DISCONTENT OVER CHOICE OF SUPREME COURT JUSTICES

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DISCONTENT OVER CHOICE OF SUPREME COURT JUSTICES

As Nigerians wait on the National Judicial Council (NJC) to make final pick for the Supreme Court bench, fresh claims have emerged to explain the lopsidedness in the 22-person list cobbled by the Federal Judicial Service Commission, from which the council, would recommend 11 justices of the Court of Appeal, for elevation.

The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, is the chairman of both judicial bodies.

The age-long process of FJSC nominating to NJC, under one chairmanship, has been severely knocked by many stakeholders with the recent coming from the most senior justice in the country, Justice Musa Dattijo Muhammad.

Sunday Tribune has heard from serving and retired senior judicial officers that the ongoing process deviated from time-honoured practice of picking senior Court of Appeal justices for Supreme Court vacancies in their geo-political zones to position certain nominees as potential future CJN.

In the past, the North had been particularly accused of deliberately promoting young judges and juniors from the axis to stay long enough at the apex court to be CJN due to the succession arrangement that’s based mainly on seniority.

Frustrated judicial stakeholders are querying the morale of the list emanating from FJSC because it did not follow seniority at zone’s level in recommending justices of the penultimate court for the 11 Supreme Court vacancies expected to be filled in weeks from now.

From the available slots, each of North-Central and South-East is getting three, North-West will get two while the trio of South-West, South-South and North-East will get one each.

The system and the public space have been in a meltdown since penultimate Thursday when the FJSC list which was prepared at the behest of the CJN, Justice Ariwoola, was released, showing senior justices of the Court of Appeal playing second fiddle to younger and junior colleagues in their various zones on the priority list.

The 11 nominees on the priority list are expected to be recommended to President Bola Tinubu for appointment and Senate screening, though the 11 on the reserve list have an outside chance should the favoured nominees falter during NJC’s appointment interview.

Sunday Tribune learnt some interest groups have been campaigning for younger justices from all zones to reduce regular appointments to the apex court through retirement and sudden deaths.

It appears that the campaigners got the leadership of the system to listen, as the FJSC list showed that many senior justices of the intermediate court from zones with vacancies were completely ignored for younger and junior colleagues.

Despite being a product of succession-by-seniority, Ariwoola led the commission to completely ignore older and senior justices from the South-West, including the second most senior justice of the court, Justice OlukayodeBada, who joined the court on November 11, 2005 and will retire on May 10, 2025.

Also overlooked from South-West and from the same Osun State as Bada is Justice Tunde Oyebanji Awotoye. He is 15th most senior justice of the Court of Appeal and got to the court on July 16, 2010. He will retire on May 8, 2027.

The duo lost to their junior from Lagos, Justice Adewale Abiru, who was appointed to the court on November 5, 2012 and will retire on October 17, 2034, very likely, at the apex court.

Justice Olubunmi Oyewole, who hails from Osun, but employed as Lagos High Court judge, is on South-West Reserve List and also Abiru’s junior.

Despite Abiru’s expected long stay at the apex court, he will be missing the cut for the top-job, due to the relative young age of other priority nominees from other zones.

He will, however, be second most senior justice for five months in 2034, before his exit.

Going by their age and seniority on the current job which they are expected to maintain at the apex court, when finally lifted, only three of the 11 justices on the priority list, would be in line to be future chief justice of Nigeria.

They are Justice Moore Adumein from Bayelsa (South-South), Obande Ogbuinya from Ebonyi State (South-East), and Justice Mohammed Baba Idris from Niger State (North-Central).

In what signals a deliberate pick, two of the trio were placed on the priority list, while their seniors were on the reserve list.

Instructively too, like the Bada in the South-West scenario, the most senior justices from the trio’s zones were completely snubbed by FJSC.

Justice Ita George Mbaba, the 13th most senior at the Court of Appeal and the most senior from the South-South zone was overlooked for Adumein, likely because of longevity on the apex court bench.

Mbaba is due for retirement in 2025, while Adumein’s retirement is clocked at 2034 and would be CJN for four years, from April 27, 2030 to May 6, 2034, if succession based on seniority is preserved.

He prepared the lead judgement in the controversial but unanimous decision of the Court of Appeal in Kano gubernatorial election appeal last week.

The South-East man, Ogbuinya, who is expected to take over from Adumein from May 7, 2034 to June 16, 2035, is number 17 on the Court of Appeal bench, while Justice Theresa Orji-Abadua from Imo State –placed on reserve– is number 9.

