The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Olukayode Ariwoola, has declared two additional slots on the Supreme Court bench vacant, bringing the total number of the openings up for grab to 10.
PREMIUM TIMES reported that the CJN’s previous vacancy notice had declared only eight openings, to kickstart an appointment process aimed at bringing the court to its full complement of 21 justices.
The number of judges had spiralled down from 20 in November 2020 to 13 since August 2022, leaving the court’s bench severely depleted amid a mounting workload.
Adding 10 new justices to the existing 13 justices means there will be no room for two of the incoming ones on the bench that can accommodate a maximum of 21 members.
But the ongoing appointment process is believed to have considered that two of the judges will be retiring in a few months.
From eight to 10
The President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Yakubu Maikyau, disclosed in an email to lawyers on Thursday that he had received a fresh notice from the CJN raising the number of openings from eight to 10.
Other top officials in the legal profession, including the Justices of the Supreme Court and the President of the Court of Appeal also received the CJN’s updated call for nomination.
Mr Maikyau said in his mail to lawyers that he received Mr Ariwoola’s fresh letter dated 19 June, “which superseded the earlier letter of 14 June 2023,” requesting him “as President of the Nigerian Bar Association, to nominate suitably qualified candidates to be recommended for appointment to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.”
According to the NBA president, the available slots are now open to qualified candidates from all the six geo-political zones, a development that now throws one slot open to the North-east region that was excluded in the previous announcement.
Available slots on regional basis
The notice breaks down the vacant slots on regional basis as: South-east (two); South-south (one); South-west (one); North-central (three); North-east (one) and North-west (two).
It redistributes the available slots to the country’s six regions, correcting the imbalance in regional representation that would have resulted from the previous plan.
In the previous notice, two slots were declared open to each of the South-east, the South-west, and the North-central, one to each of one to the South-south, and the North-west, and none to the North-east.
Attempts by PREMIUM TIMES to have the Supreme Court’s spokesperson, Festus Akande, shed light on the new development did not succeed, as he was not available to take his calls on Friday.
But clearly, the redistribution came with increasing the number of slots declared vacant on the bench.
Apparently, the CJN declared two more openings in anticipation of imminent retirement of two of the existing 13 justices before the end of the year.
Amina Augie from Kebbi State, North-west, and currently the sixth in hierarchy on the bench, will clock the retirement age of 70 on 3 September.
Fifty-four days later, Musa Dattijo Muhammad, who hails from Niger State, North-central, and currently ranks behind the CJN as the second most senior judge of the court, will also bow out on 27 October.
But while the two jurists are still on board, there is an imbalance in regional representation on the Supreme Court bench, although many have argued that competence of the candidates should be the overriding consideration in appointing judges instead of region of origin.
Currently, South-west has three slots on the bench, South-south two; and South-east one. While the North-central has one, the North-west and the North-east have three each.
This will change by the time Ms Augie and Mr Muhammad leave in September and October, respectively.
It means that without any addition to the bench, by the end of October, the North-central will have no representative on the Supreme Court bench, while the North-west’s slots will drop to two.
How things will change
With 10 slots already declared vacant by the CJN while there are still 13 justices on the bench that can accommodate a maximum of 21 members, it means that even if the ongoing appointment process is concluded soonest, two of the 10 new justices being expected cannot be sworn in until the exit of Ms Augie and Mr Muhammad.
The other option will be to delay the appointment of all 10 successful candidates till when Mr Muhammad leaves at the end of October.
Hoping that there will be no other retirement or any cause for other justice to exit the bench by the time all the 10 come on board, each region will have between three and four representatives on the bench.
The South-east, which will be left with one slot by the end of October, will have three; the South-south’s slots will be raised from two to three; and those of the South-west will increase from three to four.
For the northern zones, the North-central’s slots will rise from zero to three; the North-west’s from three to four, and the North-east’s also from three to four.
The anticipated North-South make-up will leave the North with 11 slots and the South 10.
But achieving a Supreme Court with its full complement of 21 justices will be an unprecedented feat. The closet the court has achieved is 20.
PREMIUM TIMES reported that the Supreme Court appointments are done to ensure regional balance. This principle is also applied to appointment of judges to the Court of Appeal and other federal courts.
But it remains an issue of ongoing debate, with those that are opposed to it arguing that it trumps competence of candidates which should be the overriding consideration.
Last year, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Onomigbo Okpoko, criticised the geographical spread consideration in appointment to the Supreme Court and other federal establishments as “the foundation for mediocrity and incompetence.”
Arguing that competence should be criterium for such appointments, Mr Okpoko said the Supreme Court at Nigeria’s independence was filled by five justices who hailed from the Igbo and Yoruba ethnic groups.
The appointment process starts with the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) which will process the list of nominees by assessing the candidates.
At the end of the exercise, the commission will send a short list of nominees each with an alternative candidate to the National Judicial Council (NJC).
The NJC will also carry out the final assessment and interview of the nominees, usually twice the number of available slots to be filled.
In the end, the NJC will recommend the names of successful candidates to the President for appointment.
The appointment is, however, bsubject to confirmation by the Senate.
Call on lawyers to indicate interest
The NBA president, in his latest letter, restated his previous call on lawyers who are qualified and interested in the Supreme Court appointment to submit their applications at the NBA secretariat in Abuja on 26 June.
The call is to draw in lawyers to compete with Justices of the Court of Appeal for whom the Supreme Court bench is traditionally reserved as their only opportunity of career progression.
Under the current Nigerian constitution, lawyers with at least 15 years of call to the Nigerian bar are eligible to be appointed directly from the bar to the Supreme Court bench. The provision also makes them eligible for appointment directly to the office of the CJN.
PREMIUM TIMES reported that this is only in principle. In practice, the Supreme Court bench is reserved for judges of the Court of Appeal.
In the history of Nigeria, only Teslim Elias and Augustine Nnamani have had the opportunity to rise directly from the bar to the Supreme Court bench.
The NBA tried to re-enact this feat, the most publicised of such efforts, in 2017, but the plan failed to sail through.
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