Justice Musa Dattijo Muhammad retired from the Supreme Court bench last week as the second most senior justice. The nation was however taken aback when he opened a can of worms on the rot in the same institution he served for four decades.
In his valedictory speech, Justice Dattijo lamented that the judiciary he was leaving behind was far from the one he joined and desired, saying the judiciary is now something else. He alleged a lack of transparency and accountability in the management of financial resources in the judicial arm of government and especially at the Supreme Court, reports Saturday Vanguard.
He said the judiciary was increasingly being compromised especially by politicians, citing the notorious cases involving the 2019 Imo State gubernatorial election and the recent election of former Senate President Ahmad Lawan. Justice Dattijo also expressed disgust that unlike in the past when appointment to the bench was strictly on merit, it is no longer the case as the process of appointment to judicial positions are deliberately conducted to give undue advantage to the ‘children, spouses, and mistresses’ of serving and retired judges and managers of judicial offices”.
He also frowned at the practice where enormous powers are conferred on the Chief Justice of Nigeria that makes the occupant of the office run the judiciary without checks and balances.
The retiring jurist gave a dismal report card of the judiciary, stirring a nationwide conversation on the state of the judicial system.
To many Nigerians, Justice Dattijo was only echoing what they have always known. Many have expressed lack of confidence in the third arm of the government. And when the citizens have lost hope in the judiciary, this is dangerous to democracy and the survival of the nation.
Various stakeholders, including lawyers and activists, in separate interviews proffered views that are varied and insightful, reflecting diverse perspectives on the state of the judiciary and the path to its redemption.
Office of the Chief Justice has to be unbundled —Prof Chidi Odinkalu
Legal practitioner, human rights activist and former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Professor Chidi Odinkalu, while speaking on Channels television programme, Sunday Politics, called for reforms in judicial appointments and unbundling of the office of the Chief Justice. His words: “What Justice Dattijo Muhammad talked about reflects a trend that has itself been fully documented and the timeline has been reflected in the history of remarks by retiring justices of the supreme court over the past 20 years. We can deal with the issue of corruption on the bench first of all by acknowledging it honestly. The courts should be the last hope of the common person but the Nigerian courts today are not the last hope of the common person. Every senior politician wants a member of his family to become a high court judge, honest people no longer even get a chance to be considered and people who are decent and successful and bright and intelligent with integrity no longer have a chance to be considered, that is the problem. Therefore, when the recently retired justices of the supreme court said the first thing to do is to unbundle the office of the Chief Justice, we have to take that very seriously. The Chief Justice, as an institution, has become too dangerous to the country, it has to be unbundled. We have evidence of incorruptible judicial officers but the problem now is that they are few and far between and they don’t go high enough. We have to fix this situation in which the only people who are now getting processed for appointments are the sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mistresses and lovers of sitting judges and sitting politicians. That is the biggest problem because it is front loading the corruption. It is no longer buying and selling of judgments, but people are now planting their families in a corrupt relationship with the judicial system to make sure that down the road you cannot even get the idea of justice.
NJC must implement Dahiru Musdapher’s 2011 report —Olisa Agbakoba
Speaking in a similar vein, former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, Dr Olisa Agbakoba in an interview on the Morning Show of Arise television, advocated democratisation of the institutions of the judiciary. According to him, “the CJN appoints virtually everyone in the National Judicial Council, NJC, which is the highest judicial organ in the judiciary and that is where the problem is because no member will challenge him because they all owe their appointment to him.
So, the democratisation is very important. The CJN is the chair of the National Judicial Institute, the chair of Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, NIALS, the chair of the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee, LPPC, he’s the chair of everything, so it’s a dictatorship. In fact, of the three arms of government; the Executive, the Legislature and the Judicature, the most undemocratic is actually the judiciary. That’s where the problem is. So, I think the way out of all these, in my personal view is to just dust off the report that the former CJN, late Justice Dahiru Musdapher prepared in 2011, about 12 years ago, update it and implement it and absolutely remove the powers of the CJN to be everywhere. The confidence is needed, and the judiciary is suffering a very low ebb of confidence at the moment and this is not good for democracy.
