A history of shock appointments at the Supreme Court
By Eric Teniola
CRISIS is not new to the Supreme Court in Nigeria.
From inception, there has always been one crisis or the other, in that court. In 1958, the incumbent Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Stafford Foster Sutton, was to retire. He had earlier served as Attorney General of Kenya from 1944-1948 and served also as attorney General of British Malaya from 1948-1950.
The expectation was that his number two man, Justice Samuel Olumuyiwa Jibowu (1899-1959), was to succeed him. Justice Jibowu was at that time the first Nigerian to be serving in the supreme court of Nigeria. He had rich credentials. He was called to the Bar in 1923 at Middle Temple in London. At a time, his father was the Secretary of the Egba nation. In fact, if you look at the Nigerian Legal Practitioner’s enrollment list, you would see that Jibowu who was sworn in on August 8 1923 was lawyer Number 69; Justice Adetokunbo Ademola who was enrolled on September 10, 1934 was lawyer Number 121, while Chief Obafemi Awolowo(1909-1987) who was enrolled on December 24 1946 was lawyer 168. But Justice Jibowu was never appointed Chief Justice. Instead Justice Ademola (1906-1993) was appointed Chief Justice on April 1 1958. A petition was written against Justice Jibowu that he made a political statement and therefore was not fit to be Chief Justice.
When I was Press Secretary to three military governors in Ondo State between 1986 and 1991, his spouse, Lady Deborah Jibowu, who later became chairperson of one of the government agencies, usually visited me in my office and she told me great stories of her husband. Ten months after Justice Ademola became Chief Justice, Justice Jibowu died on June 1 1959. A street in Yaba,Lagos not far from WAEC, office is named after him. The expectation was that Chief Shobowale Benson (1917-2008), pioneer Minister of Information, who was lawyer Number 190 and enrolled on September 9 1947 like Chief Victor Babaremilekun FaniKayode(1921-1995), would tell his own side of the story in the saga. He never did till he died in the early hours of February 13 2008.
In 1972, Sir Ademola gave notice of retirement, and General Yakubu Gowon quickly set in motion efforts to pick a candidate to succeed him. There was an office then in Lagos Island, between Strachan street and Moloney streets. That office was then called cabinet office. It once served as the office of the Prime Minister. It used to be the most powerful office outside of then Dodan Barracks. It was called the heartbeat of government. All appointments and decisions passed through that office. It was in short the clearing house. That was then.
At the time Justice Ademola gave notice of retirement, the office was headed by Alhaji Umaru Ndayako (1937-2003), a schoolmate of General Gowon. Ndayako, who later became 12th Etsu Nupe, expectedly, submitted the profiles of serving Justices of the Supreme Court to General Gowon for consideration. General Gowon did the unthinkable. He appointed Dr. Taslim Elias (1914-1991) as Chief Justice of the Federation. At the time of the appointment, Dr. Elias was not serving as a Justice of the Supreme Court. He was the first Attorney General and Minister of Justice and later Dean Faculty of Law, University of Lagos. He was Lawyer Number 308 and enrolled on December 15 1951. The appointment shocked many. The argument then was not that Dr. Elias was not qualified, but that he was not a serving Justice of the Supreme Court although he was the incumbent Attorney General of the Federation.
On July 29 1975, while away at the Organisation of African Unity meeting in Kampala, Uganda, General Murtala Ramat Mohammed (November 8 1938- February 13 1976) toppled his school mate and senior in Barewa College. One of the first things he did was to fire Justice Elias. He too did the unthinkable and appointed a non-Nigerian, Justice Arthur Darnley Alexander (1920-1988). Justice Alexander came to Nigeria in 1957 on the invitation of the Premier of the Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo who had appealed to the Colonial Office in London to help source a legal draftsman. Alexander then served the region in various capacities. He was Legal Draftsman, Western Region, Nigeria from 1957-1969 and was acting Director of Public Prosecutions in 1958.
In 1960, he was appointed the Solicitor General and Permanent Secretary of the regional Ministry of Justice and in 1963, he was made Queen’s Counsel. In 1964, he was appointed a judge in the Lagos High Court. In 1964,the then Premier of Mid-Western region, Chief Dennis Chukwudi Osadebe (1911-1994), appointed him to head the Owegbe court tribunal which was targeted at the deputy Premier of the region, Chief Humphrey Omo-Osagie (1896-1977) who was eventually cleared of any wrong doing.
He was appointed Chief Justice of the South Eastern State now Cross River and Akwa Ibom states. At the time he was appointed as Chief Justice of the Federation, there were more than twelve serving Justices of the Supreme Court who were his seniors. Justice Salihu Modio Alfa Belgore (80) has the shortest tenure, so far, since independence. He was the tenth Chief Justice of the Federation. He served between July 2006 and January 2007—barely six months. His predecessor Justice Muhammed LawalUwais, retired on June 12, 2006 .
The nearest to him is Justice Dahiru Musdapher (74), a close ally of General Sani Abacha who served between August 21 2011 and July 16, 2012. But Justice Belgore was not to be the Chief Justice but for a peace meeting initiated by President Olusegun Obasanjo with Justice Uwais, Justice Belgore, Major General Abdullahi Muhammed(retd.), then Chief of Staff to the President and the then Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Chief Ufott Ekaette, in May 2006 in the Villa. It was after the meeting that the National Judicial Council finally submitted Justice Belgore’s name via President Obasanjo to the Senate, presided then by Senator Ken Nnamani. The calculation then was: why make Justice Belgore Chief Justice when he has only six months to serve?
We should not forget also that Justice Belgore is from one of the most powerful ten families in Ilorin like the Sarakis, Abdul-Razaks, Sulu Gambaris, Barajes, Onikijipas,Oniyangis, Idiagbons, Kawus, who are regarded as untouchable in that ancient city.
As I said earlier, crisis is not new to the Supreme Court. Notwithstanding it must be acknowledged too that the National Judicial Council has been implementing necessary reforms within the Judiciary in the last sixteen months. The council should be commended and encouraged.
Teniola, a former director at the presidency, resides in Lagos.
Culled from Tribune