There was once a bench
“Chief Justice, I am glad you gave that judgment, because I want you to feel free, if I commit a crime or do wrong in your opinion, to say so…if I am brought before you, send me to your jail – this is the way I want the judiciary to perform. You will never waver from the truth.”
These were the words of the late Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa to the first indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria, Sir Adetokunbo Adegboyega Ademola in 1961 as published by Mr. Trevor Clark on page 541 of his book titled A Right Honourable Gentleman. Mr. Trevor Clark, a Briton, worked in the colonial administrative service in Nigeria from 1948-1977. Sir Adetokunbo Ademola was the longest serving Chief Justice of Nigeria (1958-1972). The case Sir Abubakar was referring to involved the National Bank of Nigeria and Federal Government of Nigeria over an attempt by the Federal Government to probe the bank on certain allegations. But the Supreme Court then ruled against the Federal Government. In another instance, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa told Justice Ademola that, “CJ, if I do anything wrong and I am brought before you, deal with me; and if necessary send me to jail…”
Mr. Trevor Clark later described Justice Ademola on page 363 of that book, “as a cultivated man with a quiet manner.” In 1964, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, spoke out publicly once more for his brethren on the bench, calling the abolition of appeals to the privy council premature, and the abolition of the Judicial Service Commission deplorable: “The day that judges have to take instructions from politicians, or to acquaint them with their decisions beforehand, it will be time for us to pack up and go.” Kudos must be given to Justice Ademola and others for establishing the integrity of Nigeria’s Judiciary.
He was the son of Alake of Egbaland, Sir Oladipo Samuel Ademola II (1872-1962), who reigned from September 1920 to 1962. Despite being appointed Chief Justice over the first African to serve in the Supreme Court of Nigeria in the person of Justice Samuel Olumuyiwa Jibowu (1899-1959), husband to Mrs. Cecilia Jibowu nee Alakija and Lady Deborah Jibowu of Iddo Ajinare in Ekiti State, Justice Ademola performed his duties creditably. Justice Ademola served as Chief Justice of Western Region in 1955 and was appointed Chief Justice of Nigeria on April 1, 1958. During his tenure and after his tenure, the Nigeria’s Judiciary was held in high to the extent that there was a high demand from other countries for Nigerian judges.
Sir Louis Nwachukwu Mbanefo (1911-1977) from Onitsha and believed to be the first lawyer from Eastern Region of Nigeria, was called to bar in 1935 and served in 1961 as an ad hoc judge at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands. Justice Charles Dadi Onyeama (1917-1999), father of the current Minster of Foreign Affairs, Geofrey Jideofor Kwusike Onyeama (60), was an associate Justice of the Supreme Court between 1964-1967. His contemporaries then were Justice Eugene Olufemi Morgan; Justice John Idowu Conrad Taylor (1917-1973) ; Justice Michael Oguejiofor Ajegbo, former Attorney-General of Eastern Region; Justice George Baptist Ayodola Coker (1917-1991); Justice Chukwunikweike Idigbe and Justice Lionel Brett.
He was appointed Judge of International Court of Justice in The Hague in 1966 and served till 1976. Justice Taslim Olawale Elias (1914-1991) was Chief Justice of Nigeria between 1972 and 1975. He was elected by the General Assembly and the Security Council of the United Nations to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. In 1979, he was elected Vice-President by his colleagues on that court. In 1981, after the death of Sir Humprey Waldock, the President of the Court, he took over as Acting President. In 1982, the members of the Court elected him President of the Court. He thus became the first African Jurist to hold that honour. Five years later, Elias was also appointed to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. `
General Thomas Johnson Umanakwe Aguiyi Ironsi (1924-1966) appointed in January 1966 the former Director of Public Prosecution in Eastern Region of Nigeria Chief Michael Chike Gabriel Onyuike (1922-1993) from Awka, as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation. After his tenure, he later served as Justice in the High Court of Tanzania between 1970 and 1974.
Prince Bolasodun Adesumbo Ajibola (82) served as a Judge of the International Court of Justice at The Hague between 1991 and 1994. Justice Timothy Akinola Aguda (1923-2001) from Akure in Ondo State was the pioneer Chief Justice of Botswana when the landlocked country gained its independence on September 30, 1966.
Justice Egbert Udo Udoma (1917-1998) from Ikot Abasi, Akwa Ibom State, was the first Chief Justice of Uganda from 1963 to 1969. He handled the Buganda crisis case in 1965. Justice Udoma handed over to Justice Dermot Joseph Sheridan who later became the first indigenous Chief Justice of Uganda. He is the father of the present Minister in charge of Budget and Planning, Senator Udo Udoma. Justice Emmanuel Olayinka Ayoola (83) from Ilesha, Osun State, served as a Justice of the Court of Appeal in The Gambia between 1980-1983. He later became the Chief Justice of The Gambia between (1983-1992). He was Vice President of the World Judges Association in 1991. That was then. Not now.
You can imagine the shock and disappointment when one reads the arrest and persecution of some judges recently. We can’t be all wrong. If we miss our way I guess it is the bench that must serve as the torchlight to show us the way. In spite of what has gone wrong in the Bench, there is still hope.
Section 211 of the 1979 Constitution says “the appointment of a person to the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria shall be made by the President in his discretion, subject to confirmation of such appointment by a simple majority of the Senate. The appointment of a person to the office of a Justice of the Supreme Court shall be made by the President on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission subject to approval of such appointment by a simple majority of the Senate. But Section 231 of the 1999 Constitution says that (1) the appointment of a person to the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate. (2) The appointment of a person to the office of a Justice of the Supreme Court shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.
Sections 230 to 296 have given wide powers to the National Judicial Council to carry out necessary reforms within the judiciary. If you look at the profiles of members of the council, you will never doubt their integrity. We should allow them to carry out the required exercise, not only flushing out corrupt judges but also in the appointment of men of integrity as judges. They can still bring back the glory to the Bench.
Teniola, a former director at the Presidency, lives in Lagos.