Nigeria: Probing the Depths of the Crisis at Nigeria’s Supreme Court

Of the underlying issues plaguing the Supreme Court of Nigeria, therefore, the most pressing appears to be welfare within the court.

One thing is clear: the crisis in Supreme Court appointments and replacements is a symptom of the problems plaguing the Court; it is not the cause. For example, of the departures from the tribunal since 2019, at least four have been premature. Of the four, two judges died while two chief justices were forced into early retirement. Three of those four would still have been in service, a situation that would have avoided any lamentation over a replacement crisis at court.

When he was appointed as a judge of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 1993, Yekini Olayiwola Adio had already served for 17 years. A graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Adio became a lawyer in 1959, then obtained his post-graduate law degree in 1964 from Yale Law School in the United States. In 1975, he became Solicitor General and Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Justice of the Western State of Nigeria. When they created Oyo State from Western State in 1976, the military appointed Adio as a judge of the new Oyo State High Court in the same year. He then went through the Court of Appeal before reaching the Supreme Court.

Tuesday, July 8, 1997, Yekini Adio fell ill during proceedings before the Supreme Court. He was evacuated to the court hospital but sadly died the same day.

Justice Adio was the sixth appointee to the Supreme Court of Nigeria to die in service in the 24 years from 1973 to 1997. Among those who preceded him in that fate were John Idowu Conrad Taylor (1973); Dan Ibekwe (1978); Chukwunweike Idigbe (1983); Augustin Nnamani (1990); and Buba Ardo (1991). In the 20 years since 2002, the following Supreme Court justices have become permanently incapacitated or died in service: Okay Achike, Ekundayo Ogundare, Chukwudinka Pats-Acholonu, Sylvester Ngwuta and Samuel Oseji.

In all, there was 111 appointments and promotions to the Supreme Court since Stafford Foster Sutton took office in 1956 as Chief Justice of the Federation, including 13 non-Nigerians and 17 Chief Justices of Nigeria (CJN). Taslim Elias was an exception, becoming CJN in 1972 without having previously served as a Supreme Court justice.

Far from the suggestion of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN) that senior lawyers have not been given the opportunity to sit in court, the fact is that few – if any – self-respecting senior lawyers who have met a relative success wishes in practice to endure the life-threatening conditions under which judges of the Supreme Court of Nigeria must conduct judicial deliberations.

A total of 81 Nigerians have been appointed Supreme Court Justices since Olumuyiwa Jibowu. Of these, at least 12 (14.81%) died in office. In a country with an average male life expectancy of around 55, some may not see anything serious about the average life expectancy of Nigerian Supreme Court justices, which lies comfortably north of this benchmark. However, it is also true that with few exceptions, most people become Supreme Court justices after the age of 55. In any other area, serious questions would surely be asked of any employer or industry that reports a 14.81% cumulative rate of death or permanent disability among its senior executives, as occurs in the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

Far from the suggestion of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN) that senior lawyers have not been given the opportunity to sit in court, the fact is that few – if any – self-respecting senior lawyers who have met a relative success wishes in practice to endure the life-threatening conditions under which judges of the Supreme Court of Nigeria must conduct judicial deliberations. former Osun State Attorney General, Gboyega Awomoloa senior lawyer from Nigeria (SAN), recalls: “I remember when I was asked to join the bench, they were only earning 4,000 naira a month then. I said no. This is not a place for me where I will suffer in silence and die in silence. This is not for me.

Ahaji AGF Abdulrazak (SAN), the first lawyer in the former Northern region, whose the appointment as a judge has been published by the army under the command of General Yakubu Gowon, persuaded the military governor of Kwara State, David Bamigboye, to publish another gazette quashing the appointment. In fact, in the promotion’s 47 years of existence, only two SANs have accepted judicial appointments: Augustine Nnamani, appointed to the Supreme Court in 1979, and Safiya Oumar Badamassiappointed as a Katsina State High Court Judge 41 years later in 2020.

One thing is clear: the crisis in Supreme Court appointments and replacements is a symptom of the problems plaguing the Court; it is not the cause. For example, of the departures from the tribunal since 2019, at least four have been premature. Of the four, two judges died while two chief justices were forced into early retirement. Three of those four would still have been in service, a situation that would have avoided any lamentation over a replacement crisis at court.

Of the underlying issues plaguing the Supreme Court of Nigeria, therefore, the most pressing appears to be welfare within the court. Clearly, the Supreme Court is suffering a supreme attrition crisis, itself also evidence of an underlying occupational health crisis, through which Supreme Court Justice Sylvester Ngwuta died at 69 years old on March 7, 2021. Another, Samuel Oseji, died just five months later on September 28, 2021 at age 67.

Similar lamentations on the remuneration of Nigerian judges have been well made by different people and it is hardly necessary to repeat them here. It should be noted, however, that contrary to BOSAN’s suggestion that the Supreme Court judiciary is to blame for its replacement crisis, judges do not set their own compensation. This is the statutory responsibility of the Revenue Allocation, Mobilization and Taxation Commission (RAMFC). The last time they adjusted the salaries of judges was in 2007. It is understandably difficult to demand a significant adjustment in the salaries of judges when Nigerians working in all sectors are dying of impoverishment. But sitting judges who find themselves at the mercy of hunger, scarcity or premature death cannot be the most reliable guarantors of judicial independence.

Of the underlying issues plaguing the Supreme Court of Nigeria, therefore, the most pressing appears to be welfare within the court. Clearly, the Supreme Court is undergoing a supreme attrition crisis, itself also evidence of an underlying occupational health crisis, through which Sylvester NgwutaSupreme Court Justice, died at age 69 on March 7, 2021. Another, Samuel Osejidied just five months later, on September 28, 2021, at age 67. It can be unfortunate to lose a Supreme Court justice at any time, but losing two in less than six months is institutionally unwise.

Some major issues call for attention here. The first is the reform of the management of the Court’s roles and working methods. In an article published almost 18 years ago, Sam Amadi and I warned that the country was “kill the Supreme Court” and that the court was also complicit in turning itself into a dumping ground for mostly irrelevant appeals. Too many of the appeals that concern the tribunal dwell on issues already settled in Nigerian law. A majority are also preliminary rulings, filed for purposes wholly unrelated to the proper administration of justice, either to deliberately fabricate delay or to aid ambitious lawyers in their pursuit of SAN rank. It shouldn’t be too difficult to reform Silk’s criteria to emphasize ethics and value for money, instead of quantitative criteria such as the number of Supreme Court cases a lawyer has settled. , but the system does not seem ready to consider this.

As Dr. Amadi and I wrote in 2004, through an “inexplicable combination of practice, case law and inertia, the Court has effectively stripped itself of the strategically important jurisdiction to determine the volumes and jurisprudential importance of cases which it receives for examination”. The result is that the Supreme Court of Nigeria has become the place where appeals in cases not involving politicians or elections go to die and judges have been put at risk by their commitment not to screen appeals that they hear. As long as Supreme Court cases remain unmanageable, with the Court increasingly becoming a forum for settling, almost exclusively, political disputes between the country’s most powerful and wealthy parties, it may be impossible to recruit people on its bench whose desire is to ensure a more effective administration of accessible justice.

Chidi Anselme Odinkalulawyer and teacher, can be reached at [email protected]