The Supreme Court is at this time toxic and it ought to change. And the only way to change is to begin to implement the report. We often criticise the judiciary but the judiciary comprises judges across Nigeria.
I once had the misfortune of appearing before a judge under a tree. I know of many cases where judges work so hard that when there’s no electricity, they use their phone light to continue. So, let’s not vilify the judiciary generally. The difference between a judge of the High Court and the CJN is like God in heaven and somebody on earth. We need to take the opportunity of the lessons in Justice Dattijo’s valedictory speech, which has been the most candid, to understand where we are with the judiciary and if we want to reverse judicial failure, then the current NJC must implement Justice Dahiru Musdapher’s report.
Judges should have the courage to denounce evil as evil —Archbishop Onuoha
In a more spiritual framing, Most Rev. Dr. David Onuoha, the Anglican Archbishop of the Owerri Ecclesiastical Province and the President of the Christian Council of Nigeria (CCN), emphasizes the moral and ethical responsibility of judges. In a conversation with our correspondent, he said, “the judiciary occupies a very prominent place in society, and it is notable that each time their legal year begins, they attend religious services according to their faith. Muslims go to the mosque, while others may go to the church. This practice serves as an acknowledgment that God is the ultimate lawgiver and universal judge. It is important for our judges to be conscious of the fact that there will come a day when the judge of the whole earth will pass judgment on them.”
Echoing biblical teachings, he said, “They should uphold justice and righteousness, dispensing justice with the fear of God. They should have the courage to denounce evil as evil and uphold good as good. As the scriptures say, ‘woe unto him who calls white black and black white, who calls good evil and evil good.’ We exercise judgment now, but we will be judged one day by the Almighty.”
Judiciary must uphold principles of justice, fairness — Sheikh Ahmed
Sheikh Khalid Ahmed of the Islamic Renaissance Movement, Abuja, brings an Islamic perspective to the discussion. The Sheikh emphasized the importance of justice and fairness in Islamic teachings and reminded the judiciary of their crucial role in upholding these principles. “Nevertheless, safeguarding the judiciary requires a multifaceted approach that also includes measures to enhance judicial independence, ensure the appointment of competent judges, provide adequate resources, promote accountability, and engage the public,” he advised.
We must pull back our nation from the highway of infamy —Hon Ayo Fadaka
Public affairs commentator, Ayo Fadaka, in his submission said, “The comments of the erudite Justice Musa Dattijo remain absolutely valid. In any case, he didn’t say what we as Nigerians did not already know. The rot in the judiciary is already well pronounced and it stinks to high heavens, but what was possibly not entrenched before now was that the Supreme Court is equally deeply enmeshed in it.
The last few years have since established very firmly that anything is possible with our Supreme Court. We all remain witnesses to the Imo Governorship matter which was very curiously resolved in favour of Hope Uzodinma, who came fourth in the election.
I equally recall the Senator Lawan case, where a man who did not contest a primary election was pronounced winner of same, and also Akpabio too who was similarly awarded a party ticket he did not vie for.
The judiciary has lost every respect in the estimation of the people and the danger in this is that people may begin to shun that institution and resort to an alternate route to attain justice anyhow which will not augur well for the nation.
Judiciary must be shielded from political interference — Coalition of Northern Groups
Spokesperson of the Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG), Suleiman Abdul-Azeez, argued that:
“To salvage the Nigerian judiciary and restore public trust, comprehensive reforms are required. The judiciary must be shielded from political interference and external pressures. Establishing an independent body responsible for judicial appointments and promotions, free from executive influence, would help ensure the selection of competent and impartial judges.
A zero-tolerance approach to corruption within the judiciary is crucial for implementing robust mechanisms for investigating and prosecuting corrupt judges, lawyers, and court officials. Addressing the issue of delayed justice requires significant investment in infrastructure, technology, and human resources. Expanding the number of courts, appointing more judges, and providing adequate training and resources will help reduce the backlog of cases and expedite the judicial process.
