Alex Enumah writes that the cry for appointment of more justices into the bench of the Supreme Court may yield fruitful result soon as Federal Judicial Service Commission steps up move to increase the number from the current 10 to full complement of 21Justices.
Section 230 (2) (b) of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (As Amended) provides that, “ The Supreme Court of Nigeria shall consist of such number of Justices not exceeding 21 as may be prescribed by an Act of the National Assembly.”
The last time the bench of the apex court got very close to achieving its full compliment was in 2020, when eight Justices of the appellate court were elevated to join 12 of their brother justices on the bench of the apex court.
Since then, the bench has witnessed a steady depletion from 20 to its current 10 Justices, a situation the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, described as the lowest in the history of the country’s judiciary. While the depletion was attributed to mandatory retirement and death in the last three years, unfortunately there has been no known efforts by the leadership of the judiciary to fill the vacant positions.
Current CJN, like his predecessor, Justice Tanko Muhammad, had cried to the high heavens over the increasing workload of the apex court justices as a result of the few justices, but since last year that he assumed office as CJN; Ariwoola, who oversees all agencies under the judiciary, including the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) and National Judicial Council NJC), bodies responsible for the recommendation of justices for appointment, was yet to make any appointment.
Within the last two years, both members of the Bar and Bench had on several occasions acknowledged the extra burden the depletion has brought on the remaining justices, especially in an election year like this when nearly all pre-election and post-election matters reach the apex court.
As at today, there are only 10 Justices in the Supreme Court, with the implication that in the event of of two constitutional appeals that would require a panel of seven justices, the apex court would be in dilemma. Recall that during the hearing of the 2023 presidential election appeal report has it that the CJN and one other justice recused themselves from the trial because of interest, implying that the apex court have a very limited choice to pick from in constituting the panel.
The 10 Supreme Court Justices as at today are; the CJN, Olukayode Ariwoola, Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, John Okoro, Uwani Abba Aji, Garba Mohammed, Helen Ogunwumiju, Ibrahim Saulawa, Adamu Jauro, Abubakar Tijjani and Emmanuel Agim.
While reasons for the delay in appointing more justices for the apex court are not readily available, especially in an election year like this, recently retired Justice Musa Dattijo Muhammad, had put the blame on the feet of the CJN, whose powers he wants reduced. Although, Ariwoola had at the same occasion where he was blamed for the delay in appointing justices of the apex court disclosed that efforts were on to fill the vacant positions at the Supreme 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”, the CJN had said at a valedictory court session held in honour of Justice Muhammad who retired recently.
Attorney-General of the Federation AGF) and Minister of Justice, Prince Lateef Fagbemi (SAN) also assured of the executive’s readiness regarding the appointment issue so as to ease the heavy workload of the justices.
Not left out on the issue of appointment is the National Assembly, which also assured that it is ready to do everything in its powers to support the appointment of justices into the bench of the Supreme Court.
Chairman of the National Assembly and President of the Senate, Senator Godswill Akpabio, who reiterated the commitment of the federal lawmakers towards the speedy dispensation of justice, had while expressing concern about the excruciating working conditions of justices of the apex court, stated that, “the legislature is determined to improve the judiciary through very intentional appropriations and we are going to work closely on this.
“We are aware that the number of Justices on the bench of the Supreme Court has dropped drastically below the constitutional requirement. It is a matter of national interest that we immediately initiate the due process of law to address the shortfall at the apex court. In this wise, the legislature is ready to play its role”.
However, after few weeks of the assurances of the CJN, news filtered in last week that no fewer than 22 Justices of the appellate court may be shortlisted for elevation into the apex court’s bench. The shortlisted names have reportedly been forwarded to the National Judicial Council, which after thorough screening, will forward same to the President and National Assembly, for confirmation and approval respectively. Following their confirmation, they will then be sworn in as Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
While this may be good news to litigants and Nigerians generally, some advocates who have been itching to cross from the Bar to the Bench would have been disappointed. Recall that the umbrella body for lawyers in Nigeria, the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), had been pushing for the expansion of appointment into the bench of the Supreme Court to include lawyers with certain years of experience.
From the FJSC’s documents in public domain, the 22 persons shortlisted for appointment into the bench of the Supreme Court consist of justices of the appellate court from the six geo-political zones. The list further showed that 11 have priority consideration, while the other 11 are on reserve. The regional distribution of nominees revealed that, the North-Central region has six, while the South-West and South-South regions each has two. The South-East and North-East regions have six and two nominees respectively.
According to the documents, those reportedly shortlisted include:
Hon Justice Nwaoma Uwa (Abia State) – Priority; Hon Justice Onyekachi Otisi (Abia State) – Reserve; Hon Justice Obande Ogbuinya (Ebonyi State) – Priority; Hon Justice Theresa Orji-Abadua (Imo State) – Reserve; Hon Justice Anthony Ogakwu (Enugu State) – Priority and Hon Justice Chioma Nwosu-Iheme (Imo State) – Reserve, for South East.
For South south, we have Hon Justice Moore Adumein (Bayelsa State) – Priority and Hon Justice Biobele Georgewill (Rivers State) – Reserve.
South west: Hon Justice Adewale Abiru (Lagos State) – Priority; Hon Justice Olubunmi Oyewole (Osun State) – Reserve
North central: Hon Jummai Sankey (Plateau State) – Priority; Hon Justice Muhammad Ibrahim Sirajo (Plateau) – Reserve; Hon Justice Stephen Adah (Kogi State) – Priority;
Hon Justice Ridman Maiwada Abdullahi (Nassarawa State) – Reserve; Hon Justice Baba Idris (Niger State) – Priority andHon Justice Joseph Ikyegh (Benue State) – Reserve
North east: Hon Justice Haruna Simon Tsammani (Bauchi State) – Priority and Hon Justice Abubakar Talba (Adamawa State)
North West: Hon Justice Muhammad Lawal Shuaibu (Jigawa State) – Priority; Hon Justice Bello Aliyu (Zamfara State) – Reserve; Hon Justice Abubakar Sadiq Umar (Kebbi State) – Priority and Hon Justice Abdullahi Mahmud Bayero (Kano State) – Reserve.
Following the assurances from both the executive and legislative arms of government, it is believed that names forwarded for confirmation would be approved without any difficulty. The appointment which on one hand would ease the burden a little on the current justices, it is hoped on the other hand, that it would enhance public confidence in the courts.