As the 15th Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Mahmud Mohammed bows out on Thursday on attaining the mandatory retirement age of 70, many will not forget the arrest of some judicial officers, including two Justices of the Supreme Court (JSC), which dogged his last days in office. As chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC), which disciplines judges, his role in the saga will not be forgotten in a hurry. He promised to reform the judiciary on assuming office in 2014. Did he realise his dream? ADEBISI ONANUGA sought lawyers’ views.
AfTER a two-year stint, Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Mahmud Mohammed will bow out on Thursday as he attains the mandatory age of 70.
During the new legal year programme at the Supreme Court in September, he scored himself high, saying: “I am proud to say that by the will of the Almighty, I am leaving the Supreme Court in a better shape than I met it. Indeed, in the past year, this court has witnessed numerous improvements both in terms of physical infrastructure and statutory functioning that will no doubt put us on the cusp of greater accomplishments in future.”
Barring the arrest of some judicial officers, including two Justices of the Supreme Court, by the Department of State Services (DSS) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) over corruption allegations, the CJN, to lawyers, has not done badly.
To address delays in the administration of justice at the Supreme Court, Justice Mohammed constituted a panel to sit on Wednesdays in addition to the normal panel sitting in chambers. This additional panel is the first in the history of the court, and it has been extremely successful in its operations, disposing 224 matters and dismissing over 300 other appeals from November 2014 to September, last year.
In addition, the out-going CJN reduced delays in administration of justice with the adoption of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) in several courts. Under him, the heads of courts, under the auspices of the Board of Governors of the National Judicial Institute, last year set in motion the mechanism to further enhance the use of ADR in high courts.
In his address at the All Nigeria Judges’ Conference last year, Justice Mohammed said the judiciary must be independent to be financially autonomous.
He expressed concern over the dwindling allocation of resources to the third arm of government, saying: “It is a source of great concern that in a country where an arm of government is appropriated with less than one per cent of the national budget, it is difficult to refer to our judiciary as being truly independent.”
Pre-election cases against Buhari
Under Justice Mohammed, the judiciary maintained its integrity in the handling of pre-election matters, especially those seeking to stop the All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, from running.
In his keynote address at last year’s All Nigeria Judges’ Conference, the CJN said: “It must also be noted that during the run up to the 2015 general elections, heads of courts, acting under my supervision, worked diligently to ensure that our impartiality, neutrality and independence were at the standard required of a modern judiciary, in order to create a level-playing field necessary for all parties and candidates taking part in those elections.
“The Judiciary believed that Nigerians should decide and indeed they did so. The 2015 general elections have subsequently been lauded by the international community and most importantly by Nigerians as being largely free and fair.
“These understated contributions, among the numerous judicial contributions that are so often forgotten, have nevertheless proven to be pivotal to the strengthening of our democratic values.
“However, these notable decisions have been achieved in spite of limitations to the fiscal and physical independence of the Judiciary.”
Disciplining of judges
Justice Mohammed’s tenure also witnessed the sanctioning of many judicial officers, for, among others, breach of oath of office and corruption.
Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal, Ilorin Division, Mohammed Ladan Tsamiya, Justice Kabiru Auta of the Kano State High Court and former Chief Judge of Enugu State Justice I. A. Umezulike are among those disciplined.
Adoption of technology
Given the extensive reforms required by the judiciary in Information and Communications’ Technology (ICT), the out-going CJN built on the policy framework developed by his predecessors. This culminated in the development of the Nigerian Case Management Software, the first of its kind in the world, which was developed in conjunction with the National Centre for States Courts (NCSC) and Microsoft Inc., both from the United States.
The software is a realisation of the plans by the CJN and his predecessors to modernise the judiciary. It is viewed as a model worthy of adoption by other jurisdictions.
Lawyers believe Justice Mohammed is leaving the judiciary better than he met it.
Mr Sylva Ogwemoh (SAN) said Justice Mohammed’s tenure witnessed many institutional changes and reforms. He said: “Justice Mohammed is both a quintessential judge and a consummate administrator. He was Chief Judge of Taraba State and Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal before his elevation to the Supreme Court from where he eventually became the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
“He brought his experience garnered over the years in the various hierarchy of courts to bear in the discharge of his duties as Chief Justice of Nigeria. As you walk into the Supreme Court today, you will immediately notice the structural development that is a product of his regime.”
To Ogwemoh, Justice Mohammed delivered on justice delivery.
“He put in place a discreet system to empanel justices of the Supreme Court to hear cases so as to ensure that litigants with corrupt tendencies do not have an idea of the panel assigned to hear their cases.
“My Lord also introduced the method of hearing an appeal in one day and delivering judgment on the appeal the same day. To avoid, I believe, undue pressure from desperate and very dangerous political litigants before the court. These were innovations introduced by my Lord, Honourable Justice Mahmud Mohammed to ensure effective and corrupt-free justice delivery system.
