“We have no friends among you”
– Justice Nikki Tobi
The Supreme Court of Nigeria is the nation’s final court of appeals on all matters – socioeconomic, political, cultural, traditional and even religious. It also serves as court of first instance on matters for interpretation of the Nigerian Constitution. The Supreme Court has also been the final court of appeal for presidential election ligations and petitions, on both election and pre-election matters.
In order to hear the presidential election petition appeal, just as Atiku Abubakar and the PDP are bringing before the apex court and avoid undue pressure and suspicion of subversion of justice, the Supreme Court simply empanels its seven most senior judges. This rich tradition is helpful in making the process of selecting those jurists to form the tribunal at the apex court fairly predictable.
Though it is the statutory responsibility of the Chief Justice of Nigeria as the head of the Judiciary to constitute the panel, this tradition recuses him from harmful insinuations or even accusations of selecting only those that could be favourably disposed to his or her whims.
Ordinarily, matters are taken to the Supreme Court on appeal on point of law only. No fresh facts are adducible or addable. In other words, the Supreme Court does not entertain fresh facts or evidence that was not admitted at lower courts where the matter was first heard.
Since nothing new is really before the Supreme Court and only the claims of points of law not considered or given the appropriate premium, worries about of the jurists to sit, hear and evaluate the appeal should hardly be a big deal. But this particular appeal has set tongues wagging because of the way and manner the appeal court tribunal handled it. For good measure, the appeal court tribunal used inferences to arrive at key decisions rather than follow concrete evidences.
This strange process amazed many Nigerians, lawyers and non-lawyers alike. For instance, why should an appellate court assume that a respondent submitted secondary school certificate to the Army rather than invite the Army Secretary to claim so and take responsibility? There are dozens of such brazen deviations from the basic principles of law, which most Nigerians are anxiously waiting to see what the Supreme Court would say concerning them.
The naysaying nature of this appeal to Supreme Court makes the selection of members of the panel very crucial. Gladly, the Supreme Court has a tradition that removes any suspicion of bias in the selection of the empaneled jurists. The Supreme Court simply follows their own nominal role in order of seniority, which may or may not include the CJN himself, who could also recuse himself.
This being the apex court’s convention and tradition, here are the profiles of the seven judges available on Supreme Court bench, in their order of seniority, on whose shoulders the outcome of the presidential petition appeal and future of the nation’s democracy now rest…
Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad was born on 31 December 1953 at Doguwa – Giade, a local government area in Bauchi State. Justice Tanko began his career in 1982, after he was called to the bar in 1981. In 1989, he was appointed as Chief Magistrate of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, a Judge at the Bauchi State Sharia Court of Appeal in 1991. He was appointed to the bench of the Nigerian courts of appeal in 1993 and to the bench of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 2006. On Thursday, 11 July 2019, Tanko Muhammed was nominated by President Muhammadu Buhari as substantive CJN.
Justice Rhodes-Vivour was born on March 22, 1951 in Lagos State. He was called to the bar in 1975 and joined the Lagos State Judiciary as State Counsel same year and later rose to the position of Director of Public Prosecutions in 1989, and appointed High Court Judge in 1994 and to the bench of the Nigerian courts of appeal as Justice in 2005. On August 2010, he was appointed to the bench of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
Justice Mary Ukaego Odili née Nzenwa; CFR was born 12 May 1952 in Amudi Obizi, Ezinihitte-Mbaise Local Government Area of Imo State. She was appointed an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (JSC) on 23 June 2011. Prior to becoming SCN justice, she held numerous important offices, including Judge, High Court of Rivers State (1992–2004), Justice, Court of Appeal, Abuja Division (2004–2010), and Presiding Justice, Court of Appeal, Kaduna Division (2010–2011). She is married to former governor of Rivers State Dr. Peter Odili.
Nwali Sylvester Ngwuta, CFR was born in 1951 Amofia-Ukawu, Onicha local government area of Ebonyi State. He was called to the Nigerian bar in 1978. Justice Sylvester Ngwuta began his Law career in 1978 as a State counsel in Benue State Ministry of justice. On October 1995, he was appointed as a Judge of the Abia State High Court. On 22 May 2013, he was appointed to the bench of the Nigerian courts of appeal and on May 2011, he also was appointed to the bench of the Supreme Court of Nigeria as Justice. He was arrested by the Department of State Security Services (DSS) on 8 October 2016 on allegations of bribery and corruption and since then, has not received briefs on the bench of the Supreme Court and therefore may not make this panel despite his seniority.
Justice Olukayode Ariwoola was born 22nd August 1958). He was formerly a Justice of the Nigerian courts of appeal and on November 22, 2011, he was appointed to the bench of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
Musa Datijo Muhammad OFR was born on 27th October 1953 in Chanchaga, Niger State. In July 2012, he was appointed to the bench of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
Kumai Bayang Akaahs was born 12th December 1949 in Kaduna State, Nigeria. He began his career in 1975 at the Kaduna State Ministry of Justice as State Counsel and on May 6, 1986, he was appointed as Judge of Kaduna State Judiciary. On November 21, 1998 he was appointed to the bench of the Nigerian courts of appeal and on September 2012, he was appointed to the bench of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
Kudirat Motonmori Olatokunbo popularly known as Kudirat Kekere-Ekun was born on February 27, 1958 in Lagos State. She was called to the bar on July 10, 1981. Justice Kudirat joined the Lagos State Judiciary as Senior Magistrate II and rose to the position of the State High Court Judge. She was appointed to the bench of the Nigerian courts of appeal in 2004 before her appointment to the Supreme Court of Nigeria in July 2013.
Going by the Supreme Court tradition, Justices Chima Centus Nweze and John Inyang Okoro will not be on the panel, unless of course the incumbent has other reasons to jettison this time-honored tradition. Also going by the fate of Justice Ngwuta still hanging on balance for no apparent reason, Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun may take his place as prescribed by the said seniority tradition.
One also understands that judges are being quietly interviewed at the moment to make up the full compliments of 15 judges of the Supreme Court. The new entrants, even if they make it before the panel is named, ought not to be on it since they are novices, unless again another brazen precedence is to be set, such as one or two judges who heard the petition at court of appeal tribunal also hearing it at Supreme Court.
Whatever be the case, the Supreme Court remains the final arbiter and ought to offer indubitable judgments. The chance they have with the current presidential election appeal petition is most contentious. Perhaps only as contentious as 12 2/3rd judgment of Supreme Court in the presidential appeal petition in Obafemi Awolowo vs. Shehu Shagari in 1979. The said judgment was such a travesty that the Supreme Court itself ordered that it should never be cited as a judicial precedence.
The Supreme Court should spare the nation a similar ugly political judgment. The apex court should give a bold judgment that will serve justice and restore the confidence of the people in the nation’s judiciary, whose credibility has been suffering since the curious and brazen ousting of Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen.
Without a shred of doubt, for these seven eminent jurists, both history and posterity frantically beckon.
• Dr. Law Mefor is an Abuja-based Forensic and Social Psychologist, Author and Journalist; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; tweeter: @LawMefor1.