By Abiodun OBA
With no holds barred, Justice Musa Muhammad Dattijo bowed out of the apex court on Friday with a lot of regrets especially with damning verdicts on the judiciary and his immediate boss, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN Olukayode Ariwoola.
Justice Dattijo lamented that the Nigerian judiciary has changed from the one he joined, desired to serve and be identified with.
“The institution has become something else,” Dattijo said in the valedictory speech in which he identified various ills bedevilling the judiciary as an institution.
“Public perceptions of the Judiciary have over the years become witheringly scornful and monstrously critical,” Dattijo said in a speech that will no doubt further provide ammunition to those who have been very critical of the apex court because of some of its recent decisions.
As he noted, many Nigerians now believe that the judiciary is characterized by filth and intrigues with Judges now comfortable in companies they never would have kept in the past.
Justice Dattijo also condemned the enormous concentration of power in the hands of the CJN in terms of appointments into the various judicial bodies and administration of the system in Nigeria.
In what is best described as an unprecedented speech, Dattijo insinuated that the CJN used the power to ensure that the Southeast was not represented in the panel set up to hear the appeal for the presidential election.
He lamented that though he was supposed to be deputy to the CJN, there was no constitutional provision assigning or mandating his boss to consult him before taking any decision.
The retiring Supreme Court justice also noted that with the structure currently in place, the CJN is Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC) which oversees both the appointment and discipline of judges.
He noted that the CJN is also the chairman of the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), the National Judicial Institute (NJI), and 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 the 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,” Dattijo noted.
He added that regrettably, the next most senior justice of the Supreme Court, like Deputy Governors of a 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 CIN pleases. It is incumbent that the system provides for more inclusion and consultation among the stakeholders.”
He also regretted that the presidential election appeal panel did not include representatives from all parts of the country because of the shortage in the number of the court’s Justices.
Dattijo put the blame at the door of the CJN, alleging that it is deliberate and “all about the absolute powers vested in the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and the responsible exercise of same.”
He noted that with his retirement, the number of Justices at the Supreme Court will be further reduced to 10 against the constitutional requirement of 21 justices, a situation he noted will put further strains on the court and litigants.
“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.
“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 23 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 7 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 the previous Justice from the Southeast 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 Lafla, from the North Central, had earlier voluntarily retired. He 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.
“As it stands, only four geo-political regions – the Southwest, South South, North-West and North-East – are represented in the Supreme Court. While the South-South and North East have two serving justices, 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 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 same,” Dattijo said.
On funding of the judiciary, Justice Dattijo queried the management of budgetary allocation, saying complaints about poor funding of the sector should be accompanied by the demand for transparency on how what is allocated is expended.
He noted that the salaries of Justices have remained static with no graduation for over 15 years, but quickly added that unrelenting searchlight needs to be beamed to unravel how the sums being budgeted are expended.
“In 2015 when President Muhammadu Buhari became the president, the budgetary allocation to the Judiciary was N70 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, the Judiciary’s allocation had increased to N130 billion. That is an increase from N70 billion to N130 billion in eight years.
“The present government has allocated an additional sum of N35 billion to the Judiciary for the current financial year, making the amount of money accessible by the Judiciary to N165 billion.
“More than 85 per cent of the amount appropriated by the 9th 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 751,000 in a month. The CJN on his part takes home $400,000 plus. The salary of a Justice, curiously, drops rather than increase when he gets the added responsibility of being a CJN.
“That the unjust and embarrassing salary difference between the justices and the Chief Registrar still abides remains intriguing to say the least.
“Valedictory session after valedictory session lapses and challenges that should be nipped are restated to no avail. Why the silence and seeming contentment?”
On the appointment of judicial officers, Justice Dattijo noted that unlike in the past, merit, sound knowledge of the law, integrity, honour and hard work were no longer the determining criteria.
He regretted that people now lobby, bribed to be appointed judges with judicial officers influencing the process for the benefit of their children.
“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 said 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-emphasised. 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.
“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 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 characterise 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 damning!
“President Muhammadu Buhari, in 2016, ordered the forceful entry into the houses and the arrest of Justices, some of whom were serving at the apex court.
“Not done, in 2019 the government accosted, arrested and arraigned the incumbent Chief Justice before the Code of Conduct Tribunal for alleged underhand conduct.
“With his retirement apparently negotiated, he was eventually left off the hook.
“In 2022 a letter signed by all the other justices of the Supreme Court, including the current Chief Justice, the aggrieved protested against the shabby treatment meted to them by the head of the court and the Chief Registrar.
“At the centre of the friction was their welfare and the cavalier attitude of the Chief Registrar thereto. In the event, his lordship Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad disengaged ostensibly on grounds of ill health.
“Intrinsic in what I have said today are indices to dampen, nay eradicate the lapses in the Judiciary. The duty to revive the institution remains a collective one. We must persist,” Dattijo concluded.
The CJN, in his speech assured that efforts are on top gear to increase the number of justices in the apex court.
“With Justices Musa Dattijo leaving us today after the retirement of Hon. Justice Adamu Amina Augie a few weeks ago, we are now left with just 10 Justices on the Supreme Court Bench; being the lowest we have ever had in contemporary history of the Court.
“However, I can confidently assure all the litigant public that efforts are in top gear to get on board a sizeable number of Justices to boost our rank and complement the tremendous effort we have been investing in the business of the Court,” said the CJN.
The CJN also paid glowing tributes to Dattijo, describing him as “an epitome of jurisprudential finesse; an insuperable lion with an irrepressible voice in the temple of justice
“We are here to identify with an accomplished jurisprudential iconoclast that has offered the best of his intellect to the advancement of the legal profession through his several years of unblemished and incontrovertible adjudications at different levels of Courts in Nigeria.”