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Friday, 9 November 2018

An Igbo As Chief Justice Of Nigeria?: The Narrative

An Igbo As Chief Justice Of Nigeria?: The Narrative

The Igbos have occupied all important positions in Nigeria, except the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN).

The Igbo tribesmen have been head of state and commander in chief of armed forces (General Aguiyi-Ironsi), vice president (Dr Alex Ekwueme), senate presidents (several) and speaker of the House of Representatives (Hon. Ume Ezeoke). Dr Nnamdi Azikwe was Governor General of Nigeria from 1960 to 1963 and the first President of Nigeria from 1963 to 1966 (when Nigeria became a republic).

Curiously, ascension to the position of CJN, who doubles as the head of the judiciary arm of government and presiding justice of the Supreme Court is not by contest, zoning, and rotationing; just as it is not governed by quota system or federal character principle, but succession by seniority.

Section 231(1) of the 1999 Constitution states that ‘’the appointment of a person to the office of CJN shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate. Hence, the appointment of the CJN is tripartite in nature, involving senate, judiciary and the executive.

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The roll call of CJNs consist of Sir Edwin Speed (1914–1918), Sir Ralph Combe (1918–1929), Donald Kingdon (1929–1946), Sir John Verity (1946–1954), Sir Stafford Sutton (1955–1958), Sir Adetokunbo Ademola (1958–1972), Taslim Olawale Elias (1972–1975), Darnley Arthur Alexander (1975–1979), Atanda Fatai Williams (1979–1983), George Sodeinde Sowemimo (1983–1985), Ayo Gabriel Irikefe (1985–1987), Mohammed Bello (1987–1995), Muhammad Lawal Uwais (1995–2006), Salihu Moddibo Alfa Belgore (2006–2007), Idris Legbo Kutigi (2007–2009), Aloysius Iyorgyer Katsina-Alu (2009–2011), Dahiru Musdapher (2011–2012), Aloma Mariam Mukhtar (2012–2014),Mahmud Mohammed (2014–2016), and Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen (2017–Dec. 2020).

After Justice Onnoghen retires in December 2020,all things being equal, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad shall be CJN from December 2020 to December 31, 2023, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola from December 31, 2023 to August 22, 2024 (8 months), Justice Kudirat Motonmori Olatokunbo Kekere-Ekun from August 22, 2024 to May 7, 2028 and Justice John Inyang Okoro from May 7, 2028 to July 7, 2029.

From the foregoing, just as no Igbo person has been a CJN, so the current roll call of justices of the Supreme Court shows that no justices of Igbo extraction shall be CJN in the next 10 to 11 years for the tradition of appointing the next most senior justices of the Supreme Court as the CJN.

While for instance, Justice Sylvester Ngwuta and Justice Mary Ukaego Peter-Odili shall retire in 2021 and May 12, 2022 when Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad shall be CJN, Justice Chima Centus Nweze shall retire on September 25, 2028 when Justice Kudirat Motonmori Olatokunbo Kekere-Ekun shall be CJN. Justices Ngwuta, Peter-Odili and Nweze are the current justices of the Supreme Court representing southeast geopolitical region in the apex court.

However, none of the five justices behind Justice Inyang Okoro, namely, Justices Chima Centus Nweze, Amiru Sanusi, Amina Adamu Augie, Ejembi Eko, Paul Adamu Galinje and Sidi Dauda Bage shall be CJN.

While Justice Nweze shall retire in 2028, Justice Sanusi on February 2, 2020, Justice Augie on September 3, 2023, Justice Eko on May 23, 2022, Justice Galinje in 2024, Justice Galinje shall retire on June 22, 2026. None of the six justices shall become the most senior justices of the apex court before their mandatory retirement dates.

A former director at the presidency, Eric Teniola had once stated, crisis is not new to the Supreme Court in Nigeria, so all the above permutations can change, succession by seniority tradition is not a law, and neither was it cast on iron.

According to Teniola, Supreme Court has always been riddled by one crisis or the other. In 1958, the incumbent Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Stafford Foster Sutton, was to retire. He had earlier served as Attorney General of Kenya from 1944-1948 and served also as attorney General of British Malaya from 1948-1950.

The expectation was that his number two man, Justice Samuel Olumuyiwa Jibowu (1899-1959), was to succeed him. Justice Jibowu was at that time the first Nigerian to be serving in the supreme court of Nigeria. He had rich credentials. He was called to the Bar in 1923 at Middle Temple in London. At a time, his father was the Secretary of the Egba nation.

At the Nigerian Legal Practitioner’s enrollment list, Jibowu who was sworn in on August 8 1923 was lawyer Number 69; while Justice Adetokunbo Ademola who was enrolled on September 10, 1934 was lawyer Number 121. But Justice Jibowu was never appointed Chief Justice. Instead Justice Ademola (1906-1993) was appointed Chief Justice on April 1 1958. A petition was written against Justice Jibowu that he made a political statement and therefore was not fit to be Chief Justice.

Teniola said, ‘’in 1972, Sir Ademola gave notice of retirement, and General Yakubu Gowon quickly set in motion efforts to pick a candidate to succeed him. There was an office then in Lagos Island, between Strachan Street and Moloney streets.

