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Thursday, 10 November 2016

Supreme Court: Chief Justice of Nigeria retires without successor

Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Mahmud Mohammed retires today, without handing over to a successor.

At the close of work, yesterday, he did not officially hand over to any successor, Daily Sun gathered.

It was also gathered that, on October 10, Mohammed forwarded the name of Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen, as his successor, to President Muhammadu Buhari, who will then forward same to the Senate for confirmation next CJN.

Anxiety is high in the Judiciary over the lacuna, giving that Mohammed’s tenure as CJN lapsed by 12:00am today, upon clocking the mandatory retirement age of 70 years.Although, Mohammed had on October 10, 2016 forwarded Onnoghen’s name to Buhari as the next most senior Justice of the Supreme Court to replace him, based on the recommendations of both the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) and the National Judicial Council (NJC), the president is yet to forward same to the Senate for confirmation.

Although section 231 (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), confers on president Buhari the power to appoint a CJN, on the recommendation of the NJC, such appointment must however be subject to confirmation by the Senate. Section 231 (3) of the Constitution also provides that: “A person shall not be qualified to hold the office of the CJN or of a justice of the Supreme Court, unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and had been so qualified for a period of not less than 15 years.”

Senior lawyers who spoke with Daily Sun have expressed concern over the development.

In his reaction, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Sabastine Hon has described as “dangerous” Buhari’s failure to endorse Onnoghen’s nomination as CJN before the expiration of Mohammed’s tenure.

“The tenure of the Mohammed, expires at 12 midnight on November 9, 2016. Onnoghen’s name, as the next, most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, has since October 10, 2016, been forwarded to the president, who is expected, constitutionally, to forward it to the Senate for confirmation. Till this moment, Mr. President has not forwarded Justice Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation. This is scary, to say the least.

“The time to act is now, as Senate must confirm Justice Onnoghen latest on Tuesday, to further enable his swearing in just before or just after Justice Mahmud bows out.

Hon said the image of the Judiciary has nosedived in recent times and the president must be seen to be preventing any further dent on the image of this crucial arm of government. He urged the president to endorse Onnoghen’s appointment, who, he said, could be the first southerner in nearly 30 years to hold the post.

But, rights lawyer, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN) said there is no cause for alarm because there would be no vacuum.

He explained that “section 231 (4) (5) of the Constitution provides that when the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria becomes vacant for any reason, in the interim, the president will appoint the most senior justices of the court, in this case, Justice Onnoghen, in an acting capacity. So, it is not a gift from the president but, a constitutional provision and he is duty bound to act in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, to appoint Justice Onnoghen as acting Chief Justice of Nigeria until his name is confirmed by the Senate.

“Also, section 231 (5) states that where an Acting CJN is so appointed, it shall be for the period of three months in the first instance and he shall perform the full duties and functions of the CJN and chairman of the NJC. The president can again re-appoint him for another three months until his appointment is made permanent. But if within the expiration of the first three months, the president has not made his appointment permanent, the NJC can still send his name to the president for appointment.

The Constitution did not place a limit on the number of times his appointment as an acting CJN can be reviewed.

“So, there is no fear that there will be a lacuna in the Judiciary as the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria shall perform all the functions of his office including that of the NJC Chairman.

Other lawyers who declined to be named, however, said it was too early to jump into conclusion. They added that Justice Onnoghen could still perform the duties of the CJN in an acting capacity, “as the most senior Justice on the bench of the Supreme court.”

If Buhari approves Onnoghen, who is from Cross-River State, as the 17th CJN, he will become the first Southern jurist to head the Judiciary in about 29 years.

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