After 47 years in the judiciary, Justice Musa Dattijo Muhammad took a bow on Friday, October 27, 2023 after clocking the statutory age of 70 years. From a hall in Abuja, the voice of Justice Dattijo reverberated across the land. In this article, we analyse seven highlights of the judge’s speech.
The high and mighty attended his valedictory session. It’s been a while since a retiring judge hit the nail on the head the way he did. The comments made by the retiring justice of the Supreme Court, Musa Dattijo Muhammad, on the rot in the judiciary have continued to elicit reactions in the public space, with calls for reform to restore its integrity.
Justice Muhammad used the occasion to touch on six key points at the heart of judicial decline, which he noted were necessary to eradicate the lapses in the judiciary and revive the institution, even as he called for an investigation on utilisation of the incremental billions allocated to the judiciary so far.
The jurist reminisced that his career on the bench fared well and fulfilling in the beginning until halfway “when the punctuating turbulent cracks made it awry and askew.”
He raised issues about the enormous powers of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), the depleting number of Supreme Court justices, non-representation of North Central and South East zones on the apex court bench, funding of the judiciary and declining welfare of judges, nepotism in the appointment of judges, and negative image of the judiciary.
On the powers of the CJN
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 per cent of members of the council and 60 per cent 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.”
Depleting number of justices
On the depleting number of justices of the Supreme Court from the constitutionally guaranteed 21 to 10, Justice Dattijo Muhammad said the situation would affect the court and litigation.
“We are in an election season when election tribunals and appellate courts are inundated with all manners of petition 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. 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, besides 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 said before, are avoidable.”
Danger for democracy (Non-representation of N/Central and S/East zones)
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.
The jurist made the alert while calling for new appointments.
“Justice Ejembi Eko (JSC), who also represented the zone (North Central) retired on May 23, 2022. It has been a year and five months now and there has not been any replacement. With the passing of Justice Chima Centus Nweze (JSC) on July 29, 2023, the South East no longer has any presence at the Supreme Court.
“Justice Sylvester Nwali Ngwuta died on March 7, 2021 and 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 Justice Nweze, it has been two years and seven months since the previous justice from the South East died and no appointment was made; ditto for the replacement of Justice Eko from North Central, who exited nearly two years ago. Justice Sidi Bage, now the Emir of Lafia, from the North Central, had earlier voluntarily retired and he is yet to be replaced.
“Also, it was clear ab initio that I would be leaving the court on 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,” he said.
Justice Muhammad recalled that the apex court had its full complement of justices for the first time on November 6, 2020. The situation has retrogressed as only four geopolitical zones dominate the court, such as South West (3), North West (3), South South (2) and North East (2).
“Appropriate steps could have been taken since to fill outstanding vacancies in the apex court. Why have these steps not been timeously taken? It is evident that the decision not to fill the vacancies in the court is deliberate. It is all about the absolute powers vested in the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and the responsible exercise of the same,” he said.
Funding and independence of the judiciary
According to him, from the time former President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office till he departed few months ago, over N70bn 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 N70bn. In the 2018 Appropriation Bill submitted to the National Assembly, the President allocated N100bn to the judiciary.
“The legislature increased it to N110bn; N10bn above the N100bn appropriated for the 2017 fiscal year. At the end of President Buhari’s tenure in May 2023 judiciary’s allocation had increased to N130bn. That is an increase from N70 to #130bn in 8 years. The present government has allocated an additional sum of N35bn to the judiciary for the current financial year making the amount of money accessible by the judiciary to N165bn. More than 85 per cent of the amount appropriated by the 10th Assembly has so far been released to the judiciary. It is envisaged that the additional N35bn 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 renders 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 N400,000 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 and Uzodimma: Poor public image of the judiciary
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!”