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By Innocent Anaba, Ise-Oluwa Ige, Ikechukwu Nnochiri,  Johnbosco Agbakwuru, Henry Ojelu & John Alechenu, ABUJA

Amid menacing swirling allegations of corruption, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad abruptly stepped down yesterday as Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN.

Justice Muhammad, who was embroiled in a messy face-off with his brother justices, dropped his legal bibs, following increasing graft allegfations and ill-health, Vanguard gathered yesterday.

The combination of ill-health and graft allegations were strong enough for President Muhammadu Buhari to ask him to resign.

Despite the soft-landing accorded him by the President through granting of award of honours of GCON,  former Predsident of Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Mr. OCJ Okocha, said allegations against the outgone CJN would be probed.

This is even as President Buhari yesterday administered an oath on Justice Olukayode Ariwoola as the new acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, to take over from the outgone CJN.  The ceremony took place at the Presidential Villa, Abuja.

Allegations will be probed — Okocha, SAN

Okocha expressed shock over the sudden resignation of the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Muhammad from office.

In a telephone chat,  Mr. O CJ Okocha, SAN, said its “Very surprising to me. But we know that every human being is susceptible to health challenge. So, I sympathise with his lordship and I wish him good luck and pray for his speedy recovery. It was rather unfortunate, very unexpected.

“I think people should be cautious before they jump to conclusion. 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. We shouldn’t jump to that conclusion. Let’s wait for NJC to do its work,” he added.

..His resignation rescued the image of S’Court—Owonikoko

On his part,  Mr. Abiodun wonikoko, SAN said: “I think if I’ll health is cited as reason for his lordship resignation, we can only wish him a happy and restful retirement. That is all we can do. It is too early to speculate about other reasons that have not been officially made public.

“What is left to say is that 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 thus 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.

The President also conferred on the outgone CJN, Justice Muhammad,  the Grand Commander of the Order of Niger, GCON, which is second to the highest honour in the land.

This is just as the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, called on the acting CJN, to address the ills that had continued to plague the country’s judiciary and the entire legal profession, just as a civil society group, Access to Justice, asked on the acting CJN to declare a state of emergency in the country’s judiciary.

Though the outgone CJN, Justice Muhammad, is yet to issue an official statement on the reasons for his action, multiple sources cited ill-health as the primary reason he took the decision.

Cold war

Investigations by Vanguard, however, revealed that Justice Muhammad’s abrupt resignation was in connection with the cold war that had been brewing between him and 14 justices of the Supreme Court.

The apex court justices had accused him of high-handedness, alleging that he totally ignored their welfare, despite the upward review of budgetary provisions for the judiciary.

A top source at the Supreme Court told Vanguard, yesterday, that the CJN said he could no longer cope with what he described as “raging campaign of calumny” against him.

Last straw

The source said:  “The last straw that broke the camel’s back was a story in the media that he shunned several Senior Advocates of Nigeria and picked Appeal Court justices to fill vacant positions at the Supreme Court.”

Justice Mohammad, who took over as the CJN in 2019, following the controversial removal of his predecessor, Justice Walter Onnoghen by the President Buhari-led administration, is due for retirement next year.

Petition against ex-CJN

Recall that the 14 justices of the Supreme Court, namely Justices Ariwoola, now acting CJN,  Musa Mohammed, Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, John Okoro, Chima Nweze, Amina Augie, Uwani Abba-Aji, Mohammed Garba, Helen Ogunwumiju, Abdu Aboki, Ibrahim Saulawa, Adamu Jauro, Tijjani Abubakar and Emmanuel Agim, had petitioned the outgone CJN, accusing him of not carry them along in managing the affairs of the court, deteriorating condition of services generally and the state of the litigations department.

The petition read: “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 Muhammad, who reacted to the petition in a statement on June 20, 2022, noted that “Judges in all climes are to be seen and not heard, and that informs 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.”

He noted that “The general public should be rest assured that there’s no hostility or adverse feelings amongst the Justices of the Supreme Court, as everyone is going about his normal duty.”

But his resignation came less than seven days after his assurances that all was well.