That office was then called cabinet office. It once served as the office of the Prime Minister. It used to be the most powerful office outside of then Dodan Barracks. It was called the heartbeat of government. All appointments and decisions passed through that office. It was in short the clearing house. That was then.

‘’At the time Justice Ademola gave notice of retirement, the office was headed by Alhaji Umaru Ndayako (1937-2003), a schoolmate of General Gowon. Ndayako, who later became 12th Etsu Nupe, expectedly, submitted the profiles of serving Justices of the Supreme Court to General Gowon for consideration. General Gowon did the unthinkable.

He appointed Dr. Taslim Elias (1914-1991) as Chief Justice of the Federation. At the time of the appointment, Dr. Elias was not serving as a Justice of the Supreme Court. He was the first Attorney General and Minister of Justice and later Dean Faculty of Law, University of Lagos.

He was Lawyer Number 308 and enrolled on December 15 1951. The appointment shocked many. The argument then was not that Dr. Elias was not qualified, but that he was not a serving Justice of the Supreme Court although he was the incumbent Attorney General of the Federation.


‘’On July 29 1975, while away at the Organisation of African Unity meeting in Kampala, Uganda, General Murtala Ramat Mohammed (November 8 1938- February 13 1976) toppled his school mate and senior in Barewa College. One of the first things he did was to fire Justice Elias. He too did the unthinkable and appointed a non-Nigerian, Justice Arthur Darnley Alexander (1920-1988).

Justice Alexander came to Nigeria in 1957 on the invitation of the Premier of the Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo who had appealed to the Colonial Office in London to help source a legal draftsman. Alexander then served the region in various capacities. He was Legal Draftsman, Western Region, Nigeria from 1957-1969 and was acting Director of Public Prosecutions in 1958.

‘’In 1960, he was appointed the Solicitor General and Permanent Secretary of the regional Ministry of Justice and in 1963, he was made Queen’s Counsel. In 1964, he was appointed a judge in the Lagos High Court.

In 1964,the then Premier of Mid-Western region, Chief Dennis Chukwudi Osadebe (1911-1994), appointed him to head the Owegbe court tribunal which was targeted at the deputy Premier of the region, Chief Humphrey Omo-Osagie (1896-1977) who was eventually cleared of any wrong doing.

He was appointed Chief Justice of the South Eastern State now Cross River and Akwa Ibom states. At the time he was appointed as Chief Justice of the Federation, there were more than twelve serving Justices of the Supreme Court who were his seniors.

‘’Justice Salihu Modio Alfa Belgore (80) has the shortest tenure, so far, since independence. He was the tenth Chief Justice of the Federation. He served between July 2006 and January 2007—barely six months. His predecessor Justice Muhammed Lawal Uwais, retired on June 12, 2006.

The nearest to him is Justice Dahiru Musdapher (74), a close ally of General Sani Abacha who served between August 21 2011 and July 16, 2012. But Justice Belgore was not to be the Chief Justice but for a peace meeting initiated by President Olusegun Obasanjo with Justice Uwais, Justice Belgore, Major General Abdullahi Muhammed(retd.), then Chief of Staff to the President and the then Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Chief Ufott Ekaette, in May 2006 in the Villa.

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It was after the meeting that the National Judicial Council finally submitted Justice Belgore’s name via President Obasanjo to the Senate, presided then by Senator Ken Nnamani. The calculation then was: why make Justice Belgore Chief Justice when he has only six months to serve?

‘’We should not forget also that Justice Belgore is from one of the most powerful ten families in Ilorin like the Sarakis, Abdul-Razaks, Sulu Gambaris, Barajes, Onikijipas,Oniyangis, Idiagbons, Kawus, who are regarded as untouchable in that ancient city’’, Teniola narrated.

Incidentally, Edward James Roye, an Igbo man, born on February 3, 1815 in Newark, Ohio was the first recorded Igbo lawyer. He left the United States in 1846 and found a new home in Liberia where he achieved many firsts.

Roye was Speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives. He was the Fourth Chief Justice, Supreme Court of Liberia [1865-68] and to crown it all, the judge became the Fifth President of Liberia in 1870. He held that position for one year and died in 1872.

Sir Luis Mbanefo who was called to the Bar in 1936 could not have been the first Igbo Lawyer. Give it to Roye. That does not in any way take anything away from Mbanefo who became the Chief Justice of Biafra in 1967. If there was no civil war, perhaps he would have been CJN.

Other consolation for the Igbo is that in 1970, the Chief Justice of Sierra Leone was Christopher Okoro Cole. He had acted as Chief Justice of the Gambia in 1962, was the last Governor General of that country [October 1970-March 1971] and First President of Sierra Leone, for two days, in 1971.

Other instance is that on March 11, 2018, Justice Chile Eboe-Osuji, from Anara Osu, Imo State was elected President of the International Criminal Court [ICC]. He graduated from the University of Calabar and was called to the Bar in 1986.

The first Nigerian to sit at the International Court of Justice, Charles Dadi Onyeama [1967-1976] was from Enugu. His son, Geoffrey, is the External Affairs minister. Nkemdilim Amelia Izuako, is the First Female judge in Solomon Islands.

By Ahuraka Yusuf Isah

Culled from leadership

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