What the law says on removal of Chief Justice of Nigeria

Nigeria's Supreme Court building
Nigeria's Supreme Court building

The controversial suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, by President Muhammadu Buhari has continued to elicit mixed reactions.

In removing Mr Onnoghen, Mr Buhari claimed he acted based on a Code of Conduct Tribunal order.

Many Nigerians, however, believe the president has no such powers to remove a Chief Justice of Nigeria from office.

Section 292 of the Nigerian constitution deals with the removal of some public officials including the CJN. The section does not distinguish temporary removal (suspension) from a permanent removal (sack).

Below is the law as reproduced verbatim from the constitution

“A judicial officer shall not be removed from his office or appointment before his age of retirement except in the following circumstances –

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(a) in the case of –

“Chief Justice of Nigeria, President of the Court of Appeal, Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Chief Judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Grand Kadi of the Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja and President, Customary Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, by the President acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate.”

(ii) Chief Judge of a State, Grand Kadi of a Sharia Court of Appeal or President of a Customary Court of Appeal of a State, by the Governor acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the House of Assembly of the State,

Praying that he be so removed for his inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment (whether arising from infirmity of mind or of body) or for misconduct or contravention of the Code of Conduct;

(b) in any case, other than those to which paragraph (a) of this subsection applies, by the President or, as the case may be, the Governor acting on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council that the judicial officer be so removed for his inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment (whether arising from infirmity of mind or of body) or for misconduct or contravention of the Code of Conduct.

In other words, a sitting CJN can only be removed from office by the president after at least two-thirds majority members of the Senate support such a move. No such matter has been debated in the Senate.

History of the Supreme Court of Nigeria

According to the court’s website, the coinage Supreme Court was first used in 1863 by the colonial administration through the enactment of the Supreme Court Ordinance No. II which established it as a colony with civil and criminal jurisdiction.

In 1963, following the proclamation of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the constitution which came into operation on October 1, 1963, Section III of this constitution gave legal instrument that gave birth to Supreme Court following the abolition of section 120 which abrogated the appellate jurisdiction of the judicial committee of the Privy Council which was Nigeria’s apex Court.

This Act also gave it the status of the highest Court in the judicial hierarchy while the Independence Constitution of 1960 vested in it the jurisdiction of the Federal Supreme Court.

The 1979 Constitution in its Section 210 (1) of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution clearly gave it the name Supreme Court of Nigeria. The Court operates as the apex Court on matters involving both Federal and State Laws.

The Supreme Court is composed of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and not more than twenty others appointed by the President after being recommended by the National Judicial Council subject to the Senate’s confirmation. They are required to retire after a mandatory service age of 70.

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