Address faulty recruitment process, poor remuneration — Chima Nnaji
Lagos-based legal practitioner and rights activist Chief Chima Nnaji, in his submission said faulty recruitment process and poor remuneration are mostly responsible for the failure of the Nigeria judiciary.
According to him, “It’s very disgraceful that things have to go haywire in the judiciary. Many people who joined the judiciary are half baked lawyers who are not very good in the practice of law if they ever practiced. Some who may have good grades may not have got them on account of their good understanding of the law.
“Knowledge enforces integrity. When you see some of the judges who now take bribe, it’s a failure of knowledge. Sound knowledge will give the judge the passion to do right. Another problem that has to be addressed for us to move forward is the issue of poor remuneration of judges. Judges have to be comfortable.
Judiciary must undergo reform—Secretary, CAN Northwest
Elder Sunday Oibe, Secretary of CAN in the Northwest, noted that: “To save the Judiciary in Nigeria, it must under go a total reform which will include the process of producing judicial officers at all levels, devoid of influence of the executive arm of government. Also, funding this important arm of government shouldn’t be at the mercy of either the governors or the president. Just like the executive and the legislative arms of government, there should be democratic process and procedures of appointing either the chief judge of a state or that of the federation from among the pool of judicial officers who can be removed based on his or her conduct.”
Judicial reforms needed urgently —Eric Omare
Eric Omare, a legal practitioner and former President, Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) worldwide, declared that: “The challenges confronting the judiciary are a source of concern especially to stakeholders in the judiciary.
The starting point I think is for judicial reforms to be introduced relating to the process and procedure for appointment, remuneration and provision of amenities. I seriously think that the relationship between the judiciary and other arms of government with respect to the appointment and release of funds needs to be redefined.
Also, there is a need for a mechanism for funds released to the judiciary to be subject to accountability.
We need strong institutions —Comrade Alagoa Morris
Comrade Alagoa Morris, an environmentalist said: “What the retired Supreme Court judge said is only a confirmation of what most Nigerians believe; that the Temple of Justice has been corrupted and infiltrated by unprincipled and materialistic folks. It is really sad and unfortunate. What makes nations strong and healthy is the health of the social institutions. Once priority is given to the well-being and effectiveness of social institutions; everything will fall in line.
We don’t need strong men and women, who use their privileged positions to bend the rules or cut corners; we need strong institutions. The three arms of government should enjoy separation of powers, enabling checks and balance in the common interest.
Incorruptible judges cannot be intimidated —Furoebi Akene
On his part, Furoebi Akene, a development consultant, said: “This arm of government must first save itself. If the judges are stringent and resolute enough to hold onto the tenets of the law and become incorruptible, then nobody will intimidate the arm.
The appointment, retirement and dismissal process of the judges must be done transparently and justly without recourse to the dynamics of Nigeria’s crude, selfish and wicked politics full of nepotism. If a judge is unjustly removed, the others should stand with him in solidarity and disciplinary measures should be given to the one who accepts to succeed the unjustly removed one. They must push for the complete independence of the arm in all ramifications.”
Vacancies on the bench must be filled immediately —Dr Tanko Yunusa
Dr Tanko Yunusa, a Chieftain of the Labour Party and the LP’s Presidential Campaign Spokesperson, contended that: “The slow decay of the judicial system has been noticed for a very long time, starting from the lower courts.
At the lower courts, the welfare of judicial officers was neglected, it then moved to the high courts, where every governor, minister or politician had judges on their payroll. The problem got to the Appeal Courts and now we see it happening in the Supreme Court.
These are allegations of course, but when there is an element of rumour, there must be an element of fact to it. That must have been responsible for the kind of judgment we get these days. However, we still have good men in our judiciary who have conscience and are ready to do justice. But they have been overwhelmed by the corrupt ones.