In the South-East, it is a mixed fortune for the most senior justices, especially those in number six, seven, eight and nine.

Anambra-born Justice Uzoamaka Ifeyinwa Ndukwe-Anyanwu is the most senior from the South-East and at number six, but she is retiring December 28, this year.

Next to her is Justice Chidiebere Nwaoma Uwa from Abia State, who is the only senior on the priority list. However, she is primed to leave the apex court early, with her retirement due on October 26, 2028, raising questions about her positive consideration when other senior justices like her, were bypassed.

Like Orji-Abadua, the 9th most senior, Justice ChiomaNwosu-Iheme, who is a step ahead of Orji-Abadua, was asked by the Ariwoola FJSC to play second fiddle to Justice Anthony Ogakwu from Enugu State, who joined the court in March 2014 and will retire on August 4, 2034, almost certain, at the apex court.

Incidentally, just like Abiru, Ogakwu’s long stay won’t deliver the CJN seat to him, as he is out the succession loop, except for unexpected disruption.

He is number 38 at the Court of Appeal.

While the Iheme/Ogakwu episode has attracted a lot of criticism, the nomination that has confounded many stakeholders the most is Idris’s, the son to a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, late Idris Legbo Kutigi.

He is number 54 on the Court of Appeal seniority list, while his reserve, Justice Joseph Ikyegh, from Benue State is 10th most senior.

Many senior lawyers, who do not want to be identified, have argued that like Lagos, Niger was not due for another vacant slot, considering that six states in a geo-political zone are expected to rotate the three statutory slots reserved for each of them.

Justice Musa Muhammad Dattijo, who just retired from the apex bench, is from Niger State.

Kwara State is the only North-Central state without a nomination, either on priority or reserve lists.

The situation is similar to Lagos being positioned to retain the seat vacated by another Lagosian, Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour, while Ogun State’s last appointment to the apex court was in 1989 even though both states are expected to rotate the slot.

South-West is currently represented on the apex court by Ariwoola from Oyo State, Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun from Lagos State and Justice Helen Ogunwumiju from Ondo State.

The coming of Abiru will give Lagos two slots out of the mandatory three for South West.

In what critics called ‘target’ pick, Kutigi’s son is the only junior on the priority list from the North-Central zone and the only one in the succession line.

Justice Joseph Ikyegh from Benue, who is pairing Idris as his reserve, is number 10 at the Court of Appeal and will retire in 2028, while Idris is going to spend the next 17 years in the apex court, five of which he would serve as the CJN, all things being equal.

Picking future CJNs ahead of their seniors, allegedly deliberately for future leadership, has enraged many insiders who are accusing the Ariwoola-administration of pandering to interests and forces.

As the apex court waits for the latest addition, the succession path for the current nine justices, (outside of the CJN) has also thrown up questions about the turnover of CJNs.

Of the lot, only four are in the succession line, according to seniority and age –Justices Kudirat Kekere-Ekun from Lagos, Inyang Okoro from AkwaIbom, Tijjani Abubakar from Yobe and Emma Agim from Cross River.

While Kekere-Ekun is expected to serve as the second female CJN in the history of Nigeria, from August 23, 2024, to May 7, 2028, Okoro, by established arrangement, will take over from May 8, 2028 to July 11, 2029.

Tijjani Abubakar and Agim are both born in April 1960, though the former is senior.

Abubakar will lead the apex court for nine months, from July 12, 2029 to April 15, 2030.

Agim, who would be the most senior then, would rule from April 16, 2030 to April 26, 2030, making his tenure one of the shortest ever in history, provided nothing human and natural disrupt the succession and seniority arrangement.

Of the five justices of the Court of Appeal that put judicial seal on the election of President Bola Tinubu, only two –Justice Haruna Tsammani, who chaired the panel, and Justice Stephen Adah– are on the priority list for elevation to the Supreme Court.

About Dons Eze

DONS EZE, PhD, Political Philosopher and Journalist of over four decades standing, worked in several newspaper houses across the country, and rose to the positions of Editor and General Manager. A UNESCO Fellow in Journalism, Dr. Dons Eze, a prolific writer and author of many books, attended several courses on Journalism and Communication in both Nigeria and overseas, including a Postgraduate Course on Journalism at Warsaw, Poland; Strategic Communication and Practical Communication Approach at RIPA International, London, the United Kingdom, among others.

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