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A review of Nigeria’s judiciary in 2019

The year 2019, was quite challenging to the nation’s judiciary as it tasked the capability of the institution to prop up the country’s democracy.

From the removal of the Retired Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria, to the appointment of Justice Tanko Muhammad, first in acting capacity; and later, as the substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria, to the avalanche of pre-election cases and election petitions, the judiciary stood on its toes all through the year under review.

Justice Tanko Muhammad was sworn-in in January 2019 as the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria following the suspension of the CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen.

Justice Onnoghen was in the 14th of January, arraigned at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, on a six-count charge for failure to declare his assets.

He therefore entered record as the first CJN to be put on trial.

However, in yet another twist in the intriguing trial of the former CJN, news broke on the 5th of April that he handed in his resignation.

Justice Walter Onnoghen during a trial at the CCT
Photo: Sahara Reporters

This came before the judgment of the CCT which on the 18th of April ordered the removal of Justice Onnoghen as the CJN and barred him from holding public office for ten years for contravening the Code of Conduct Bureau Act.

In line with the constitutional provisions, Justice Tanko Muhammad’s name was sent to the Senate in July last year by President Muhammadu Buhari for confirmation.

Justice Muhammad was confirmed by the senate and subsequently sworn-in as the substantive Chief Justice if Nigeria.

In the course of the year also, thirty eight senior lawyers were elevated and conferred with the rank of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SAN

The CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad, admonished them to hold on to the tenets of the constitution as the supreme law of the land.

“Know your principles. Don’t allow anybody to disturb your principles”.

Also, over four thousand prospective lawyers that successfully passed their final Bar examinations in August, were called to the Bar.

Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad

Justice Muhammad called on the successful new wigs to imbibe the virtue of excellence, integrity and diligence while discharging their duties.

The year under review equally recorded series of election petitions, including the Presidential Election Petitions.

All these petitions were handled by special election petitions tribunals constituted earlier in the year by the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa.

Before the commencement of the President Election Petitions Tribunal, Justice Bulkachuwa was asked to disqualify herself as the chairman of the Tribunal.

The PDP and its presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar had approached the Tribunal sitting at the Court of Appeal, Abuja, to challenge the victory of President Muhammad Buhari and the APC in the February 23, 2019, presidential election.

One of their grounds was that the president lacked the educational qualification to contest the seat.

However, after the lengthy hearing of the petitions and statements of witnesses from the petitioners and the respondents, a 5-Man panel of the tribunal led by Justice Mohammed Garba upheld the victory of Presdent Buhari.

Counsel to the petitioners, Dr. Livy Uzoukwu said the verdict would be appealed at the Supreme Court.

“This is the beginning of the journey. Certainly, I don’t think that this is the end of the journey”.

At the Supreme Court, the CJN and Chairman of a 7-Man panel, Justice Tanko Muhammad, affirmed the victory of President Buhari as the winner of the 2019 presidential election.

Counsel to the respondents, Chief Lateef Fagbemi described the verdict as laudable.

“I will say that all is well that ends well”.

On the converse, Counsel to the Appellants, Dr. Livy Uzoukwu expressed dissatisfaction with the judgment, arguing that the appeal was not fairly heard.

“It’s now becoming obvious that petitioners would always find it very difficult to prosecute their cases”.

The National and State Assemblies Election Petitions Tribunals nullified a number of elections including those of a former Senate spokesman, Dayo Adeyeye and Dino Melaye.

The judgments of the tribunals were challenge at the Court of Appeal but some of the appeals failed.

Another major case that shaped the 2019 legal year was the proscription of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, IMN, by Justice Nkeonye Maha of the Federal High Court, Abuja, as a terrorist group.

That decision was challenged by the IMN.

A file photo of Shiites, IMN during a protest in Abuja.
Photo: Channels TV

The fight against corruption by the Federal Government received a major boost in the nation’s criminal justice system as the former senator representing Abia North Senatorial District of Abia state, Orji Uzor-Kalu, was sentenced to twelve years in custody for fraud, to the tune of 7.65 billion naira levelled against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.

Another major trial within the year was that of a former Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Pension Reforms, Mr. Abdulrasheed Maina and his son, Mr. Faisal Maina.

Mr. Maina is facing trial for fraud and money laundering to the tune of 2 billion naira before the Federal High Court in Abuja.

As one of the activities to mark the end of the year, the CJN swore-in Justice John Tsoho as the substantive Chief Judge of the Federal High Court and Justice Benedict Kanyip as the president of the National Industrial Court.

Justice Muhammad described them as custodians of justice and urged them to be guided the rule of law.

“The rule of law which is the bastion of every democracy across the world must be strictly observed in all our dealings”

Similarly, the National Judicial Council, NJC, within the year, recommended the appointment of six Heads of Court, twenty-six Judicial Officers for the State High Courts and one Kadi for Sharia Court of Appeal.

Finally, those who spoke with Radio Nigeria predicted that 2020 would be less busy for the judiciary than last year.

Ifeoma Nwovu

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