Judiciary should purge itself —Joseph Ambakederimo
According to Joseph Ambakederimo, Convener, South South Reawakening Group, “Justice Musa Dattijo Muhammad’s statement is self serving and should be taken with a pinch of salt. He sat on the bench for four decades, it is only on his exit that he realised there are deep challenging issues to be dealt with urgently in the judiciary. He should have shown genuine concern by resigning in protest and make this statement for the world to see. Saving the judiciary is in the hands of the judicial officers themselves, the ones at the Bench and the Bar. An external help cannot do it. A clean and robust judiciary is still possible only if there will be less political interference on all processes concerning the entire gamut of the judiciary. It is only when they purge themselves from within we can have a virile judiciary.”
We must overhaul our value system —Amaebi Clarkson
Amaebi Clarkson, legal practitioner contended that: “The judiciary has come under serious criticism in recent times over decisions and pronouncement by judges in politically exposed cases. Insinuations are rife that most of the decisions are induced or influenced by political actors. But we fail to realize that these judges did not fall from the sky. They are also Nigerians living in the Nigerian space and therefore not insulated from the prevalent rot in our value system. Granted that they are supposed to live a conservative and pious life based on ethics and oath but the politicians will not allow them, they will always drag them to the political turf for one favour or the other. I am not given to the argument that the problem of the judiciary is funding. It goes beyond funding. Judges and members of their families sometimes are threatened unless they compromise their position. All spheres of our society are rotten and so the judiciary should not be isolated with the wishful thinking that it will be spartan in the discharge of its duties.”
Recruitment of judges should not be shrouded in secrecy —Ogunbiyi Henry
Ogunbiyi Oluwajuwon Henry, legal practitioner, human rights activist, stated that: “What we are seeing today in the Nigerian justice system is a reflection of our society and the judiciary is not in anyway immune from all the vices plaguing our nation today. There needs to be a total reform and a little departure from the old order of things.
“There is need for a total overhaul starting from the manner at which cases are conducted which are typically slow when judges have to write in long hand , we can use stenographers and embrace the use of technology. The recruitment process for judges should be more open and not shrouded in secrecy. I quite agree with Justice Datijo that it is wrong for children or spouses of sitting members of the NJC to be appointed to the bench, it’s unethical and reeks of conflict of interest.”
NJC must tackle widespread corruption on the bench —Hon Stephen Adewale
According to a public analyst, Hon Stephen Adewale; “There won’t be much that can be done to protect the third branch of government from partisanship as long as the appointment of judges is still influenced by politics. And we all know that the acceptability or otherwise of the outcome of the litigation depends on how much faith the different parties to the case have in the integrity and independence of the judiciary. The NJC must put into practice long-term, viable remedies to address the widespread corruption on the bench and raise the standard of decisions made by judges.
Strengthen institutions, through legislation, constitutional provisions to save judiciary — MBF
In his contributions, the National President of the Middle Belt Forum, MBF, Dr. Bitrus Pogu said Nigeria should strengthen its institutions through legislation and constitutional provisions in order to save the judiciary from ridicule and mockery. Dr. Pogu argued that; “saving the judiciary has to do with legislation and constitutional provisions that allow for separation of power. If the system is strengthened such that a judge will do his job and retire comfortably without depending on anybody, then he can pass the right kind of judgments.It’s time to reset judiciary— Ovie of Uvwie
His Royal Majesty (Dr) Emmanuel Sideso, Abe I, the Ovie of Uvwie, advocates a thorough overhaul of the justice system to protect human rights and satisfy individual aspirations for justice and freedom.
According to him, “the justice system of our country needs to be reset in order to protect human rights and satisfy individual aspirations for justice and freedom, without fear or favor”.
JACN proposes comprehensive approach to judicial reform
Dr. Chinedu Okafor, Executive Director, Justice Advocates Coalition in Nigeria (JACN), shares Justice Muhammad’s concerns about the judiciary’s decline. He proposed a comprehensive approach to reform, including strengthening judicial independence, promoting transparency and accountability, and fostering collaboration among stakeholders. He said, “To save the judiciary in the interest of the nation, we should focus on strengthening judicial independence, promoting transparency and accountability, improving access to justice, investing in training and education for judges, raising public awareness, fostering collaboration among stakeholders, and conducting regular reviews and reforms.
“These actions will help restore the judiciary’s integrity and ensure it can effectively uphold the rule of law and protect citizens’ rights”.
