Exit of Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, CJN

By Reuben Abati

Yesterday, Nigerians before mid-day, were treated to the news that Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) had resigned his appointment on health grounds. Arise TV broke the news, and it was my lot to make the announcement, with Arise News quoting impeccable and credible sources. It was a day of excitement for me: it looked to me really as if the CJN had overstayed his welcome but at the same time it was on the same day that the Legal Practitioners and Privileges Committee of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) shortlisted the name of Mrs. Abimbola Onikepo Braithwaite, editor of the Law pages of ThisDay newspaper, for the second year in a row as a potential Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) under the academic category. Mrs. Braithwaithe has been a major force in the legal profession, using her platforms in the media and in practice to advance the cause of the rule of law, to explain the law, and promote enlightenment and the cause of justice on a weekly basis through the exalted platform of the This Day newspaper law pages. Her commitment in this regard has been exemplary. I find her analysis and choice of contributors and subjects consistently on point, making her law pages a weekly must-read for the learned and the unlearned and the general community, seeking deep insights into fine points of law. I pray she succeeds this time.

The final selection of the SAN Class of 2022 should be rigorous and thorough. The Silk must be a true garment of distinction, not a chieftaincy title. But of course, the bigger news was the sudden announcement of the resignation of His Lordship, Justice Tanko Ibrahim Muhammad as CJN. I wondered after reading the news: did he jump? Was he pushed? Is this just about his health?

What has been reported is clear: he resigned on health grounds. Ordinarily that should be enough. The job of a Supreme Court Justice requires that he should be compos mentis and enjoy the agility of the highest order to lead a nation-wide body of judex, provide leadership at the Bar and the Bench and at the same time run the activities of the apex court of the land. The CJN is also the Chair of the National Judicial Council, with all of that body’s sensitive responsibilities. He is the de facto head of the judiciary under Sections 6 and 231 of the Nigerian Constitution. Any drama, change, or withdrawal at that level of government cannot be taken lightly. A change of command at the apex court in an election season that has begun and the general elections just about seven months away, is also a matter of serious national consideration with implications for the entire democratic process, the judiciary being an aspect of that. Let no one be under any illusion: Tanko Ibrahim Muhammed’s sudden resignation as the Chief of Justice of Nigeria is not just one of those events. It deserves closer interrogation.

He assumed office as CJN under controversial circumstances, he has now stepped down in an even more controversial manner. He became a Justice of the Supreme Court in 2007, from the Court of Appeal where he served for 13 years, and became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, first in acting capacity on January 25, 2019, and then substantively, on July 24, 2019. He succeeded Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen whose exit from the Supreme Court Bench is probably the most controversial ever in the history of the Supreme Court. Many believe that Onnoghen was pushed out of office more for political reasons than for his own infractions. Onnoghen himself two years after his removal had cause to disclose that he was unceremoniously removed from office by the Buhari government because it was believed that he had a secret meeting with former Vice President Alhaji Atiku Abubakar in Dubai before the 2019 general elections. Atiku at the time, as he now is, was the Presidential standard bearer of the opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)

In January 2019, a month to the general elections, Onnoghen was removed from office, via the instrumentality of an ex parte order, and tried before the Code of Conduct Tribunal on a six-count charge of corruption, including false declaration of assets, and the ownership of foreign currency accounts which were never declared. Onnoghen was convicted on all six counts and banned from holding public office for 10 years. He was additionally ordered to forfeit all the five accounts said not to have been declared by him between 2009 and 2015. Thus ended the tenure of the 15th substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN). Questions were raised about procedure, especially why the CJN as he then was had to be taken before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, instead of the National Judicial Council (NJC). Onnoghen insisted that he had done no wrong. Many Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) and others observed at the time that, whereas Justice Onnoghen may have committed one or two errors of oversight, his removal was more about the 2019 election, and the attempt by the ruling party to seize control of the post-election process. Wherever he is today, Onnoghen must be having a smirk on his face. It is election season again, soon it would be time for another round of election petitions and tribunals, and another CJN has had to go.

Many in the know would readily whisper that Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammed has been very scarce in circulation for a while due to ill-health, but these persons also express concern about the timing of his exit, and the events leading up to his resignation. Last week, a letter was leaked in the public domain accusing the now former CJN of mismanagement of the resources of the Supreme Court and poor leadership. Fourteen Justices of the Supreme Court accused Tanko Muhammed, CJN (as he then was) of travelling up and down with his “spouse, children and staff” while Justices of the Court were not even allowed to go on training or travel with assistants. They said they work long hours daily without adequate access to power supply or internet services, and that the state of affairs in the Supreme Court of Nigeria had become deplorable. They accused the CJN of running a one-man show and ignoring important matters of welfare. They said “this is unacceptable”. They threatened “to take further steps”.

The CJN fired back through his spokesperson, Ahuraka Yusuf Isah, who wrote that the Supreme Court is “affected by the economic and socio-political climate prevailing in the country.” It is standard practice these days for persons in leadership positions to blame climate change and the environment for their own failures. I was surprised Justice Tanko Muhammad did not blame the Russia-Ukraine war for the lack of diesel and internet services at the Supreme Court of Nigeria! He accused his brother Justices of “dancing naked at the market square”, and gave a small, incoherent lecture about how budgets are made and managed, and an additional rigmarole about deaths and transfers at the Supreme Court. He concluded: “the general public should be rest assured that there’s no hostility or adverse feelings amongst the Justices of the Supreme Court, as everyone is going about his normal duty.” Of course, that is not true. The judiciary, the third arm of government under the doctrine of the separation of powers, has never been more divided. The import of the letter by the 14 Justices was that they had lost confidence in the leadership of Justice Tanko Muhammed. The letter was so strongly worded, the tone so dismissive, it was evident that I.T. Muhammad, JSC had lost the moral authority to lead the apex court. He cited ill-heath as the ground for his resignation. It is God that heals. Anyone can fall ill, even the Constitution recognizes this at Section 231(4). We should wish Justice Tanko Muhammed speedy recovery, but it was best he withdrew himself from further embarrassment, and the Supreme Court from further ridicule.

Indeed, before he threw in the towel, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) through its President, Olumide Akpata waded into the matter and concluded that “there is a clear need for mechanisms to be put in place to ensure that the Judiciary (with the Supreme Court leading the charge) is…

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