Amid rift, Muhammad bows out, Ariwoola becomes CJN
• Buhari swears in Ariwoola as Ag. CJN confers GCON on Muhammad
• Warns judiciary against losing the confidence of Nigerians
• I will not fail Nigerians, Ariwoola assures
• Access to Justice hails CJN’s resignation
• NBA links CJN’s resignation to rumbling in Supreme Court
• Resignation not enough, EFCC should arrest him –HURIWA
• First task before Ariwoola is to bring experienced private practitioners to court, says Chief Alliyu (SAN)
For the first time in the country’s history, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), yesterday, voluntarily resigned from office, citing health grounds.
The resignation of Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad paved way for the next most senior jurist in the apex Court, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola to be sworn in as the acting CJN.
Mr Ahuraka Yusuf Isah, his Special Assistant on Media, who confirmed the resignation, said his principal, could no longer continue due to health-related issues.
In spite of this claim, signs were showing that the nation’s apex court was heading toward the brink, and something needed to shift to make that happen.
Justice Muhammad, who took over from Justice Walter Onnoghen under controversial circumstances in early 2019 was facing allegations of fund mismanagement by his brother Justices.
And a leaked memo, written to him by 14 justices of the court, led by Ariwoola himself, complained of poor welfare and lack of transparency in the management of the court’s resources, and that was unprecedented and highly damaging.
Following the memo, stakeholders, including the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) waded in and urged Justice Muhammad to be accountable and transparent in the management of the judiciary’s funds.
As the pressure was mounting and the allegations of corruption gathered momentum, a human rights lawyer, Chief Malcom Omirhobo wrote a freedom of information letter to the retired Justice, requesting to be furnished within seven days, all documents relating to the income and expenditures of the judiciary from 2019 till date or he sues, as they are public documents.
Expected to face the criticisms and defend his management of the resources of the court in line with the issues raised by his colleagues, Muhammad suddenly announced his exit yesterday on “health grounds”.
Consequent to his exit, Justice Ariwoola, 64, having been born August 22, 1958, in Oyo State, has taken his place in an acting capacity, pending when his name will be forwarded to the Senate for confirmation as substantive CJN.
President Muhammadu Buhari administered the oath of office on Ariwoola at the Council Chambers of the Presidential Villa, Abuja.
The acting CJN was accompanied to the ceremony by some of his colleagues at the Supreme Court to the state House, after first undergoing a mandatory COVID-19 test at the Banquet hall.
The President, who praised the ex-CJN for his contributions, also conferred on him the honour of Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON).
The President urged the Judiciary not to fail Nigerians so as not to erode their confidence.
Ariwoola was promoted to the apex court on November 22, 2011, from the court of appeal.
The new CJN shortly after his swearing-in assured that he would not fail Nigerians in his new assignment and would work to justify the confidence reposed in him.
“What Nigerians expect from me is to comply, preserve, abide and protect the Constitution of Nigeria. And so be it. That is what I will do, especially with the cooperation of my brother Justices of the Supreme Court. We shall not fail Nigerians,” he pledged.
On how he intends to handle the controversy in the Supreme Court, he said: “There is no controversy in the Supreme Court. We are one with the Chief Justice. That’s why you heard the President said His Lordship is disengaging on the grounds of ill-health.”
On the welfare issues raised in the letter addressed to the former CJN, he said: “It was an internal memo of the court. It was not a petition. It was not a letter. It was addressed by the brother Justices of the Chief Justice and presented to him, His Lordship directly. There were issues to be resolved amongst justices.”
Asked if those issues would be resolved under his leadership, he said: “Yeah, we’ve started resolving it.”
He is the third jurist to occupy the top Judiciary job in the country in the life of Buhari’s administration.
Justice Onnoghen also became the CJN under this administration before he was forced to resign from office.
REACTING to Muhammad’s exit, the president of NBA, Olumide Akpata hinted that the rumbling in the Supreme Court over poor leadership could be a possible cause of the sudden resignation.
In a statement released yesterday, the NBA president stressed that there is now more than ever, the need for urgent reforms in the Judiciary and to rebuild the “almost dissipated confidence that Nigerians have in the Judiciary.”
Akpata said: “It is, however, impossible to consider His Lordship’s retirement in isolation of the recent unprecedented developments at the Supreme Court, where 14 Justices of the Court censured the outgone CJN over His Lordship’s handling of their welfare and related issues
“Beyond this, there is near-universal agreement that public confidence in the Judiciary and indeed the legal profession is at an all-time low.”
The statement urged the new CJN to immediately embark on reforms to save the judiciary.
“These should form the immediate first tasks for Mr. Justice Ariwoola, as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria,” Akpata said.
While thanking the outgone CJN for his service to the nation, NBA also wished him a quick recovery and peaceful retirement.
The NBA also thanked him for ensuring a peaceful and cordial relationship between the Bar and the Bench during his reign.
The NBA pledged its readiness to work together with the acting CJN and the Judiciary in cleansing the “Augean Stable and addressing the ills that have continued to plague the judiciary.”
ALSO, judiciary watchdog, Access to Justice (A2J) has hailed the ex-CJN’s resignation.
The group said the action would create the chance to reboot the judiciary and reset its direction on a path of renewal and re-energisation
“News of the resignation draws the curtain over the illustrious career of Hon. Justice Muhammad, rose from humble beginnings to become Nigeria’s, Chief Justice.
