The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, last week drew the nation’s attention to the sordid reality that the depletion in the number of Supreme Court Justices is a burden to Nigeria’s apex court. This development is worrisome considering the fact that the 2023 general elections are fast approaching.
Justice Ariwoola spoke last week in Abuja at a valedictory session in honour of a retired Justice of the Supreme Court (JSC) Abdu Aboki. Justice Aboki retired from the apex court on August 5 after clocking the mandatory retirement age of 70.
He retired about two months after the immediate past CJN, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, resigned on June 27, 2022, some 18 months to the mandatory age of 70. Prior to Tanko’s resignation, Justice Mary Odili had also retired from the top bench on May 12, 2022. With the exit of Odili, Tanko and Aboki, the number of judges on the Supreme Court bench dropped from 21 (provided by the Nigerian Constitution) to 13, thus giving a shortfall of eight.
Speaking during the session, Acting CJN Ariwoola said: “His Lordship’s exit from our fold has drastically depleted our ranks and opened a yawning gap that will hardly be filled.” He bemoaned the burden the retirement places on the serving JSCs, adding “a single drop in the number of justices here brings about a sudden increase in our workload.”
While pouring encomiums on the retired jurist, the CJN described Aboki as a “man of dignity and distinction whose mastery of the law stands him out.” He said the retired jurist’s name has been etched in gold for offering 46 years of his life in the service of his fatherland. Justice Ariwoola urged him not to hesitate to come to the aid of the country whenever his contributions were needed.
In his remarks, Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami (SAN) said Justice Aboki brought to the task of adjudication an acute sense of fairness and empathy. Represented by the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General of the Federation, Beatrice Agba, the AGF expressed the nation’s gratitude to Aboki for his contributions to the advancement of the law.
President, Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) Yakubu Maikyau (SAN) eulogised the jurist for expanding the frontiers of law practice.
Taking the centre stage to render his valedictory speech, Justice Aboki called for transparency in the expenditure of funds belonging to the judiciary. In the speech titled ‘My valedictory messages to the nation and judiciary in particular,’ the jurist called on “those in charge of administering the funds allocated to the judiciary” in Nigeria “to be prudent, transparent and accountable.”
On judges’ appointment, the retired JSC called on the NJC to “place greater premium on merit than national character and other primordial considerations.” He urged the National Assembly to amend the constitution to reduce the number of appeals that go to the Supreme Court. This, he said, would lessen the workload of the apex court.
While thanking God and all those who made his sojourn in the judiciary worthwhile, Justice Aboki called on the executive arm of government to urgently review the remuneration of judicial officers. He also called on the National Assembly to re-enact laws that would reduce the number of cases getting to the apex court for adjudication.
“Only appeals relating to the presidential election should come to the Supreme Court. Others should end at the Court of Appeal. This call is of utmost importance, in order to lessen the heavy burden of the Justices of the Court,” the jurist said.
He similarly called on the CJN and the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) to review the requirements for the conferment of the rank of SAN, saying this had become imperative in view of the “many frivolous, vexatious and needless appeals filed by lawyers desirous of the prestigious rank.”
The CJN’s lamentations on the gross shortfall in the number of justices on the Supreme Court bench from constitutionally stipulated 24 to a paltry seven should be cause of major concern to the executive and legislative arms of government. This is especially so given the fact that the nation is facing a transitional transfer of power from one government to another.
The government at the centre, majority of the governors across the 36 of the federation who are completing their two-term of eight years constitutional limit as well over two thirds of members of the National Assembly, who lost their return bids, are quitting governance in 2023.
Consequently, the judiciary, which is the third arm of government, will, no doubt, have to contend with a plethora of litigation that will naturally arise from the 2023 general elections. It is on the backdrop of this reality that we urge President Muhammadu Buhari to as a matter of utmost national importance initiate the process of the appointment of new justices to the apex court to enable the expeditious and judicious dispensation of justice to aggrieved elective office seekers.
We, however, caution that proper scrutiny and due diligence must be carried out to ensure that only those who are qualified and incorruptible are appointed to the bench of the Supreme Court.