After his controversial appointment, his embarrassing demonstration of incompetence during his confirmation by the Senate and his inglorious outing as Chief Justice of Nigeria, which witnessed an unprecedented allegation of impropriety by his fellow judges, Justice Tanko Muhammad was on Monday forced out of office, in an equally controversial and inglorious manner, Ejiofor Alike
The Nigerian judiciary witnessed a bizarre development on January 23, 2019 when the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) in a coup-style ordered the federal government to remove the then Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen. The removal of Onnoghen had facilitated the appointment of Justice Tanko Muhammad, who was described as the most incompetent CJN in the history of Nigeria’s judiciary.
A copy of the CCT’s order showed that the Chairman of the tribunal, Mr. Danladi Umar, and another member of the tribunal, Mrs. Julie Anabor, made the order. A member of the tribunal, who was next in rank to Umar, Mr. William Atedze, did not sign the order.
The CCT’s order, which was one of the greatest assaults on the Nigerian judiciary, directed Onnoghen, who was facing a six-count charge of false assets declaration before the tribunal to step aside. It also ordered President Muhammadu Buhari to swear in the next most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Tanko Muhammad in acting capacity.
With his brazen order, Umar was believed to have usurped the powers of the National Judicial Council (NJC), which is vested with the power to discipline and remove judges.
Before the CCT issued the order for the removal of Onnoghen, the agents of the President Buhari-led administration had established a reputation for raiding the residences of judges and breaking into their homes at nights, under the guise of searching for incriminating evidence to nail them with corruption charges. The judiciary, which could have rescued itself from this brazen assault, became partly complicit and partly helpless.
As the CCT was trying Onnoghen, the agents of the federal government who had become notorious for using corruption allegations to destroy perceived enemies and sack unwanted officials, also engaged in media trial of Onnoghen. For instance, the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, at a press conference on January 28, 2019 to “set the records straight and redirect the discourse,” ended up twisting the records in what many analysts described as the minister’s characteristic style. According to the minister, the real issue at play “is about the suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars to the suspended CJN’s personal accounts, all undeclared or improperly declared as required by law,” Mohammed reportedly said.
However, the Minister of Information or any other agent of the federal government has not told Nigerians what happened to the millions of dollars traced to the accounts of the former CJN.
Expectedly, the CCT convicted Onnoghen of breach of Code of Conduct for Public Officers in April 2019. In June 2019, President Buhari’s Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Mr. Garba Shehu, told Nigerians that the president had welcomed the voluntary retirement of Onnoghen from service.
“President Buhari has accepted the voluntary retirement from service of Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen as Chief Justice of Nigeria, effective from May 28, 2019.
“The president thanked Justice Onnoghen for his service to the Federal Republic of Nigeria and wished him the best of retirement life,” the statement added.
With Onnoghen out of the way, all the allegations of engaging in “suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars” by the information minister fizzled away and Buhari wished him “the best retirement life.”
Meanwhile, the Muhammad showed clearly and very early in July 2019 that he was incompetent to assume the role of the CJN when he appeared before the Senate for screening and confirmation. The level of ignorance he displayed before the federal lawmakers while responding to questions was unbecoming of even a fresh graduate from the Nigerian Law School.
He embarrassed the apex court and the Nigerian judiciary when the then Senate Minority Leader, Senator Eyinnaya Abaribe, asked him to explain if the Supreme Court under his watch would be more concerned with delivering judgments based on the merit of cases or technicalities.
Abaribe had asked, “In the 2018 case of Akeredolu vs Abraham, the Supreme Court said, ‘technicality in the administration of justice shuts out justice’ and went further to say, ‘it is therefore better to have a case heard and determined on its merit than to leave the court with the shield of victory obtained on mere technicality’.
“This is the Supreme Court, so we are very happy with that. But My Lord, just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court also said, ‘The correct order is to declare the judgment of the trial tribunal a nullity as a result of one of the panelists not sitting on the day proceedings were held’”.
Abaribe told the former CJN that Nigerians were worried by the latest decision of the apex court under him.
“Where would the Supreme Court stand under you?” Abaribe asked.
In his response, Muhammad demonstrated ignorance of the meaning of technicality in law when he said: “Now, if something which is technical comes before the court, what we do in trial courts is to ask people who are experts in that field to come and testify. We rely on their testimony because they are experts in that field. Ask me anything about an aeroplane, I don’t know; ask me to drive an aeroplane (sic), I am sure if you are a passenger and they told you that the flight is going to be driven (sic) by Honourable Justice Ibrahim Tanko, I am sure you will get out of the plane, because it is something that requires technicality and if I have any technicality, my technicality will only be limited to law. Therefore, it is something that has to do with the perception or the way you will be able to achieve the goals you want to achieve.”
Throughout his outing as CJN, Muhammad did not deliver any landmark judgment, which the judiciary could be proud of.
It is on records that he led the seven-man panel that determined the Osun State governorship tussle between Senator Ademola Adeleke of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Gboyega Oyetola of the All Progressives Congress (APC) on July 5, 2019.
Reading the verdict of the apex court, it was clear the majority led by the acting CJN, which gave judgment to Oyetola, based their decisions on technical breach of procedure rather than on the substance and merit of the case against the Independent National Electoral Commission (INECI ).
It was evident that Adeleke lost the case at the apex court not on the basis or evidence on the actual matter at hand, but simply on a technicality that one of the tribunal judges was absent during the petition, thereby rendering the tribunal judgment in his favour null and void.
Muhammad also went down in history as the CJN, who led a panel of the Supreme Court that awarded the governorship of Imo State to a candidate that came fourth in the governorship election. The panel based their judgment on total number of votes that reportedly exceeded the number of accredited voters in the election.
A member of the panel, Justice Centus Nweze, in his minority judgment, had noted that the majority judgment would hunt the Nigerian judiciary for a long time.
Apart from lacking competence, Muhammad also demonstrated that he lacked honour and integrity.
He was the only CJN in Nigeria’s history who was openly accused of financial impropriety by his fellow Supreme Court justices.
“Your Lordship with all due respect, this is the peak of the degeneration of the court; it is the height of decadence, and clear evidence of the absence of probity and moral rectitude,” the 14 justices of the apex court had reportedly written against him before he was forced to resign.
The former CJN was on last Monday forced out of office over multiple allegations of corruption. Some of the allegations were said to have involved his children.
For a long to come, Muhammad would be remembered as the CJN who reportedly lacked competence, honour and integrity.