A new page turned in the history of Nigerian Judiciary yesterday, following the sudden resignation of Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Tanko Muhammad.
Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, 67, the second most senior justice of the Supreme Court, stepped in as Acting CJN. He took the oath of office before President Muhammadu Buhari to run the Judiciary while awaiting the Senate’s conformation of his appointment as the 22nd CJN.
Justice Muhammad bowed out of office with one and half years to his statutory retirement on health grounds. He would have retired on December 31, 2024.
It was learnt that Muhammad, who was appointed in 2019, had been battling with memory disorder, making him unable to fully discharge his responsibilities.
It was also learnt that the ex-CJN could no longer cope with the rigours of the bench, especially legal research.
But he didn’t want some forces to take advantage of his challenge to hijack or influence Supreme Court decisions, which they reckoned could cause crisis in the country.
The protest by his colleague-justices against his management of the apex court exposed his deteriorating condition.
The 14 justices on the apex court bench wrote to the ex-CJN on the poor condition of service they were faced with.
Newsmen published the content of the protest letter on June 13.
Sources said Justice Muhammad got a medical advisory to “slow down drastically.”
Investigation revealed that the ex-CJN had wanted to resign about eight months ago, but he was prevailed upon to stay for a while.
It was also gathered that the resignation of the CJN was delayed to allow Justice Mary Odili to leave the bench, because if she had taken over, it would have been for a short period, thereby causing instability in the system. She retired on May 12.
Acting CJN Ariwoola will retired in 2024.
A top source, who spoke in confidence, said: “Right from the time he took over from former CJN Walter Onnoghen, CJN Tanko Mohammed had been managing his health challenges.
“The weight of office as the CJN made him to slip into suspected dementia. Each time he had meeting with his colleagues, he would forget resolutions and might not follow up with any action.
“Apart from the rigours of legal research, the health situation of the CJN could not allow him to attend to some administrative duties, including non-signing of amended Rules of Court for almost three years.
“He has no disdain for his colleagues, but his health challenge accounted for the lapses which led to a letter of protest by Supreme Court Justices.
“In spite of the fact that on March 23, the CJN constituted a Welfare Committee, all was not well in the Supreme Court till yesterday.
“The committee on March 24 submitted a list of demands by the Supreme Court Justices to the CJN, which could not be met.
“The issues raised by the justices are non-replacement of poor vehicles; accommodation problem; lack of drugs at the Supreme Court clinic; epileptic electricity supply to the Supreme Court; increase in electricity tariff; no increase in the of diesel; lack of internet services to residences and chambers.
Others are internal problems including non-signing of amended Rules of Court for almost three years; sudden stoppage of two to three foreign workshops and trainings per annum for justices; no provision of qualified legal assistants
“In the midst of the protest by Justices of the Supreme Court, there was a medical advisory that he should slow down drastically.
“The situation was becoming complex and to avoid some forces taking advantage of the ill- health of the CJN to tamper with crucial judgments, he had to quit.”
Justice Ariwoola, who arrived at the Presidential Villa in the company of brother Justices of the Supreme Court at about 2.45pm in a white tinted coaster bus, headed straight for the Council Chambers, venue of his inauguration.
He is the third Supreme Court Justice to occupy the top position under the Buhari-led Administration.
Former Justice Walter Onnoghen, who preceded Justice Muhammad in office, also resigned from office in controversial circumstances.
Buhari said: As nature abhors a vacuum, I hereby invite Honourable Olukayode Ariwoola JSC, being the next most Senior Justice of the Supreme Court, to come forward to take the Judicial Oath as Chief Justice of Nigeria in an Acting Capacity, pursuant to Section 231(4) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended)”.
Justice Ariwoola’s inauguration was witnessed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, Chief of Staff to the President, Prof. Ibrahim Gambari, Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami and some Justices the of Supreme Court.
Justice Ariwoola said, with the cooperation of all the justices of the Supreme Court, he would strive to honour and preserve Nigeria’s Constitution, assuring that the Judiciary would not fail Nigerians.
He also dismissed fears that the harmony of the apex court was heading for the rocks, clarifying that the recent memorandum, alleging neglect and signed by all justices of the apex court, was an internal matter, which already was being handled.
The Acting CJN said: “What Nigerians expect from me is to comply, abide and preserve the Constitution of Nigeria and that is what I will do with the cooperation of my brother justices of the supreme court. We shall not fail Nigeria.
“There is no controversy at the Supreme Court. We are one with the Chief Justice. That is why you heard the President said the lordship is disengaging on the grounds of ill-health. No controversy, we are one.”
Asked about the welfare issues raised in the memorandum, which had been circulating in the media, he said: ”It was an internal memo of the court. It was not a petition, it was not a letter. It was addressed by the brother justices of the Chief Justice and was presented to him, his Lordship, directly. They were issues to be resolved amongst the justices”.