Though the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, has promised that efforts were ongoing to elevate judges to fill the vacant seats at the Supreme Court, his predecessor made a similar pledge, which was not fulfilled. Alex Enumah writes that there are concerns that the drastic depletion of justices in the apex court hinders speedy dispensation of cases
The law provides that the Supreme Court should have a full team of 21 justices drawn from across the six geopolitical zones for proper representation. But the last time the court came close to realising that feat was in 2020, when the bench had 20 justices.
As at the beginning of last year, there were 17 justices on the bench of the apex court. However, between May 2022 and September 2023, about six justices of the apex court had either retired voluntarily after attaining their mandatory retirement age, or died.
Currently, there are only 10 justices at the court, including the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola.
Others are: Musa Muhammad, Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, John Okoro, Uwani Abba-Aji, Garba Lawal, Helen Morenikeji Ogunwumiju, Ibrahim Saulawa, Adamu Jauro, Tijjani Abubakar and Emmanuel Agim.
This low number of justices is not only affecting speedy dispensation of cases at the apex court, it is putting enormous pressure on the justices and affecting their health.
Speaking at the valedictory session organised in honour of Justice Musa Dattijo Mohammed recently, Justice Ariwoola lamented the lowest number of justices at the apex court in Nigeria’s history which he said found it challenging to tackle the heavy workload of pending cases in the court. He however, promised that efforts were on top gear to elevate judges to the bench of the court.
But many do not know when this would be achieved, given the fact that similar pledges made in the past were not fulfilled.
“With Justice 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 sizable number of Justices to boost our rank and complement the tremendous effort we have been investing in the business of the court.”
But Justice Mohammad during his valedictory speech had also lamented the low number of justices at the apex court, insinuating that the delay in replacing justices of the court was a deliberate policy. He added that the replacement of the retired justices and those who had passed, should have been done long ago, if drastic steps had been taken.
Also, at the valedictory organised in honour of Justice Amina Augie during her retirement from the court last month, Justice Ariwoola had equally lamented that the bench was over-laboured partly because of the litigious nature of Nigerians. According to him, “political cases, especially, are taking a monumental toll on our dockets. Indeed, the times we are in are not pleasant, to say the least.
Recently, human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), became so worried that he warned that it would be dangerous for the bodies vested with the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court to wait longer to fill the vacancies. He lamented that the number of justices reduced to just 10 is uncomfortable and wondered why the bodies that should replace the vacancies waited till now.
Falana lamented that even though there is a process on, the wheel of the process is too slow and should fasten up. He said he had personally reminded some of his colleagues in the appointing bodies to do something fast and avert a crisis that might arise from the lean bench.
“It is a matter of law and equity that all geopolitical zones of Nigeria are represented at the Supreme Court bench, and the process should be fastened to bridge that gap because if we wait longer it might raise a constitutional crisis.”
Speaking on the issue, Prof. Yemi Akinseye-George, (SAN), said the depletion of the court did not augur well for the administration of justice. He noted that there were many excellent justices of the Court of Appeal who should be elevated to the Supreme Court.
“The justices are obviously over-worked. The CJN and Justice Augie who has just retired highlighted the problem associated with the depletion of the court. The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Lateef Fagbemi has equally hinted that efforts are underway to fill the vacancies. I’m aware that the process has started.
“There are many excellent justices of the Court of Appeal who should be quickly processed for elevation to the Supreme Court. The depletion of the court does not augur well for the administration of justice,” he said.
Another senior lawyer, Mr. John Baiyeshea (SAN), said this depletion is not good for the adjudicatory system at all.
“The truth is that even if the court has the full strength of 21 justices, it is still not enough for the tremendous workload in that court”, he said.
While describing the development as a catastrophe, he expressed concern about the welfare and well-being of the justices.
“Imagine the election cases alone are taking a toll on them because as you know, Nigerians don’t let go on anything until they end litigation at the apex court.
“Some of the present election cases from 36 states on election will go up to the Supreme Court, on appeal, so also the presidential appeal. The justices certainly cannot cope.
“The normal cases are no longer being heard at the court because of the priority given to election cases that are time bound. And before we conclude the election cases for this season, another election year will set in, and the vicious cycle continues”.
While calling for immediate reform of the system, Baiyeshea charged the President and the National Judicial Council (NJC) to immediately start the process to appoint more Justices to the Supreme Court, adding that otherwise, the whole legal system of the country will collapse.
“We don’t want our Judges and Justices to die prematurely because of the horrendous pressure of litigation.
On his part, Mr. Abdul Balogun (SAN), called on the NJC to do the needful by replacing the justices to aid speedy dispensation of justice.
According to him, the apex court justices already have so much in their hands and can no longer afford to have their numbers reduced.
“The NJC should do the needful by screening and appointing more justices to the apex court to aid justice delivery. Already, they are not many, and to further have them reduced is a problem to justice delivery in the country for the apex court,” he said