It is beyond debate that the 12th Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), late Justice Dahiru Babura Musdapher has contributed significantly to Nigerian law, the judiciary and the nation at large, within his short tenure as the head of the judiciary.
He was a Justice of the Supreme Court (JSC) and Acting CJN before he became the CJN from 2011 to 2012. He emerged as the CJN at a very turbulent and troubled time, when the nation’s judiciary was at its lowest ebb, following the face-off between the 11th CJN, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu and the then (suspended) President of the Court of Appeal (PCA) Justice Ayo Isa Salami. At the root of the altercation were perceived corruption and unethical conduct in the judiciary.
The National Judicial Council (NJC) under him, however recommended that Justice Ayo Isa Salami should be reinstated as the PCA, but the executive jettisoned NJC’s recommendation.
Justice Musdapher, in his short tenure, tried to cleanse the judiciary through some policies, the most prominent being the reform measures he suggested in his recommendations to the National Assembly on the aspects of the constitution that should be reviewed to aid efficiency in justice delivery.
Justice Musdapher was a fearless jurist and during his headship of the nation’s judiciary, he openly condemned the emerging practice of ‘plea bargain (without legislative support)’ saying that it was a novel concept of dubious origin.
He condemned the practice of ‘holding charge’ which contributed in no small way to prison congestion as he said that “the State cannot incarcerate its citizen while scrambling for evidence to build a case against him.”
In a bid to fight corruption, Justice Musdapher issued a practice direction to judges handling corruption cases to ensure that they conclude trial within six months or dismiss such cases if the prosecution is not ready to pursue the matter diligently.
Today, to his credit, he has a large number of judgments which are still being cited in law courts by lawyers. This has made him immortal as he will be remembered for a very long time for his erudite judgments. According to Paul Usoro (SAN) the late jurist was not a bent judge but a straight judge, who remains a shining light.
Justice Musdapher’s pronouncement in the case of Gani Fawehinmi vs General Sani Abacha is not only interesting but also a masterpiece. This is because Justice Musdapher was a classmate of General Sani Abacha while Justice Musdapher’s father was the head master of the primary school where both of them attended and they were friends for a long time. General Sani Abacha, the then Head of State, was much feared; but his friend Justice Musdapher, a judge of Court of Appeal gave judgment that struck down one of his most troublesome decrees and upheld the African Charter on Human Rights.
Justice Musdapher was one of the best judges to grace the Supreme Court of Nigeria, and the Fawehinmi case was particularly illuminating part of his career.
In Inakoju Vs Adeleke, he held thus: “In the removal of governor or deputy governor the procedure clearly specified in Section 188 of the Constitution must be strictly followed and strictly complied with before such removal becomes constitutional and valid. Any breach of any of the said provisions renders such removal ineffective, null, void and of no effect.”
Other cases of constitutional significance include AG Abia Vs. AG Federation, the case of tenure elongation (by five governors who wanted third term), and the case of Alamieseigha Vs. Yeiwa. His judgment in Ameachi Vs. Omehia, would be better commended when viewed against the practice of lack of internal democracy in party politics in the country.
Some of his interesting judgments were based on Islamic law. In the case of Alake Vs. Abalaka, Justice Musdapher held that “the obligation of a court to be impartial in its deliberations in a dispute before it is so basic and fundamental a principle in our adjudicatory system that it cannot be compromised on any ground whatsoever.” He was a devoted muslim from a family of highly respected Islamic scholars, born on 15 July 1942.
Through the traditional system, he mastered a good portion of the Holy Qur’an and acquired intensive knowledge in Arabic Language and grammar; as well as the foundational principles of Islamic law. The knowledge garnered gave him invaluable insight when adjudicating on issues related to the Shari’ah and is generally regarded as an authority and reference point on the subject. He spoke fluent Arabic.
He attended Rumfa College where he was consistently one of the best students in the school. He was classmates with several other distinguished Nigerians including Late General Sani Abacha (Late Military Head of State of Nigeria 1993-1998), Late Alhaji Adamu Dankabo (Founder and Chairman of Nigeria’s first Indigenous private commercial airline), Justice R.D. Mohammed and many others.
After concluding his secondary education, he secured a job at the Northern Regional Ministry of Finance in Kaduna as a clerical officer in 1963.
Shortly afterwards, he secured admission to study at the Institute of Administration, in Zaria (which later became Ahmadu Bello University). Some of his classmates were Justice Umaru Abdullahi, ex-CJN Katsina Alu, amongst others that have since become giants in Nigerian and international legal circles.
He left for the United Kingdom to conclude his legal training in 1964. He was called to the British bar in 1967 (Middle Temple). On return to Nigeria he proceeded to the Law school where he was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1968.
Unlike most of his colleagues and seniors who opted for a career in public service from the onset, he chose to pursue a career in private legal practice together with the late Kaloma Ali in Kano. During those early years, he was one of the most notable and sought after legal practitioners throughout the northern region. He made appearances before all the High Courts of the northern region.
As a testament to his growing pedigree, he was appointed Secretary to the Kano Emirate Council and Adviser to the Kano Native Authority from 1968-1976. Until the demise of the late Emir of Kano, Ado Bayero, he maintained an excellent relationship with him.