The Supreme Court currently has 13 judges, and the NBA has called on its members to apply for the eight vacant slots on the court’s bench.
The Supreme Court has started the process of appointing eight judges to join its severely depleted bench.
The move apparently aims to fill the court’s bench to its full complement of 21 justices – a feat the court has never attained.
With the rank of its judges reduced to 13 since August last year, the court is barely getting along amid a mounting workload that is endlessly swollen with all kinds of appeals originating from all parts of the country.
In September last year, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Olukayode Ariwoola, lamented how the plummeting number of justices was adding to the court’s workload.
Mr Ariwoola, as the head of the Supreme Court, has now, in line with practice, sent notices to the top brass of the legal profession to nominate candidates to fill available slots on the court’s bench, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
The nominations are expected to be processed into a shortlist that will be sent to the National Judicial Council (NJC) which is also chaired by the CJN.
The NJC will then assess and interview the candidates, and send the list of successful ones to President Bola Tinubu for appointment which is subject to confirmation of the Senate.
Among those that have received the CJN’s requests for nominations in the preliminary stage of the appointment process are the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), heads of courts, and judges of the Supreme Court.
NBA president, Yakubu Maikyau, in an email he addressed to lawyers on Friday, confirmed receiving the CJN’s notice on 16 June 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.”
Mr Maikyau, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), in his email, urged interested and suitably qualified lawyers from the regions with openings on the Supreme Court bench to submit their expression of interest to the NBA secretariat in Abuja on or before 21 June.
The available slots on a regional basis are: South-east (two); South-south (one); South-west (two); North-central (two) and North-west (one). Only the North-east, among Nigeria’s six geo-political zones, is said not to have a vacant slot currently.
Supreme Court appointments are done to ensure regional spread. This principle is also applied to appointment of judges to the Court of Appeal and other federal courts.
However, from time to time, there is disparity in the number of representatives of the six regions on the bench of the various courts.
This is due to retirements, disciplinary actions, and deaths which do not follow any particular order. The fact that appointments are only carried out once in a while to fill vacancies that have accumulated overtime also leaves some regions acutely less represented than the others until the next round of appointments.
However, even with the regional balance consideration, all regions never get to have equal representatives on the bench of various courts at the end of any round of appointment. The criteria for determining which region has a vacant slot to fill is not publicly known.
Make-up of Supreme Court
Currently, the South-east and the North-central regions, with one slot each, are the least represented on the Supreme Court bench. The three most represented regions have three each.
With the current make-up of the Supreme Court bench, the South-west has three slots, South-south two; and South-east one. While the North-central has one, the North-west and the North-east have three each.
If the appointment process goes through as planned, it will end up giving South-west five slots on the Supreme Court bench, South-south, four, and South-east three.
The North-west will also occupy five slots and North-central, three. The representatives of the North-east on the bench will remain three as the region is not expected to have any addition from the ongoing appointment process.
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.
From bar to Supreme Court bench?
Mr Maikyau’s call on eligible lawyers interested in the post of a Supreme Court judge to submit their expression of interest is a familiar proposition that has mostly failed to yield result.
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.
But that 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.
In response to then acting CJN, Walter Onnoghen’s request for nomination, the NBA then led by Abubakar Mahmoud, had forwarded the names of nine lawyers for appointment as Justices of the Supreme Court.
The NBA’s nominees were: former President of the NBA, Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), Anthony Ikemefuna Idigbe (SAN), Yunus Ustas Usman (SAN), Babatunde Fagbohunlu (SAN), Miannaya Aja Essien (SAN), Awa Uma Kalu (SAN), Awalu Hamish Yadudu, Tajudeen Oladoja and Ayuba Giwa.
Subsequent NBA presidents – from Paul Usoro, to Olumide Akpata – made similar attempts at having lawyers appointed to the Supreme Court bench but did not succeed.
The latest call by Mr Maikyau is the latest in the series.
Going by the explanation offered by a Justice of the Supreme Court in February last year, hoping to have a lawyer appointed directly from the bar to the bench of the court may, for now, be a longshot aspiration.
The Supreme Court judge, John Okoro, recalled at an event that the appointment of judicial officers used to be a “secretive” exercise owing to the conservative nature of the profession. “Outstanding lawyers used to be approached by judges for appointment to the bench, with most of them turning down such offers.”
“However, these days, the process of appointment of judges has become so competitive. If there are vacancies for appointment on the bench, there are judges who are already in the system. So, how do you go outside fishing for people (lawyers) to come in?” Mr Okoro said, responding to a question from Mr Agbakoba, who was among those nominated by the NBA for Supreme Court appointment in 2019.
Like Mr Agbakoba, lawyers are relentless in challenging their exclusion from the Supreme Court appointments.
At the valedictory court session held for a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Abdu Aboki, in September last year, Mr Okpoko, speaking on behalf of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN), said the process processs of appointments to appellate courts (Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal) “appears to have been designed and operated to exclude good and competent lawyers”.
Current Supreme Court judges and the regions they represent
· Olukayode Ariwoola, Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) – Oyo State (South-west)
· Musa Dattijo Muhammad – Niger State (North-central)
· Kudirat Motonmori Olatokunbo Kekere-Ekun – Lagos State (South-west)
· John Inyang Okoro – Akwa Ibom State (South-south)
· Chima Centus Nweze – Enugu State (South-east).
· Amina Adamu Augie – Kebbi (North-west)
· Uwani Musa Abba Aji – Yobe State (North-east)
· Mohammed Lawal Garba – Zamfara State (North-west)
· Helen Moronkeji Ogunwumiju – Ondo State (South-west)
· I.M.M. Saulawa – Katina State (North-west)
· Adamu Jauro – Gombe State (North-east)
· Tijjani Abubakar – Yobe State (North-east)
· Emmanuel Akomaye – Cross River State (South-south)