Buhari confers GCON award on outgone CJN, Muhammad

Conferring the GCON honour on Justice Muhammad at the swearing-in of the acting CJN, Justice Ariwoola, at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, President Buhari showered encomium on the outgone CJN.

The brief ceremony was witnessed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, Chief of Staff to the President, Prof. Ibrahim Gambari, the Attorney General of the Federation, AGF and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami and some Justices of the Supreme Court.

Justice Ariwoola takes oath of office as acting CJN

The president also administered the oath of office on Justice Ariwoola during a swearing-in ceremony held at the Council Chamber of the Presidential Villa in Abuja, the nation’s capital.

Olukayode Ariwoola was born on August 22, 1958.  He is a Nigerian jurist and Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

He was formerly a Justice of the Nigerian Court of Appeal and on November 22, 2011, he was appointed to the bench of the Supreme Court of Nigeria as Justice, sworn in by the Chief Justice of Nigeria.

Key things to know about acting CJN, Justice Ariwoola

Justice Ariwoola, who is currently the most senior jurist on the Supreme Court bench, started his educational career in his home town, Iseyin, at the Local Authority Demonstration School, Oluwole, in Iseyin Local government of Oyo State between 1961 and 1967.

Prior to becoming a Justice of the apex court, Justice Ariwoola, was appointed a judge of the Oyo State High Court in 1992 and was later made a Justice of the Court of Appeal in November 2005.

He subsequently served as Justice of the Court of Appeal in Kaduna, Enugu, and Lagos divisions.

On November 22, 2011, he was elevated to the Supreme Court bench.

He is a member of the Nigerian Bar Association, the International Bar Association, and the Nigerian Body of Benchers, and has attended many international and national conferences and workshops in France, Atlanta Georgia, UK and Dubai in UAE.

Justice Ariwoola will be due for retirement in 2028 when he will clock the 70 years mandatory retirement age.

NBA asks acting CJN to address ills plaguing judiciary

Reacting to resignation of Justice Muhammad and emergence of  Justice Ariwoola as acting CJN, president of Nigerian Bar Association, Mr. Olumide Akpata, said in a statement: “We have received the news of the resignation, on grounds of ill health, of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad.

“We thank His Lordship for his lengthy service to the nation, and wish him quick recovery, even as we pray for a well-deserved peaceful retirement.

‘’In the course of  previous publications and communications, I have consistently appreciated the  outgone Chief Justice of Nigeria for the cordial working relationship between the Bar  and the Bench under our respective administrations. I must do so again today (yesterday) as he bows out.

“It is, however, impossible, to consider His Lordship’s retirement in isolation of the recent unprecedented developments at the Supreme Court where 14 Justices of the Court censured the outgone Chief Justice of Nigeria over His Lordship’s handling of their welfare and related issues.

‘’Beyond this, there is near universal agreement that public confidence in the Judiciary and, indeed, the legal profession is at an all-time low.

“There is now more than ever the need for urgent reforms in the judiciary and to rebuild the almost dissipated confidence that Nigerians have in the judiciary and the wider legal profession in Nigeria.

‘’These should form the immediate first tasks for Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, who is expected to now take over as the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria.

“The NBA welcomes the appointment of Justice Ariwoola and pledges 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.’’

New CJN must declare state of emergency in Judiciary —Access to Justice

In its reaction, human rights group, Access to Justice, also called on the new head of the judiciary to take every step necessary to restore the health, efficiency, authority and accountability of the judicial arm of government.

Convener of the group, Mr. Joseph Otteh, said in a statement in reaction to the resignation of the CJN:  “The news of the resignation of CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad draws the curtain over the illustrious career of Justice Mohammad, who rose from humble beginnings to become Nigeria’s Chief Justice.

“Although circumstances of his emergence as Chief Justice remain controversial, Access to Justice commends the Chief Justice for the decision to step down, following reported health concerns.  A decision to give up an office with so much influence, prestige and power cannot come lightly, and a less forthright person may have chosen a different course of action.

“By this action, Justice Muhammad has shown utmost responsibility of office and personal integrity.

