President Muhammadu Buhari appears set to break the tradition of appointing the most senior justice of the Supreme Court as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) as he searches for the next occupant of the office.
He is believed to have gone beyond the Bench to the Bar, in search of the next substantive CJN.
There are also strong indications that the President has rejected the nomination of the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, for the position.
As the deadline of February 10, 2016 for the President to confirm Justice Onnoghen as the CJN draws closer, Buhari is shopping for a substantive CJN outside the Supreme Court.
Reliable government sources disclosed that Buhari, who is at present in London on a ten-day medical vacation, has opted to pick a private legal practitioner of “impeccable” character from the South-South geopolitical zone as the new CJN.
Onnoghen hails from Cross River State in the South-South region.
One of the sources who pleaded not to be named in print said that “by picking Justice Onnoghen’s replacement from the South-South region, it would disabuse the minds of Nigerians from the sentiment of Buhari promoting a Northern agenda in his administration.”
Justice Onnoghen was appointed as CJN in acting capacity following the retirement of Justice Mahmud Mohammed upon clocking the mandatory retirement age of 70.
The source alleged a grand plan to purge the Supreme Court Bench of justices who have soiled their hands with issues of bribery and corruption.
According to the source: “In the incoming weeks and months, there will be a massive compulsory retirement of some justices of the Supreme Court. This will pave way for fresh blood to be injected into the system.”
The source added that those to be appointed to the apex court’s Bench are judicial officers whose ideological leanings are tilted towards the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
The immediate past CJN, Justice Mohammed, while opening the 2016/2017 Legal Year in Abuja, cautioned against subverting the age-long tradition of appointing the most senior justice of the Supreme Court to head the country’s judiciary.
Justice Mohammed had said: “Permit me to restate that Section 231 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) is clear as to the procedure that must be followed in appointing a Justice of the Supreme Court or indeed a substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria. The National Judicial Council recommends, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria approves and the Senate confirms such appointments.
“While I would admit that there is no constitutional restriction as to where those to be appointed are selected from, the long held practice, which I daresay had been apolitical, transparent and fair, had been to appoint the most senior justice of the Supreme Court to the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria.”
“The idea that we can appoint a legal practitioner, without the proven experience or the temperance of character developed through the years of active participation in adjudication, may indeed be fraught with risk, none greater than the risk of creating another sinecure for party loyalists or reducing the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria to one which can be ‘lobbied’ for. This will undoubtedly and irreversibly hurt our justice system and must be strenuously resisted”.
Also, another ex-CJN, Justice Mohammed Uwais criticised the idea of appointing a private legal practitioner to the apex court Bench.
According to Justice Uwais: “…part of the problem is not just the ability of the judge you want. There is the issue of integrity; if you have been a judge at the High Court or Court of Appeal before coming to the Supreme Court, you would have done cases, whether you are a corrupt person, which would have been discovered. And from your judgments also, the Court of Appeal would have known how good you are if you are at the High Court. But if you are a legal practitioner, you haven’t written any judgment. So, there is no way you can be assessed in that respect.
“Again, you are not under the supervision of anybody when it comes to integrity and those are the two points why we felt anybody who is at the Bar who wants to go to the Supreme Court, should come to the Bench; let him start from the lower Bench”.
Also speaking on the issue, former President of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Chief Joseph Daudu (SAN), said that President Buhari’s tardiness in appointing a substantive CJN for the country’s judiciary was “unhealthy.”
Daudu said that the appointment of an Acting CJN by the President was unprecedented and unhealthy for the country’s judiciary, particularly when the NJC had recommended Justice Onnoghen as the candidate for appointment in a substantive capacity.
The senior lawyer declared that the appointment of a CJN was not the exclusive preserve of the Executive arm of government, saying, “it is a tripartite arrangement, which involves the judiciary acting through the NJC by way of recommendation, the Executive through the President by way of appointment and the legislature by way of confirmation of the said appointment”.
The Special Adviser to the President on Prosecution, Mr. Obono Obla, said that the issue of not confirming the acting CJN’s appointment was “speculative.”
Obla said that the Presidency was yet to take any decision on the matter.
“The President is not aware of any plot to remove the acting CJN. I don’t know about that. It is a rumour. The only thing is that at the appropriate time, the Federal Government will say something about the position of the CJN,” he said.