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“Why I opened up” Retiring Justice of the Supreme Court Dattijo Muhammad bares his mind on the Judiciary

October 29, 2023

On why he opened up on the Judiciary:

I had wanted to leave quietly on attaining 70 years from which age our Constitution prescribes a judicial officer shall cease to be one…
Members of my family and close friends prevailed upon me to reconsider my position. They insisted that it is defeatist to allow failure in utilizing suggestions proffered on previous occasions to deter subsequent contributions. The quest for institutional improvement, particularly in the judiciary, they insisted, must, rather, be intensified to avoid hastening the demise of our society. A society, they significantly reasoned, rots too easily when institutional defects are ignored.
I capitulated and thus the unfolding event today…. I would eventually write a book to tell my story…

On how the Judiciary fared during his service:

The journey was calm and fulfilling until about halfway through my Supreme Court years when the punctuating turbulent cracks made it awry and askew.

On the powers of the Chief Justice Of Nigeria:

As presently structured the CJN is Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC) which oversees both the appointment and discipline of judges, he is equally Chair of the
Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), the National Judicial Institute (NJI); and the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) that appoints Senior Advocates of Nigeria. In my considered opinion the oversight functions of these bodies should not rest on an individual alone. A person with absolute powers, it is said, corrupts easily and absolutely. As Chair of NJC, FJSC, NJI, and LPPC, appointments as council, board, and committee members are at his pleasure. He neither confers with fellow justices nor seeks their counsel or input on any matter related to these bodies. He has both the final and the only say. The CJN has the power to appoint 80 percent of members of the council and 60 percent of members Of JSC. The same applies to NJI and LPPC. Such enormous powers are effortlessly abused. This needs to change. Continued denial of the existence of this threatening anomaly weakens effective judicial oversight in the country.


…the next most senior justice of the Supreme Court, like Deputy Governors of State, shorn of any official function except at the pleasure of the Governor, is neither consulted on anything nor does he have any official function. His job as No. 2 is purely as the CJN pleases. It is incumbent that the system provides for more inclusion and consultation among the stakeholders.

On the depleting number of justices at the Supreme Court:

As I bow out today, the number is further reduced to 10 against the Constitutional requirement of 21 justices. This avoidable depletion has affected and will further affect the court and litigants are stating the obvious.


We are in an election season where the Election Tribunals and appellate courts are inundated with all manner of petitions and appeals. The Supreme Court is the final court in the Presidential and Governorship election appeals. Yet, there are only 10 justices left to determine these matters. Constitutionally, each of these appeals requires a panel of seven justices to sit on them. When a panel of seven justices is constituted to sit on a particular appeal, only three justices are left out. Even when regular appeals are being heard in the Supreme Court, a panel of five justices is required to sit.
We must not forget that the Court, being the highest in the land, receives all manner of appeals from the court below. Presently, there is neither limit nor distinction to the manner of appeals that come to the apex court. Again, besides seasonal election matters, the Supreme Court’s docket is overflowing with civil and criminal appeals, some of which took many years to arrive. Most of these are still pending. Several have not even been assigned hearing dates. The court also exercises original jurisdiction.
As the justices who hear these matters are grossly overstretched, unable to meet the demands of their onerous assignment, the litigants who approach the court seeking justice are left in limbo; waiting endlessly for justice to be served. These, as I have said before, are avoidable.


When I exit today, the North Central zone that I represent ceases to have any representation until such a time new appointments are made…
To ensure justice and transparency in presidential appeals from the lower court, all geo-political zones are required to participate in the hearing.  It is, therefore, dangerous for democracy and equity for two entire regions to be left out in the decisions that will affect the generality of Nigerians. This is not what our laws envisage.


As it stands, only four geo-political regions — the South-west, South-south, North-West, and North-East are represented in the Supreme Court. While the South-South and North-East have two serving justices, the North-West and South-West are fully represented with three each. Appropriate steps could have been taken to fill outstanding vacancies in the apex court. Why have these steps not been timeously taken? It is evident that the decision not to fill the vacancies in
the court is deliberate. It is also about the absolute powers vested in the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and the responsible exercise of same.

On the funding and independence of the Judiciary:

Beyond the issue of the salaries of Justices remaining static with no graduation for over I5 years now, it is instructive to enquire what the judiciary also does with its allocations. Who is responsible for the expenditure? An unrelenting searchlight needs to be beamed to unravel how the sums are expended.


In 2015 when President Muhammadu Buhari became the president, the budgetary allocation to the judiciary was N70 billion. In the 2018 Appropriation Bill submitted to the National Assembly, the President allocated N100 billion to the judiciary.
The legislature increased it to N110 billion…in May 2023 judiciary’s allocation had increased to N130 billion. That is an increase from N70 to N130 billion in 8 years. The present government has allocated an additional sum of N35 billion to the judiciary for the current financial year making the amount of money accessible by the judiciary to N165 billion…
Notwithstanding the phenomenal increases in the sums appropriated and released to the judiciary, Justices’ and officers’ welfare and the quality of service the judiciary renders have continued to decline.


It may interest one to know that the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court earns more than the Justices. While she earns N1.2m per month, justices take home N751,000 in a month. The CJN on his part takes home N400,000 plus. The salary of a Justice, curiously, drops rather than increases when he gets the added responsibility of being a CJN.
That the unjust and embarrassing salary difference between the justices and the Chief Registrar still abides remains intriguing, to say the least.
Valedictory session after valedictory session lapses and challenges that should be nipped are restated to no avail. Why the silence and seeming contentment?

On the process of appointment of Judges and quality of judgments of courts:

Years ago, appointment to the bench was strictly on merit. Sound knowledge of the law, integrity, honour, and hard work distinguished those who were elevated. Lobbying was unheard of, I never lobbied, not at any stage of my career, to secure any appointment or elevation. As much as possible the most qualified men and women were appointed.
That can no longer be said about appointments to the bench.
The judiciary must be uniquely above board. Appointments should not be polluted by political, selfish, and sectional interests. The place of merit, it must be urged, cannot be over-emphasized.
Public perceptions of the judiciary have over the years become witheringly scornful and monstrously critical. It has been in the public space that court officials and judges are easily bribed by litigants to obviate delays and or obtain favourable judgments.


Recently, fresh allegations have been made that children and other relatives of serving and retired judges and justices are being appointed into judicial offices at the expense of more
qualified candidates lacking in such privilege and backing. It is asserted that the process of appointment to judicial positions are deliberately conducted to give undue advantage to the “children, spouses, and mistresses” of serving and retired judges and managers of judicial offices.
At the Court of Appeal, it is also asserted, that presiding Justices are now being appointed out of turn. And there is the further issue of the unpredictable nature of recent decisions of the courts as well. A number of respected senior members of the bar inter alia, citing the Ahmed Lawan, the former President of the Senate, and the Imo Governorship appeals, claim that decisions of even the apex court have become unpredictable. It is difficult to understand how and where, by these decisions, the judicial pendulum swings. It was not so before, they contend.


In some quarters the view is strongly held that filth and intrigues characterize the institution these days! Judges are said to be comfortable in companies they never would have kept in the past. It is being insinuated that some judicial officers even campaign for the politicians. It cannot be more damnifying!


…. it is obvious that the judiciary I am exiting from is far from the one I voluntarily joined and desired to serve and be identified with. The institution has become something else.


On the way forward:

Intrinsic in what I have said today are indices to dampen, nay, eradicate the lapses in the judiciary. The duty to revive the institution remains a collective one. We must persist. It suffices to have, for the purpose of this event, a respite at this point though.

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