By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
News about the sudden resignation of Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad as the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, came to many as a rude shock.
Justice Muhammad, 68, holds the record of being the 21st CJN the country has produced, beginning from the era of Sir Edwin Speed, who served from 1914 to 1918.
His backdoor exit from the bench, about 18 months before his retirement in December 2023, when he will clock 70, elicited varied reactions.
Though ill-health was cited as the underground reason – with unconfirmed reports insinuating that the ex-CJN occasionally suffered memory lapses – however, fact on ground revealed that Justice Muhammad had already lost the reigns of leadership at both the Supreme Court and the National Judicial Council, NJC, before he decided to throw in the towel.
Whereas the Supreme Court is the highest court of the land, the NJC, is the judicial organ that is responsible for the Appointment, Promotion and Discipline of Judicial Officers in the country.
Every CJN, by virtue of the position, statutorily becomes the head of the NJC.
14 serving Justices of the apex court, some of whom are also members of the NJC, had in an unprecedented move, passed a vote-of-no-confidence on the ability of Justice Muhammad to continue to pilot the affairs of the judiciary as the CJN.
The Justices, at the peak of a prolonged cold war that raged between them and the former CJN, decided to lift the black gown that masked all shades of corruption allegations they listed in a protest letter that was leaked to the public.
Aside from alleged corruption and absence of financial probity at the apex court, the aggrieved Justices, protested the non-payment of their legitimate entitlements for a prolonged period of time, by the former CJN.
They alleged that he ignored their repeated demand for improved welfare, despite the upward review of the budgetary allocation of the Judiciary, decrying that accommodation was not provided for new Justices that were sworn in since 2020.
Besides, the disenchanted jurists accused Justice Muhammad of blocking them from attending foreign trainings, even though he travelled abroad on various occasions with his spouse and children, at their expense.
“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”.
“We DEMAND to know what has become of our training funds, have they been diverted, or is it a plain denial? Your Lordship may also remember that the National Assembly has increased the budgetary allocation of the Judiciary.
“We find it strange that in spite of the upward review of our budgetary allocation, the Court cannot cater for our legitimate entitlements. This is unacceptable!”, the aggrieved Justices stated in the letter titled, “The State of Affairs in the Supreme Court of Nigeria by Justices of the Court”.
Subsequently, they vowed never to attend any meeting convened by the ex-CJN who they insisted must resign before September.
Though Justice Muhammad initially wanted to call the bluff of his brother justices who he said were “dancing naked in the market”, he was reportedly arm-twisted into relinquishing his position for the sake of peace and stability in the judiciary, by higher authorities.
It was reported that the ex-CJN was forced to resign by the ‘Villa’, after he was confronted with indicting documents that could sustain a criminal case against him.
A source disclosed to Vanguard said that part of the issues the former CJN was confronted with, included the fact that two of his sons, Siraj and Sani, emerged as Senatorial and House of Representatives candidates of both the All Progressives Congress, APC, and the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, respectively, in Bauchi State.
Remarkably, among aspirants the ex-CJN’s son, Siraj, defeated to clinch the APC Senatorial seat for Bauchi North, was Adamu Bulkachuwa, who is the husband of the immediate past President of the Court of Appeals, Zainab, and the incumbent federal lawmaker for the zone.
Meantime, the Nigerian Senate has already mandated a Committee to probe all the weighty allegations against the former CJN.
Reacting to the development, a senior lawyer and son of a former Justice of the Supreme Court, Mr. Emmanuel Ogebe, took a swipe at the ex-CJN, describing his voluntary resignation as the end of an error.
The American based legal practitioner, whose father, Justice James Ogenyi Ogebe, served as Justice of the apex court from 2008 to 2010, alleged that Justice Muhammad, was surreptitiously installed as CJN after the controversial removal of his predecessor, Justice Walter Onnoghen, by the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration.
“Tanko’s tenure 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.
“Unlike his predecessor who still sat and wrote judgments, Tanko is reputed to sit only for the purposes of commandeering cases, dictating outcomes, dethroning dissent while abandoning the critical elements of writing reasoned judgments. His judicial output is nondescript compared to another Justice who reportedly wrote hundreds of judgments.”
“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!”, Ogebe stated.
On his part, constitutional lawyer, Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, in his article titled: “When The Apex Court Rumbles, Quivers and Quakes”, argued that Justice Muhammad’s resignation brought a breath of fresh air into the Judiciary.
He said: “Irrespective of Justice Tanko’s reason (s) for suddenly throwing in towel prematurely, let me state here that the step he took constituted a reinvigorating breath of fresh air that blew across the dark crevices of the nation’s judicial landscape and democratic space.
“The 14 Justices in their “Book of Lamentations”, had insisted that no past administration since the birth of democracy in 1999 had ever treated Justices as shabbily as the then Chief Justice of Nigeria did.
“This apparent vote of no confidence on Justice Tanko is the first time that such would occur in 58 years of the history of the Supreme Court. Is it that they were crying wolf?
“ Had they tried, but failed, in using inbuilt internal conflict-resolution mechanism in settling the matter? I do not know. Or, do you?
“Whatever reasons Justice Muhammad had for resigning (whether due to poor health as he said, or due to the ricocheting effect of the protest letter by 14 Justices of the Supreme Court which greatly embarrassed the Judiciary and country), the important thing is that he must be praised for his courage, masculinity and wise counsel in honourably resigning.
“Resignation from office is a very scarce commodity in this part of the world, where public officials hold on to office no matter the odious perception by the Nigerian people”, Ozekhome added.