“Although the circumstances of his emergence as CJN remain controversial, Access to Justice commends him for the decision to step down, following reported health concerns.
“A decision to give up an office with so much influence, prestige and power cannot come lightly, and a less forthright person may have chosen a different course of action. By this action, Hon. Justice Muhammad has shown utmost responsibility of office and personal integrity, “ the group’s convener, Joseph Otteh told The Guardian.
According to him, Nigeria’s Judiciary has, for too long been hung over by dark clouds, and has performed poorly across a number of performance indices.
Public confidence, he noted, is at low thresholds, and the Judiciary’s transparency and accountability have come under increasing questioning.
Otteh said the welfare of Judges is dwindling, and the government increasingly undermines the independence and autonomy of the judicial department.
“The next incumbent of the office of CJN, must declare a State of Emergency in the Judiciary, and take every step necessary to restore the health, efficiency, authority and accountability of the judicial arm of government,” he charged.
MEANWHILE, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria, (HURIWA) has said the resignation was not enough to clear him of corruption allegations levelled against him by the 14 justices of the Supreme Court.
HURIWA, in a statement by its National Coordinator, Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko, asked for the immediate arrest, investigation and if culpable, then prosecution of the retired CJN by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC).
Though Muhammad denied allegations of corruption, HURIWA had earlier asked the National Judicial Council (NJC) and the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) to probe him over the complaints by the Supreme Court justices.
HURIWA, however, applauded the swift action of the President to have sworn in Ariwoola as the acting CJN.
Similarly, former secretary, NBA, Asaba branch, Mr. A F Brideba has called for the immediate probe and trial of the former CJN for alleged involvement in corruption activities during his tenure.
Brideba, who criticised the honour on Muhammad, told The Guardian in Asaba, yesterday, that the probe has become imperative, following allegations of corruption against him, adding that such probe should extend to all the judges he appointed, while in office.
“If there is any place we need transparency, it is the Judiciary, so the man should be probed,” he declared.
According to him, the probe should also be extended to all Supreme Court justices as well as all NBA branches.
But the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, yesterday joined in applauding the retired jurist.
Also, an Abuja-based lawyer and human activist, Mr. Daniel D. Makolo, also called for the public investigation of the ex-CJN to determine the extent of rot in the apex court and the judiciary in general.
He felt that for Supreme Court justices to have cried out openly against the ex-CJN, the rot was more than people imagined.
“The longevity of abnormality does not make it normal. That we have people in government whose atrocities cry to high heavens and then, they shake it off like chicken beaten by rain, and then continue shamelessly does not make them have any iota of integrity.
“We see them on the streets and shake our heads. So, his resigning makes no meaning to me until he is investigated because he would have done terrible things to make him quickly resign the way he did.
“Justice Walter Onnoghen’s case was mere assets declaration form. Here, we are talking of alleged high level of rots, which made the Supreme Court justices unanimously write a letter by themselves and appended their signatures. It was more than activism; it was more than unionism.”
Makolo also urged President Muhammadu Buhari to quickly forward the name of the acting CJN to the National assembly for confirmation.
A statement from his media office quoted Atiku as saying: “The decision of Justice Tanko Muhammad to vacate office as the Chief Justice of Nigeria is commendable. I wish him well even as I commend him for his action and service to the nation.
“I wish the newly sworn-in Acting CJN, Justice Olukayode Ariowoola success as he steps in to fill the gap and assure him of my commitment to advancing the frontiers of judicial independence and the promotion of separation of powers as the bedrock of deepening democracy and development.”
For Chief Yomi Alliyu (SAN), the swearing-in of Ariwoola is the second time in half a decade a Justice from the private Bar is becoming a CJN, the last being Justice Onnoghen.
His words: “For many years from the time of My Lord Justice Mariam Mukhtar, Justice Kayode Ariwoola, popularly called “Ariwoooo” by the Gov of Ondo State, Arakunrin Akeredolu, has been the powerhouse of the Supreme Court in terms of following the principle of stare decisis to letter and sound principles of law for the good of the society.
“He led the Supreme Court, and in fact wrote the leading judgment in dismantling the hitherto finality of the judgment of the National Industrial Court surreptitiously put in the Constitution by the erstwhile powerful president of that court.
“My Lord Justice Ariwoola is expected to bring to an end overpopulating the Supreme Court with judges who never had appellate practice but rather rose from magistrate courts, thereby leading to public service judgments,” he suggested.
A constitutional lawyer, Dr. Kayode Ajulo, commended the former CJN for the timely resignation.
According to Ajulo, the resignation of Tanko was a sacrifice of some sort for the promotion of justice administration in Nigeria. He also urged Nigerians to pray for him for the step he has taken.
Speaking in defence of the ex-CJN, Abuja-based lawyer, Godwin Ogboji said there was no specific allegation against him.
He said: “There was an unprecedented letter by all 14 Justices of the Supreme Court generally complaining about their welfare and conditions of work, so to me that cannot be said to be a complaint/allegation against him personally.
“Be that as it may, the resignation of the CJN is said to be on health grounds and it is no secret that the CJN had been reported sick of late and so, I commend him for taking the very unusual step in Nigeria to resign to tend to his ill-health as generally, public officials in Nigeria rarely resign.”