Prominent lawyers, including one-time President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr OCJ Okocha (SAN), have expressed worry over the present composition of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (SCN), saying the relevant authorities must review the criteria of appointment into the apex bench if it must rescue the country.
But the lawyers, who separately spoke to Sunday Vanguard though agreed on prioritizing excellence, integrity and character, learning and competence as criteria for appointment of judicial officers into the institution, they did not speak with one voice on the use of Federal Character in considering fit and proper persons for the apex bench.
Sunday Vanguard reports that the Supreme Court is presently composed of the newly sworn-in Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, and 13 other justices from different geo-political zones of the country.
The 13 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; Justice Helen Ogunwumiju, Ondo, South-West; and Justice Abdu Aboki, Kano, North-West.
Also in the Supreme Court are Justice I.M. Salnwa, Katsina, North-West; Justice Adamu Janro, Gombe, North-East; Justice Tijani Abubakar, Jigawa, North-West; and Justice Emmanuel Agim, Cross River, South-South.
The table above shows that five of the 14 justices are from the North-West, only one from the North-Central, two from the North-East totaling eight justices from the northern part of the country.
It also shows that South-West has three justices, one justice from the South-East and two others from the South-South totaling six justices from the southern part of the country.
Sunday Vanguard reports that the number of justices from the northern part of the country was nine until the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria resigned 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.
Nigeria is divided into six geopolitical zones: North-West, North -East, North-Central, South-West, South-South and South-East.
The regime of President Sani Abacha created the geopolitical zones for administrative purpose and sharing of the country’s economic, political, and educational resources.
The six zones were, however, not entirely carved out based on geographic location, but rather states with similar ethnic groups, and/or common political history, were classified in the same zone.
Sunday Vanguard reports that 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 from the time democracy berthed in May 1999, who had the opportunity to recommend best brains, including serving super lawyers and 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 policy 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, they always opted for the old criterion when it was time proper to fill the vacant seats at the Supreme Court.
Top lawyers in the country are, however, contending that the resignation of the immediate Chief Justice of Nigeria should be a good opportunity to reform the judiciary beginning with the mode of appointment into the apex bench.
Some of the lawyers who spoke to Sunday Vanguard on the issue were Okocha, Chief Anachebe Benbella (SAN) and a law scholar and former consultant to the Supreme Court who wanted to remain anonymous.
Okocha said, “Supreme Court of Nigeria, being the apex court, the finest in terms of learning and character should go there. It should be constituted by the most erudite persons, most learned persons, well behaved persons and persons with integrity.
“The court composition should not be based on quota system. Yes, there should be Federal Character in the appointment of judges into High Courts, Court of Appeal but not at the Supreme Court level. This is because it is a court that states what the law is”.
The former NBA President added that he was aware that some SANs indicated interest to join the institution but he would not know why the Supreme Court did not consider them.
But Benbella disagreed with Okocha on not his position that Federal Character should not be used to appoint justices into the Supreme Court.
His words: “The constitution of the Supreme Court should be aligned with Federal Character. We should pick the best justices from each region. What we want is the best.
“Unfortunately, what we have today is a deliberate policy by a section of the country to dominate in all spheres. That is the greatest error of the Buhari regime. The Supreme Court is in dire need of reform through which justices are appointed into the institution”.
The law scholar, on his part,was, however, of the view that “the Federal Character provision is not an accurate or appropriate basis to examine the composition of the Supreme Court. It is in any case fulfilled if one of the justices comes from each zone”.
He added: “The court is not and should not be associated with governance or government in Section 15 of the 1999 Constitution. It has been described as a super court of super justices. The present situation is a flawed situation based on seniority to appoint up to 21 justices”.