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Supreme Court judgement: Iconic jurists speak…‘even those in the grave’


Against the backdrop of controversies trailing the Supreme Court judgments on Imo, Bayelsa, and previously Kogi and Zamfara states’ governorship elections, there are so many questions in search of answers today: What has happened to the Supreme Court compared to that which, in those days had its Justices known as ‘The ‘Real Supremes’? What would those icons of those eras have said about the temple of justice now being assailed left, right and centre?

It was the doubt over the January 14 judgment that prompted Chief Emeka Ihedioha, and his party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to seek a review, which was equally dismissed last Tuesday.

Another dent on the image of the jurists was the persistent allegation of corruption, which was perceived to have undermined dispensation of justice.
Cases in point include the raid of the homes of some Justices of the Supreme Court in Abuja, Judges of the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt and Abuja and State High Court Judges in Gombe and Kaduna states on account of alleged corruption on October 7, 2016, between the hours of 10.00p.m and the wee hours of the next day, by the Department of State Services (DSS).


The result of the invasion was the sack of the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, over non-declaration of assets by President Muhammadu Buhari.

These are some of the blights on the Nigerian temple of justice. The climax is the ongoing doubts over the Supreme Court pronouncements on critical cases and the seeming contradictions therein, which have attracted the attention of the retired Justice of the Supreme Court and former Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC), Justice Emmanuel Olayinka Ayoola, decrying the quality of judgments coming out from the apex court. According to him, those deliveries lack “ingredients of deep thinking.”

He, however, blamed huge number of cases in the court for not allowing the Justices to do better.

The Octogenarian, in an exclusive interview with The Guardian at his Ibadan home, said the country needs collective thinking and people with critical minds to review some of the judgments in the academic journals.

He charged Law professors in the universities to take up challenges of reviewing some of the judgments and produce law journals that the Judges could learn from, adding: “We have overloaded the Supreme Court with many cases. Now, if you have numerous cases, how much time do you have for deep thinking? 


“If you have time to think, you won’t have the difficulty we have in Nigeria now, particularly in the Supreme Court. So many cases, no enough time to think, not only to think, but also to think deeper.

“And unless we have the Supreme Court that thinks deeper, we are getting to nowhere. And at the end of the day, there is going to be poverty of thoughts and poverty of everything. The society will be worse off.”

Ayoola, who is also the former chairman of Human Rights Commission (HRC), advised Supreme Court Justices to avail themselves with judgments from developed countries to enrich their judgments.He said: “In the past, including when all of us started in the High Court, right to the Supreme Court, we put our several thoughts together in judgments, because we read wide. So if you are going to give a judgment and you can’t find in law report, you go to England, you go to Canada, you go to Australia and you come back with your conclusion.

“But now, we do not care about those authorities. And then, we have to repeat what have been said over and over just within the law report we have.”He said he found the fine imposed on the litigants in Bayelsa governorship election petition recently decided by the Supreme Court as “ridiculous” and with no precedent.He, however, proposed that retired Judges should brace up to review some of the judgments to safe the judiciary.


Similar thoughts have been expressed by some of the Nigeria’s iconic jurists including the followings:
Mohammed Lawal Uwais was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria 1995 until 2006. But what remains evergreen about him is his verdict about our electoral process, saying: “We acknowledge that our elections have shortcomings. I also believe that our experiences represent an opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Accordingly, I will set up a panel to examine the entire electoral process with a view to ensuring that we raise the quality and standard of our general elections, and thereby deepen our democracy.”

Anthony Aniagolu (Died in 2011) served as Chief Judge of Anambra State from 1976 to 1978 and was a Justice of the Nigerian Supreme Court from 1978 to 1987. In 1988, he chaired the Constituent Assembly to propose a draft constitution for Nigeria’s Third Republic. Any judge on the bench administering justice at variance with the ethics of the legal profession should be removed immediately, Justice Anthony Nnamezie Aniagolu once said. Speaking in Abuja at the launching of a book titled, “The Great Judge,” written in his honour, Aniagolu called on judges in the country to “take their job as doing God’s work on earth,” adding also that “God is the greatest Judge.”


Justice Chukwudifu Akunne Oputa in a decided case asserted the doctrine of infallibility of the Supreme Court in Adegoke Motors vs. Adesanya, 1989 13 NWLR, pt.109, 250 at page 275). It was in this landmark case that Justice Oputa stated: “We are final not because we are infallible; rather we are infallible because we are final. Justices of this Court are human beings, capable of erring. It will certainly be short-sighted arrogance not to accept this obvious truth. It is also true that this Court can do inestimable good through its wise decisions. Similarly, the Court can do incalculable harm through its mistakes. When therefore it appears to learned counsel that any decision of this Court has been given per incuriam, such counsel should have the boldness and courage to ask that such a decision be overruled. This Court has the power to overrule itself (and has done so in the past) for it gladly accepts that it is far better to admit an error than to persevere in error.”

