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Political patronage, nepotism, Lawan, Uzodimma, 7 Key Things Retired Judge said in trending speech

After 47 years in the judiciary, Justice Musa Dattijo Muhammad took a bow on Friday, October 27, 2023. The high and mighty attended his valedictory…

After 47 years in the judiciary, Justice Musa Dattijo Muhammad took a bow on Friday, October 27, 2023. The high and mighty attended his valedictory session which has refused to leave the media space long after His Lordship thanked his audience for their time and patience. It’s been a while that a retiring judge hit the nail on the head the way he did.

Just weeks back, Prof Chidi Odinkalu, human rights lawyer, penned the hard-hitting piece, ‘A Captured Temple of Justice’, where he highlighted what could ordinarily pass for as the dark days of the judiciary. From a hall in Abuja, the voice of Justice Dattijo reverberated across the land. In this article, we analysed seven highlights of the judge’s speech.

ABSOLUTE POWER

The judge frowned over what he referred to as the concentration of too much powers in the hands of one man. He said although the CJN has a deputy, a position he once occupied, the experience is not different from that of a deputy governor who can only be relevant if the governor wants him to be.
“As presently structured, the CJN is Chairman of the National Judicial Council NJC which oversees both the appointment and discipline of judges, he is equally Chair of the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), the National Judicial Institute (NJI) the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) that appoints Senior Advocates of Nigeria. In my considered opinion, the oversight functions of these bodies should not rest on an individual alone. A person with absolute powers, it is said, corrupts easily and absolutely. As Chair of NJC,FJSC, NJI and LPPC, appointments as council, board and committee members are at his pleasure. He neither confers with fellow justices nor seeks their counsel 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 percnt of members of FJSC. The same applies to NJI and LPPC. Such enormous powers are effortlessly abused. This needs to change. Continued denial of the existence of this threatening anomaly weakens effective judicial oversight in the country.
By the provision of Paragraph 20 of Part One of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended, the NJC shall comprise the following Members: the Chief Justice of Nigeria, who shall be the Chairman; the next most senior Justice of the Supreme Court who shall be the Deputy Chairman. Regrettably, the next most senior justice of the Supreme Court like Deputy Governors of State, shorn of any official function except at the pleasure of the Governor, is neither consulted on anything nor does he have any official function. His job as No. 2 is purely as the CJN pleases. It is incumbent that the system provides for more inclusion and consultation among the stakeholders.”

DANGER FOR DEMOCRACY

Justice Dattijo expressed displeasure that two geopolitical zones – North Central and South East – no longer have representation on the bench of the highest court in the land. For him, no excuse is tenable for such development.
“When I exit today, the North Central zone that I represent ceases to have any representation until such a time new appointments are made. My lord Hon. Justice Ejembi Eko JSC who also represented the zone retired on the 23rd of May, 2022. It has been a year and five months now. There has not been any replacement. With the passing of my lord, Hon. Justice Chima Centus Nweze, JSC on 29th July 2023,the South East no longer has any presence at the Supreme Court. My lord, Hon. Justice Sylvester Nwali Ngwuta JSC died on 7th March 2021. There has not been any appointment in his stead for the South East.”
“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 generality of Nigerians. This is not what our laws envisage. Although it can be posited 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 the South East died and no appointment was made. Ditto for the replacement of Justice Eko JSC of North central who exited nearly two years ago. Hon.Justice Sidi Bage JSC, now his Royal Highness the Emir of Lafia, from the North Central, had earlier voluntarily retired. He equally is yet to be replaced. Also,it was clear ab-initio that I would be leaving the court this day on attaining the statutory age of 70. It is then not in doubt that there has been sufficient time for suitable replacements to have been appointed. This is yet to occur.”

POOR SALARIES

Is releasing salary to husband submission?

According to him, from the time former President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office till he departed few months ago, over N70 billion had been added to the annual budget of the judiciary, but the effect is not seen on the lives of judges. He could not understand the condition that made it possible for the Registrar of Supreme Court to earn higher salary than judges.

“In 2015 when President Muhammadu Buhari became the president, the budgetary allocation to the judiciary was #70 billion. In the 2018 Appropriation Bill submitted to the National Assembly, the President allocated N100 billion to the judiciary.

