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Why Nigeria’s Supreme Court Has a New Chief Justice

Resigning from public office in Nigeria is as rare as witnessing flying pigs. But that’s exactly what Tanko Muhammad did when he resigned as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN).

Muhammad tendered his resignation letter on Sunday, June 26th, 2022. The 68-year-old resigned from his office as a result of an undisclosed illness. But the events leading up to him throwing in the towel suggest there may have been more. And it all started with a leak.

Judges also cry

Days before the CJN’s resignation, a letter leaked to the media. In this letter, 14 Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria complained about — well, everything. 

Some of the judges were yet to be allocated residential accommodation at the court, years after their inauguration. They also weren’t pleased about only being able to attend two foreign workshops since Muhammad became CJN in 2019. And they weren’t great fans of the substandard vehicles they were still driving around in. But these weren’t all.

The aggrieved judges also lamented the failure of the Supreme Court to hire more legal assistants for them. They also can’t rely on the staff clinic which apparently doesn’t even have drugs to treat minor ailments — this means judges who require immediate medical intervention are on their own.

Why Nigeria's Supreme Court Has a New Chief Justice

And if you thought judges of the highest court in the land are immune to Nigeria’s problems, the letter also showed that their work productivity is affected by erratic power supply. Even worse, the scarcity and skyrocketing price of diesel mean they can’t simply rely on generators.

What does any of this have to do with Muhammad?

As the head of the judicial arm of government, the Supreme Court judges blamed Muhammad’s lack of leadership for all the problems highlighted in the letter. They noted that the issues had been repeatedly brought to his attention, but he’d failed to act. 

Why Nigeria's Supreme Court Has a New Chief Justice

The judges also accused Muhammad of depriving them of overseas travelling companions while he had his own family and personal staff on such trips. The judges pointedly asked the CJN if he’d diverted their training funds.

They ended the letter by warning him to take action instead of airing them as he’d done in the past. They said they’d be compelled to take further steps if he didn’t heed the warning. In their words, “May this day never come.”

This leaked letter caught the attention of senators and they asked a committee, naturally, to investigate the issues.

How did Muhammad respond?

For starters, the CJN didn’t like that the letter leaked for non-judicial eyes to feast on. He described it as “dancing naked at the market square”. In his own public response, Muhammad explained he’d been doing his best to address all the issues raised. He especially noted that the judges could say more needed to be done, but couldn’t accuse him of not doing nothing.

Basically, the summary of his open letter was:

Why Nigeria's Supreme Court Has a New Chief Justice

Why did he now resign?

Ill health is the official reason for the CJN’s resignation. And there may be some truth to that because it’s been reported as far back as 2020 that he was secretly nursing an illness that should make him incapable of holding office. 

While Muhammad’s official reason may indeed be the true reason, being called out by the 14 Justices in the leaked letter mustn’t have helped. It’s the most direct public vote of no confidence a CJN has faced from his colleagues. And there are already calls from lawyers and civil rights groups for Muhammad to be investigated for alleged corruption.

What’ll happen now?

President Buhari has sworn in the next highest-ranking judge in the country, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola as the acting CJN. To fully take over the office, he has to be confirmed by the Senate after a nomination by the president. The president’s nomination is usually based on a recommendation by the National Judicial Council (NJC).

Why Nigeria's Supreme Court Has a New Chief Justice

As it stands, there’s a new Chief Justice of Nigeria and a leaked letter appears to have been the final straw that made that possible. Oh, and one of the men that signed that letter is none other than Ariwoola who’s now taking over and responsible for solving those issues.

Why Nigeria's Supreme Court Has a New Chief Justice

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