“The space now available for filling the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria offers a new opportunity for rebooting the Judiciary and resetting it on a path of renewal and re-energisation. Nigeria’s Judiciary has, for too long been hung over by dark clouds, and has performed poorly across a number of performance indices.

“Public confidence is at low thresholds, and the judiciary’s transparency and accountability has come under increasing question. All this is taking place while the welfare of judges is dwindling, and the independence and autonomy of the judicial department are increasingly undermined by government.

“The next incumbent of the office of CJN, now vacated by Chief Justice Muhammad, must declare a state of emergency in the judiciary, and take every step necessary to restore the health, efficiency, authority and accountability of the judicial arm of government.’’

Atiku commends Justice Muhammad’s resignation, welcomes Ariowoola

Also reacting yesterday, the presidential candidate of Peoples Democratic Party, Atiku Abubakar, commended Justice Muhammad Tanko, over his decision to vacate office as Chief Justice of Nigeria. He described the former CJN’s action as service to the nation.   This was contained in a statement signed by the Atiku Media Office, Abuja, on Monday.

The former Vice President said:  “The decision of Justice Tanko Muhammad to vacate office as the Chief Justice of Nigeria is commendable.  I wish him well even as I commend him for his action and service to the nation.

“I wish the newly sworn-in Acting CJN Justice Olukayode Ariowoola success as he steps in to fill the gap and assure him of my commitment to advancing the frontiers of judicial independence and the promotion of separation of powers as the bedrock of deepening democracy and development.”

Ex-CJN, Muhammad’s resignation, end of an error— Ogebe

Meanwhile, a senior lawyer and son of a former Justice of the Supreme Court, Mr. Emmanuel Ogebe, yesterday, took a swipe at the former CJN, Justice Muhammad, describing his voluntary resignation on Monday as “end of an error.”

The American based legal practitioner, whose father, Justice James Ogebe, served as Justice of the apex court from 2008 to 2010, 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.

He said: “This week began with rare goodness from Nigeria that the ‘Chief Justice of Buhari’ Justice Tanko Muhammad had resigned.

“I use the cognomen CJB advisedly because he was Chief Justice for Buhari, of Buhari and for Buhari – and not Nigeria.

“What was to follow was further proof of his competency deficiency. The judge who couldn’t define “technicality” in his senate confirmation hearing, apparently was technically unfit to be Chief Justice of Nigeria and ironically unable to pilot the affairs of the apex court.

“Such basic things as accommodation for justices appointed years ago languished – a basic human need that even thousands of youth corpers on national service are entitled to let alone Justices serving the nation at the most sensitive court in the land. To kill the intellectual output of the court, justices were ordered to leave their chambers by 4pm as diesel was too costly for generators.

“Yet this arm of govt had the least principals. NASS has 100 Senators but the Supreme Court only 15 Justices just 15 percent the size of the Senate yet the senate did not close at 4pm because of the same diesel factor affecting all.

“Tanko’s tenure also introduced judicial laziness of the worst order. For the first time in the history of Nigeria, a presidential election petition appeal against Buhari was dismissed on the spot without deliberations and time for a considered and debated ruling.

Contending that never in the history of the country did all 14 justices wrote a petition against a CJN, Ogebe, further stated: “In resigning, Tanko has made his greatest contribution to the judiciary. It would be the same if Buhari did likewise.

“After all the petition of the 14 Justices is almost similar to the cabinet members passing a resolution to constitutionally remove a president.

“Be that as it may, Tanko’s illegitimate imposition secured the second term for an illegitimately re-elected regime and Nigerians have suffered the consequences thereof.

“Besides that, he furthered the northernization and Fulanization agenda. Today about 10 of the courts 14 justices are Muslim and plans are afoot to replace recently retired Christian justices with more Muslims.

“This means that two panels of the Supreme Court comprising five justices can be constituted to hear cases without a single Christian. This ought not to be. “The citadel of Justice should be fair and reflective of our diversity as a nation as enshrined in the constitution.

“I am thankful that the justices showed maturity and spoke with unanimity on the desecration of the temple of Justice without being divided along religious lines or sentiment. This is as it ought to be!”, the statement added.

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