated and therefore, no longer pedantically disposed towards the administration of justice in Nigeria. These traits are the African, Western and Islamic understanding of justice, all of which have today become cornerstones of Nigeria’s public system.
These three civilizational endowments that Justice Tanko brings into office should ideally be welcomed by all and sundry. Predictably, the purveyors of hate could not bear to see a man of his background and training occupying the premier judicial seat in the country.
The qualities and background that Justice Tanko is bringing to his new office are not unprecedented in the annals of the Nigerian judiciary. Long before him, Justice Prince Bola Ajibola, brought this “triple heritage” to the judiciary, having an inherited Afro-centric view, a deep understanding of the Western legal system and of course, a wide-ranging appreciation of the Islamic legal system or Sharia.
Justice Tanko also brings into the office an austere incorruptibility and embodiment of justice seasoned by disinterested view of material wealth. At a time when the nation needs a bearing and corrective disposition, especially in the dispensation of justice, the arrival of Justice Tanko on the scene should be loudly and joyously celebrated by all well-meaning Nigerians. Those who shiver in their shoes with trepidation on account of their alignment with corruption and abuse of office, should retreat into the shadows where they rightly belong.
Justice Tanko is the man for the moment and the right tool for the job of overhauling the judiciary. We welcome his appointment enthusiastically and praise President Muhammadu Buhari for his courage and decisiveness in nipping an embarrassing situation in the judiciary in the bud.