“I will not hesitate to state in clear terms that the Supreme Court and, indeed, the Nigerian judiciary did very well under his watch. He also did his best to ensure discipline is maintained in the judiciary.”
He, however, lamented that in the twilight of his regime “things got a bit awry due absolutely to no fault of the outgoing CJN but because of lack of respect for due process and the rule of law on the part of government agencies like the DSS,” adding: “some of us still believe that what happened towards the end of his regime was avoidable if only the DSS followed the due process of law as envisaged under our Constitution in dealing with the alleged cases of corruption”.
Ogwemoh emphasised the fact that the rule of law and our Constitution must be obeyed at all times, saying: “the moment we begin to sidetrack our Constitution for the rule of the jungle, we should know that we are sliding into failure, no matter how genuine our intentions may be, because a country that operates without respect for its Constitution is doomed to fail.”
Mr Dafe Akpedeye (SAN) also said that Justice Mohammed enjoyed quite an impressive career at the Bar and the Bench.
According to him, it is on record that he got to the peak at each level of his journey on the Bench as the Attorney-General of the defunct Gongola State, Chief Judge of Taraba State and Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal.
Describing the achievements of Justice Mohammed as “a rare and incredible feat”, Akpedeye recalled that the way the judiciary handled the election petitions that emanated from last year’s elections and others during his tenure was a proof that he was determined to make sure the rule of law prevailed.
He said: “It is worth mentioning that he also possesses a very calm and peaceful personality. He has kick-started the use of secured legal email system wherein court processes can be exchanged between the Bar and the Bench electronically; he has consistently cautioned and, in fact, set up investigations into judges who give conflicting decisions.
“It is indeed appalling when conflicting judgments are given by the superior courts. It places the legal system in a state of uncertainty which is against the time-worn principle of stare decisis upon which the judicial system is built.”
Akpedeye added that Justice Mohammed would be remembered for his call on judges to be quick in dispensing justice, adding that the outgoing CJN did exceedingly well on the Bench.
“His judgments are quite profound and geared towards doing substantive justice. As a judge, he exhibited a blend of intelligentsia and experience. He has given notable judgments in almost all areas of the law.”
Akpedeye said the outgoing CJN had also contributed immensely in our criminal law jurisprudence. He said: “It is on record, that in Abdullahi Mohammed v. State (2013) LPELR – 19822 (SC), while delivering the lead judgment, the learned jurist held that the conviction of the accused person (appellant) by the trial court wherein no lawyer represented the accused is a nullity as it deprived the accused of the safeguards protected by the Constitution. Thus, the accused was allowed to go scot free.
“Furthermore, on criminal procedure, the Hon. Chief Justice in F.R.N. v. Mohammed Usman & Anor. (2012) LPELR – 7818 (SC) restated the sacred principle of law that where an interpreter is used in recording the statement of an accused person, such statement is in law, inadmissible unless the person who was used in the interpretation of the statement is called as a witness in the proceedings as well as the person who recorded the statement.’’
The CJN, Akpedeye further said, played the fatherly role during the recent saga involving the DSS and some justices of the Supreme Court and the High Court. “He openly decried the manner his learned brothers were treated. He did not disassociate himself from them. This shows that the CJN is a team player,” he stated.
Mr Abayomi Omoyinmi, a member of the Ogun State Judiciary Service Commission, described the two-year tenure of Justice Mohammed as very eventful, especially his contributions towards sanitising the judiciary, particularly in sustaining his predecessor’s programme and for a very vibrant judiciary that will engender a justice system that can deliver justice without any blemish.
Omoyinmi noted that the tenure of Justice Mohammed also witnessed changes in the guidelines for the appointment of judges, whereby would-be judges would not only rely on their appointment by state Judicial Service Commission but would have to go through interviews by the NJC before any applicant’s name could be confirmed.
However, he sees the recent raid by the DSS on some judges and revelations on some election petitions’ pronouncements and counter-revelation by politicians, even at the level of the Supreme Court as worrisome. He wished the event did not happen during the outgoing CJN’s tenure when other significant contributions he made within his little time for a better Judiciary are considered.
Former Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Ikeja Branch, Mr Adesina Adegbite, said: “He (Justice Mohammed) is one of the most unassuming personalities I’ve ever met. He is a gentle man per excellence and highly humble to a fault.
“What is most striking about him is his personality, his integrity and discipline. Notwithstanding the recent unfortunate actions of the DSS, under his Chairmanship, the NJC has shown more vibrancy and effectiveness as can be seen in the disciplinary actions meted out to the erring judges even within his short tenure as the CJN and Chairman of NJC. The Bench and the Bar will surely miss this genial but undoubtedly justly jurist.’’
CJN’s media aide Issa Ahuruka, said Justice Mohammed is “a miracle maker” who, despite the neglect, starvation or declining yearly budgetary allocations, has taken strident steps and made tremendous contributions to position the judiciary as not just the last hope of the common man, but the ligament that holds the reins of the nation’s polity and, consequently, binds the three arms of government together.