Key things stakeholders must do —Obi
Chukwuemeka Obi, a constitutional lawyer, similarly advocated a holistic strategy to preserve the integrity of the judiciary. The Abuja-based legal practitioner believes that focusing on judicial reforms, ensuring adequate funding, safeguarding judicial independence, promoting professionalism and ethics, embracing technology for case management, fostering public confidence, encouraging collaboration between branches of government, and establishing feedback mechanisms for improvement are the keys to reviving the judiciary.
“It is important to note that these steps require a collective effort from all stakeholders, including the government, judiciary, legal profession, and civil society,” he pointed out.
Redeeming the judiciary lies in the hands of AGF
—Asogwa, Ex-NURTW nat’l scribe
Comrade Anthony Asogwa, the immediate past Secretary-General of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), argues that restoration of the dignity of judiciary lies in the hands of the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF).
“It is the duty of the Attorney-General of the Federation to implement reforms so that the judiciary system in Nigeria can function effectively, just like in other countries. Personally, I still have confidence in the judiciary. They are human and may make mistakes here and there, but that doesn’t imply that all of them are bad or corrupt. There are still good ones,” Asogwa told our correspondent.
Judges must be well paid —Tolulope Jacob, legal practitioner
Our judges must be paid salaries that are commensurate with the painstaking efforts they are making.
Let their pay be more attractive than what they take now. If they are well paid, no enticement will sweep them off their feet”.
Judiciary must be given financial autonomy ——Mr Michael Afolayan, Chairman, NBA Ikere-Ekiti
Major solutions to the challenges of judiciary in Nigeria lie in “ensuring true independence of judiciary, especially in the area of non-interference by political office holders and granting financial autonomy to the judiciary. Also, the mode of appointment of judges must be looked into as well as ensuring that those appointed are morally upright with integrity.”
Judicial officers’ conditions of service must be improved —Mr Ola Alonge
According to Mr Ola Alonge, another legal practitioner; “Appointment to the Nigerian bench should be strictly based on merit. We say no to nepotism, favoritism and sentiments. The credentials, past records, previous experience and ground breaking achievements, should be given prominence and not quota system as it operates presently. “The salaries and entitlement of the judges should be highly encouraging as to ward off temptations to accepting bribes, either from the executive or the general public. Thus an improvement in the condition of service is needed here”
Judiciary needs more funding —Moruff Balogun, Vice Chairman, NBA,Ijebu Ode Branch
Mr Balogun argued that, “We should appreciate the fact that the judges are human beings too who are capable of making mistakes. The long struggle to have full autonomy for the judiciary is obviously one of the stumbling blocks facing effective dispensation of justice. The major problem of the Supreme Court is funding. The paucity of funds kills knowledge and wisdom at times. The Constitution needs to be amended to grant full autonomy to the judiciary. Every other thing is secondary. We can’t talk about good infrastructure, better welfare packages, having more justices to reduce the workload of the court, and many more without funds”.
These wide-ranging responses to Justice Muhammad’s farewell critique reveal a deep concern for the state of the judiciary and a shared commitment to its restoration. They also highlight the varied perspectives on what judicial reform should encompass, from increased funding and tech-based solutions to stronger ethical guidelines and improved public engagement.
Yet, beyond these diverse views, one common thread emerges: the urgent need for action. The judiciary, as the third arm of government, plays an indispensable role in a functioning democracy. It acts as the guardian of the constitution, maintains the rule of law, and ensures that justice is not only served but is seen to be served. It is clear from the sentiments expressed by these diverse voices that the current state of the judiciary is seen as subpar, and its improvement is seen as a collective responsibility.
These insights provide a roadmap towards not just restoring the integrity of the judiciary but also reinforcing the democratic foundations of the nation.
The task now is to translate these insights into actions—actions that will strengthen the judiciary’s role as a pillar of democracy and a guardian of justice. As the saying goes, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’ For the sake of the nation, it’s time to reinvigorate our judiciary.
Once again, Justice Muhammad’s comments have made clear, the need for reform is urgent, the stakes are high, and the time to act is now.