Supreme Court

In this report, Vanguard Law and Human Rights digs into the history of the composition of the Supreme Court bench from the pre-Independence era till date; traces the judicial policy regulating appointment or replacement of justices into the apex bench; surveys lawyers’ grouse against the current mode of appointment of justices into the nation’s appellate court and argues that it is high time the new pilot of the judiciary revisited the current NJC policy  in the interest of not only the third arm of government but also the country at large. 


On September 15, 2022, the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, BoSAN made a fresh case to the National Judicial Council, NJC for urgent review of its policy on appointment of justices to the Supreme Court bench.

The body of senior lawyers seized the opportunity of the occasion of the valedictory court session organised by the Supreme Court of Nigeria for Justice Abdu Aboki, to make the case.

Justice Aboki is one of the 14 justices of the apex court until last Thursday when he honourably bowed out of the bench without blemish for clocking the mandatory retirement age of 70 years.

Aboki’s exit has yet again depleted the number of Supreme Court justices from 21 to 13.

How was it at the Supreme Court before the ongoing Fourth Republic?

Vanguard reports that the composition of the Supreme Court at any time is governed by constitutional and other statutory provisions.

According to Dr Mojeed Alabi: “At the inception in 1954, the Federal Supreme Court was to consist of the Chief Justice, two Federal Judges or such greater number as might be prescribed by the Federal Legislature and such number of acting Federal Judges  as might be appointed under section 139 (3) of the 1954 Constitution.

“Under the 1960 Constitution, the composition of the Supreme Court was slightly modified as the constitution provided for a Chief Justice of the Federation and not less than three justices.

“The 1963 Constitution also modified the composition to include a Chief Justice of the Federation and not less than five justices even though the Supreme Court Act of 1960 provided that number of Supreme Court justices shall be nine.

“Two Acts of the Federal Parliament passed in 1964 increased the minimum to eight. It was, however, raised to 10 in 1977 and 12 in 1979.

“Under the 1979 Constitution, the maximum number of justices was increased to 15 excluding the CJN,” he added.

But with the promulgation of Decree 24 which heralded the 1999 Constitution, the membership of the Supreme Court was increased to a maximum of 21 justices excluding the CJN while section 231(3) of the 1999 Constitution provides that “a person shall not be qualified to hold the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria or of a Justice of the Supreme Court, unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been so qualified for a period of not less than 15 years.”

Notwithstanding the constitutional provision, the highest number of justices appointed to the Supreme Court was 17 all through the tenure of Justice Muhammad Lawal Uwais (1995-2006) and the first quarter of 2020 during the tenure of the immediate past Chief Justice Tanko Muhammad (2019-2022).

However, most times, the number of justices on the Supreme Court oscillated between 11 and 14 while all through the 1995 and 2022 legal years, no lawyer in private practice or academia was appointed to the Supreme Court as it used to be in the past.

How has appointment been made to the Supreme Court since the commencement of the ongoing Fourth Republic?

Vanguard reports that the Supreme Court is presently composed of the newly sworn in Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola and 12 other justices from different geo-political zones of the country.

The 12 other justices are Justice Musa Datijo Muhammad, Niger, North-Central; Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, Lagos, South-West; and Justice Chima Centus Nweze, Enugu, South-East.

Others are Justice Amina Augie, Kebbi, North-West; Justice Uwani Musa Abba-Aji, Borno, North- East; Justice John Inyang Okoro, Akwa Ibom, South-South; Justice Lawal Garba, Zamfara, North- West and Justice Helen Ogunwumiju, Ondo, South-West.

Also in the Supreme Court are Justice I. M. Salnwa, Katsina, North-West; Justice Adamu Jauro, Gombe, North-East; Justice Tijani Abubakar, Jigawa, North-West and Justice Emmanuel Agim, Cross River, South-South.

Statistics from the list above show that four of the 13 justices are from the North-West, only one from the North-Central, two from the North-East totalling seven justices from the Northern part of the country.

Data from the list above also show that South-West has three justices, one justice from the South-East and two others from the South-South totalling six justices from the Southern part of the country.

Vanguard reports that the number of justices from the Northern part of the country was nine (9) until the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria resigned his office on June 27, 2022 while the South had six.

Whereas, section 14 (3) of the 1999 Constitution provides that “the composition of the Government of the Federation or any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the Federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from a few states or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that government or in any of its agencies.

 Vanguard reports that the relevant authorities since the present Supreme Court was established by section 230 (1) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), including the Federal Judicial Service Commission, FJSC headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria and the National Judicial Council also headed by the CJN, have merely promoted justices of the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court bench to fill vacant seats purportedly in line with the Federal character policy of the Nigerian state as enshrined in section 14(3) of the 1999 Constitution.

All past Chief Justices of Nigeria since democracy berthed in May 1999 who had the opportunity to recommend best brains including serving super judges with impeccable record from both the bar and the bench as the old Supreme Court in Lagos did to fill available vacancies at the Supreme Court during their tenure, failed to so do but merely promoted justices of the Appeal Court to the apex court.

The past CJNs are Justice Muhammad Lawal Uwais (1995-2006); Justice Salisu Modibbo Alfa Belgore (2006-2007); Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi (2007-2009), Justice Aloysius Iyorger Katsina-Alu (2010-2011); Justice Dahiru Musdapher (2011-2012); Justice Aloma Mariam Muhktar (2012-2014); Justice Mahmud Mohammed (2014-2016); Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen (2017-2019); Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad (2019-2022).

All the nine past CJNs were themselves beneficiaries of the seniority on the bench rule to find their ways into the exalted seat of the CJN.

Although some of them, upon elevation to the CJN seat, promised to consider exceptional candidates from the bar but always opted for the old criterion when it was time to fill the vacant seats at the Supreme Court.

Why did the appointing authorities stick to the present appointment policy?

According to a former NBA President, Mr. OCJ Okocha (SAN), he recalled pre-Justice Muhammad Lawal Uwais administration when lawyers were appointed directly from the bar to the Supreme Court bench and that they performed very well.

“In the past, people like Teslim Elias who had never been a judge was moved from being a Dean of Law at the University of Lagos to become the CJN and thereafter, he went to the International Court of Justice at the Hague. People like Oputa, people like Kayode Esho, they were Chief judges of Western Region and Imo State respectively. They were moved straight to the Supreme Court,” adding that he did not know why the Supreme Court stopped the practice of appointing lawyers in private practice and state chief judges to the Supreme Court.

But explaining why the practice was stopped, a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Muhammad Lawal Uwais, in an interview said certain factors were considered.

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