By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA-President Muhammadu Buhari, on Monday, declined to respond to a suit seeking to declare that the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad, is unfit to head the judiciary in substantive capacity.
The court had on May 3, ordered President Buhari to show cause why the appointment of Justice Muhammad to take over from the removed ex-CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, should not be invalidated.
Others the court also directed to react to issues that were raised against the Acting CJN, included the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, as well as the Senate.
The order followed a suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/420/2019, which was lodged by a human rights lawyer, Chief Malcom Omirhobo.
The Plaintiff, is urging the court to declare that Justice Muhammad who is currently the most senior jurist at the Supreme Court, is not capable to replace Onnoghen.
Specifically, he prayed the court to declare that the Acting CJN, having made himself available as a tool that was used in the violation of the Constitution, especially with regards to the “illegal” removal of the former CJN, is therefore not a proper and fit person to be recommended for appointment to head the judiciary.
It is the contention of the plaintiff that the Acting CJN conducted himself in a manner that reduced the confidence of the public in the integrity and impartiality of the Judiciary.
Equally cited as Defendants in the suit were the Acting CJN himself, the National Judicial Council and the Federal Judicial Service Commission.
Meantime, out of the seven Respondents, only the NJC, the FJSC and Justice Muhammad were represented in court on Monday.
The Acting CJN, through his lawyer, Mr. A.O Ajana, told the court that his appearance was “in protest”.
He stressed that he had yet to be served with all the relevant processes the plaintiff filed against him.
Though it was confirmed that President Buhari, the AGF, the Federal Government and Senate, were duly served with hearing notices, however, no reason was given on why they spurned the court’s summon.
The court had summoned the Defendants to appear for the matter, after it declined to grant request for an ex-parte order to stop President Buhari from swearing-in Justice Muhammad as the substantive CJN.
In his ruling, Justice Inyang Ekwo held that it was in the interest of fair-hearing to allow all the Defendants to respond to the suit.
While the NJC was represented by Mrs. Elizabeth Jonathan, the FJSC announced appearance through its lawyer, Sani Sule.
Following the appearance in protest of the Acting CJN, the Plaintiff, who had already applied to be allowed to serve him through substituted means, withdrew the ex-parte motion.
Justice Muhammad’s lawyer, Ajana, said he was willing to accept service of all the processes in the open court.
Besides, the Plaintiff, withdrew the motion on notice he filed for an interim order to be issued against the Acting CJN, saying the decision was to allow the court to focus on the main suit.
Justice Ekwo subsequently gave the Defendants 14 days to respond to the suit, even as he adjourned it till June 3 for hearing.
The court further ordered that hearing notices should be served on all the parties that were absent at the proceeding.
The Plaintiff is among other things, urging the court to declare that the suspension and/or removal of a CJN from office, is a shared responsibility of the 1st Defendant (NJC), 5th defendant (Buhari) and 7th Defendant (National Assembly).
He argued that President Buhari lacked the constitutional powers to unilaterally suspend and/or removal a sitting CJN from office, as was done in the case of Onnoghen.
Besides, he prayed the court to declare that by combined interpretation sections 1(1 )(2), 231(4), 292(1)(a)(i)(b), 153(1)(i), 158(1) and paragraph 21 (a)(b) of Part 1 of the Third Schedule of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, “it is unlawful and undemocratic for the 4th and 5th Defendants (Federal Government and President Buhari), to declare the office of the CJN vacant on January 25, 2019 and consequently appoint and swear in the 3rd Defendant as the acting CJN”.
He therefore applied for a court order to restrain the National Assembly from confirming any appointment of Justice Muhammad as the substantive CJN.
Likewise, for, “An order, compelling the 2nd Defendant (FJSC), to select and the 1st Defendant (NJC), to recommend the most qualified Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria that is fit and proper, to the 5th Defendant, for appointment to office of the CJN, and for the confirmation of the 7th Defendant with a two third majority vote”.
Aside praying the court to bar President Buhari from appointing Justice Muhammad as the substantive CJN, the Plaintiff, in a 65-paragraph affidavit he filed in support of the suit, stressed that unless restrained by the court, the Executive Arm of Government would continue to violate the extant provisions of the Constitution and sanctity of the judiciary.
It will be recalled that President Buhari had since extended Justice Muhammad’s initial three months tenure as the Acting CJN, based on NJC’s recommendation.