Retiring Supreme Court judge, bemoans South East’s exclusion from presidential election panel

Justice Musa Dattijo Muhammad, who is retiring from the Supreme Court has raised alarm over the exclusion of the South East from the panel that heard the presidential election appeals and the Supreme Court bench.

Justice Muhammad, who retired from the Supreme Court bench on Friday, having reached the 70 years compulsory retirement age, said it was dangerous for democracy and equity for two entire regions to be left out in the decisions that will affect the majority of Nigerians.

He spoke at a farewell session that was held in his honour by the Supreme Court, where he also criticised the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, for misusing his authority.

Justice Muhammad said that candidates of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Atiku Abubakar and the Labour Party, LP, Peter Obi, who challenged the legitimacy of President Tinubu’s election, were denied fair hearing by a panel that did not reflect the geo-political diversity of the country.

“To ensure justice and transparency in presidential appeals from the lower court, all geo-political zones are required to participate in the hearing.

“It is therefore dangerous for democracy and equity for two entire regions to be left out in the decisions that will affect the majority of Nigerians.

“This is not what our laws envisage. Although it can be argued that no one expected the sudden passing of Hon. Justice Nweze JSC, yet, it has been two years and seven months since previous justice from South-East died and no appointment was made,” Justice Muhammad said.

He further emphasised that with his retirement, the North Central zone which he represented, would have no Justice on the Supreme Court bench.

“My lord Hon. Justice Ejembi Eko JSC who also represented the zone retired on 23rd of May, 2022. It has been one year and five months now. There has not been any replacement.

“With the death of my lord, Hon. Justice Chima Centus Nweze, JSC on 29th July 2023, the South East has no representation at the Supreme Court. My lord, Hon. Justice Sylvester Nwali Ngwuta JSV died on 7th March 2021. There has not been any appointment in his place for the South East.

“As it stands, only four geo-political regions- the South-West, South-South, North-West and North-East are represented in the Supreme Court.

“While the South-South and North-East have two serving justices each, the North-West and South-West are fully represented with three each.

“Appropriate steps could have been taken since to fill outstanding vacancies in the apex court. Why have these steps not been taken promptly?

“It is clear that the decision not to fill the vacancies in the court is intentional. It is all about the absolute powers vested in the office of the CJN and the responsible exercise of same,” the retiring judge added.

He argued that the judiciary, as it is currently structured, gave too much power to the CJN who he said usually made decisions without consulting other justices.

“The CJN is Chairman of the NJC which oversees both the appointment and discipline of judges, he is also Chair of the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), the National Judicial Institute (NJI), the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) that appoints Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

“In my opinion, these oversight functions should not rest on one person alone. A person with absolute powers, they say, is easily and absolutely corrupted.

“As Chair of NJC, FJSC, NJI and LPPC, he appoints council, board and committee members as he pleases. He does not confer with fellow justices or seek their advice or input on any matter related to these bodies. He has both the final and the only say.

“The CJN has power to appoint 80 percent of members of the council and 60 percent of members of FJSC. The same applies to NJI and LPPC.

“Such enormous powers are easily abused. This needs to change. Continuing to deny this threatening anomaly weakens effective judicial oversight in the country,” he added.

He also lamented over the poor funding and independence of the Judiciary, saying that despite the increase in the budgetary allocation for the Judiciary from 70billion that it was in 2015 to 165billion presently, “Justices and officers welfare and the quality of service the judiciary render have continued to decline.”

“It may surprise you to know that the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court earns more than the Justices. While she earns N1.2m per month, justices take home N751, 000 in a month.

“The CJN on his part takes home N400, 000 plus. The salary of a Justice, strangely, drops rather than increases when he gets the added responsibility of being a CJN.

“That the unfair and humiliating salary difference between the justices and the Chief Registrar still persists remains puzzling to say the least.”

He noted that it was due to allegations of corruption and distortion of justice, that led President Muhammadu Buhari to order the raid of homes and arrest of some judges in 2016.

“Not satisfied, in 2019 the government confronted, arrested and charged the incumbent Chief Justice before the Code of Conduct Tribunal for alleged dishonest conduct.

“With his retirement apparently negotiated, he was eventually let go.

“In 2022, a letter signed by all other justices of the Supreme Court, including the current Chief Justice, the aggrieved protested against the poor treatment given to them by the head of court and the Chief Registrar.

“In the end, his lordship Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad left ostensibly on grounds of ill-health.

“My lords, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it is obvious that the judiciary I am leaving from is different from the one I willingly joined and wanted to serve and be associated with. The institution has changed into something else,” Justice Muhammad regretted.

Meanwhile, earlier in the ceremony, the CJN, in his speech, praised the retiring jurist who he described as a “remarkable Judicial icon with brilliant qualities and attractive stature.”

“His Lordship is one judicial officer that could be frank, even to a fault; and is never known to be afraid to say things as they are; and also never avoids calling a spade by its name, regardless of whose ox is gored,” the CJN stated.

He decried that with Justice Muhammad’s exit, the apex court bench has further reduced to 10.

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