Samuel Obakayode “Kayode” Eso, CON, CFR (September 18, 1925 – November 16, 2012) served as Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. He was one of the members of the 8-man panel of judges at the Supreme Court of Nigeria that presided over the Awolowo v. Shagari case, in which Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s petition challenged the declaration of Alhaji Shehu Shagari as the president-elect of the country after the August 11, 1979 presidential election. He was probably more apt when he opined that “the election tribunals were turning judges into billionaires.”

Idris Legbo Kutigi OFR, GCON (31 December 1939 – 21 October 2018) will continue to be remembered for his remarks as the Chairman of the 2014 National
Conference when he declared: “Let me state here categorically and with the fear of Almighty Allah in my heart, that not once did you interfere or dictate to us. The only time we tried to consult the President (Dr. Goodluck Jonathan) during the conflict over voting percentages at the very beginning of the Conference we were told that the issue was for us to resolve.”


Niki Tobi, CON (July 14, 1940 – June 19, 2016) was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. He was known for his legal erudition and wide knowledge of legal principles. Dilating on the scurrilous nature of impeachment proceedings which had erupted at the time, and in particular on ‘Rashidi Ladoja’s Case’ as that particular matter came to be known, the late jurist stated that “It is not a lawful or legitimate exercise of the constitutional function in Section 188 for a House of Assembly to remove a Governor or a Deputy Governor to achieve a political purpose or one of organized vendetta clearly outside gross misconduct under the Section. Section 188 cannot be invoked merely because the House does not like the face or look of the Governor or Deputy Governor in a particular moment.”

John Idowu Conrad (JIC) Taylor, born on August 24, 1917 was a seminal figure in Lagos. During his time practicing at the Nigerian Bar, he was a commanding lawyer, well remembered for several high profile cases. In tributes paid to him after his death, at the young age of 56, he was remembered as bold, independent, fearless; a classical legalistic conservative lawyer who had received his legal training in England and went on to contribute immensely to the development of Nigerian case law. John Taylor died on 7 November 1973. Justice J.I.C Taylor once made an observation that “the Federal Executive Council has no statutory power over the Price Control Board” while hearing a motion filed by the Attorney-General of the Federation asking the court to dismiss a suit by Dr. Ola Oni. He also opined that “the Federal Executive Council was not vested with powers to make laws and as such, it cannot revoke laws.”
Justice Adolphus Godwin Karibi-Whyte hailed from Abonnema, Rivers State. He Justice of the Supreme Court between 1984 to 2002. He was also appointed a Judge of International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia in 1993 where he also served as the Vice President of the Tribunal from 1993 to 1997.


Through his books and landmark decisions, he made eloquent contributions to the development of the law in Nigeria. During the Founders’ Day Lecture of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS) in Abuja, he said: “The National Assembly should not consider itself more powerful than the people of Nigeria, because the people are the custodians of the law.” Also, he once said: “The position that judges take in cases before them at the Supreme Court in the course of interpretation is what we should abide by whether rightly or wrongly. Judges may not be right all the time, but we must continue to respect them otherwise there will be lawlessness in the society.”

Timothy Akinola Aguda (June 10, 1923 – September 5, 2001) was Nigerian jurist of note and former Chief Justice of Botswana. Prior to becoming Chief Justice, he was a lawyer and a High Court Judge in Nigeria’s Western Region. He was the first indigenous African to head the position of Chief Justice in Botswana. Throughout his legal career, he was known as a cerebral jurist and lawyer, who embraced radicalism especially during period of military rule in Nigeria. It is believed this may have resulted in his exclusion as a member of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.


Atanda Fatai Williams, SAN CFR, CON, GCFR (22 October 1918 – 10 April 2002) was renowned as Jurist who also served as Chief Justice of Nigeria. In his ‘Tragedy of Assumptions’, he said: “Very little was known by most of us about the theory of Federalism at the time. They were always quoting it at every constitutional conference. It may well be that if we knew more about the theory at the time, we would have emerged in our effort to provide our people with a federal constitution that took account all the peculiar circumstances of our country and our people.

When things began to fall apart, those of us in the know quickly realized that ours was the tragedy of assumptions. We assumed everybody, both federal and regional governments, the opposition, the electorate, the courts, the civil servants, the generality of the people and even the boy academician would play the game according to the generally accepted rules.”


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