“The legislature increased it to N110 billion; N10 billion above the N100 billion appropriated for the 2017 fiscal year. At the end of President Buhari’s tenure in May 2023 judiciary’s allocation had increased to N130 billion. That is an increase from #70 to #130 billion in 8 years. The present government has allocated an additional sum of 35 billion naira to the judiciary for the current financial year making the amount of money accessible by the judiciary to 165 billion naira. More than 85 percent of the amount appropriated by the 10th Assembly has so far been released to the judiciary. It is envisaged that the additional 35 billion naira will equally be released by the present government.
“Notwithstanding the phenomenal increases in the sums appropriated and released to the judiciary, Justices and officers welfare and the quality of service the judiciary render have continued to decline. It may interest one 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 #400,000 plus. The salary of a Justice, curiously, drops rather than increases when he gets the added responsibility of being a CJN.”

LOBBYING FOR APPOINTMENTS

More troubling for Justice Dattijo is the manner of recruitment which places nepotism over merit. Friends, mistresses, family members have unfair advantage over those who have meaningful things to offer.
The process of the appointment of Judges and quality of judgments of courts. A couple of years ago, appointment to the bench was strictly on merit. Sound knowledge of the law, integrity, honour, and hard work distinguished those who were elevated. Lobbying was unheard of. I never lobbied, not at any stage of my career, to secure any appointment or elevation. As much as possible the most qualified men and women were appointed. That can no longer be sad about appointments to the bench.

The judiciary must be uniquely above board. Appointments should not be polluted by political, selfish, and sectional interests. The place of merit, it must be urged, cannot be over-emphasized.
Public perceptions of the judiciary have over the years become witheringly scornful and monstrously critical. It has been in the public space that court officials and judges are easily bribed by litigants to obviate delays and or obtain favourable judgments.

Recently, fresh allegations have been made that children and other relatives of serving and retired judges and justices are being appointed into judicial offices at the expense of more qualified candidates lacking in such privilege and backing. It is asserted that the process of appointment to judicial positions are deliberately conducted to give undue advantage to the “children,spouses, and mistresses” of serving and retired judges and managers of judicial offices.”

LAWAN & UZODIMMA

Most recently, cases involving Governor Hope Uzodimma of Imo State and former Senate President Ahmad Lawan sparked controversy. In Lawan’s case, he sought but lost the presidential ticket of the ruling party but lost to President Bola Tinubu.

Bashir Machina, a local politician in Lawan’s Yobe constituency, won the senatorial ticket which the former senate president conceded in order to contest the presidential primary. Machina resisted pressure to hand the ticket to Lawan until the court pronounced him the senatorial candidate.
For Uzodimma, he came fourth in the 2019 governorship election, but headed to the court which eventually declared him winner.

The retired judge made allusion to this in his valedictory speech.

“At the Court of Appeal, it is also asserted, presiding Justices are now being appointed out of turn. And there is the further issue of the unpredictable nature of recent decisions of the courts as well. A number of respected senior members of the bar inter alia, citing the Ahmed Lawan, the former President of the Senate and the Imo Governorship appeals, claim that decisions of even the apex court have become unpredictable. It is difficult to understand how and where, by these decisions, the judicial pendulum swings. It was not so before, they contend.
In some quarters the view is strongly held that filth and intrigues characterize the institution these days! Judges are said to be comfortable in companies they never would have kept in the past. It is being insinuated that some judicial officers even campaign for the politicians. It cannot be more damnifying!”

DEPLETION OF JUDGES

“The conversation about the diminishing number of justices at the Supreme Court has become a refrain. As I bow out today, the number is further reduced to 10 against the Constitutional requirement of 21 justices. That this avoidable depletion has affected and will further affect the court and litigants is stating the obvious.
“We are in an election season where the Election Tribunals and appellate courts are inundated with all manner of petitions and appeals. The Supreme Court is the final court in the Presidential, Governorship and National Assembly election appeals. Yet, there are only 10 justices left to determine these matters. Constitutionally, each of these appeals requires a panel of seven justices to sit on them. When a panel of seven justices is constituted to sit on a particular appeal, only three justices are left out. Even when regular appeals are being heard in the Supreme Court, a panel of five justices is required to sit.

“We must not forget that the Court, being the highest in the land, receives all manner of appeals from the court below. Presently, there is neither limit nor distinction to the manner of appeals that come to the apex court. Again, beside election matters which are seasonal, the Supreme Court’s docket is overflowing with civil and criminal appeals, some of which took many years to arrive. Most of these are still pending. Several have not even been assigned hearing dates. The court also exercises original jurisdiction.
“As the justices who hear these matters are grossly overstretched, unable to meet the demands of their onerous assignment, the litigants who approach the court seeking justice are left in limbo; waiting endlessly for justice to be served. These ,as I have said before, are avoidable.”

NO CHANGES

“Valedictory session after valedictory session lapses and challenges that should be nipped are restated to no avail. Why the silence and seeming contentment?”

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