Ag CJN Tanko challenges NJC authority over his appointment
  • Says Buhari doesn’t need Council permission to appoint him CJN

The acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Muhammad, has challenged the authority of the National Judicial Council (NJC) over his appointment by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Acting CJN Muhammad, responding to query from the NJC, declared that President Buhari does not need the permission of the NJC to appoint him as acting CJN and head of the judiciary.

Muhammad in response to a query issued him by the NJC, the body constitutionally empowered to recommend the appointment of chief justices and heads of courts, said that the NJC ought to be consulted only when a substantive CJN is being appointed or re-appointed, arguing that Justice Walter Onnoghen remained the substantive CJN but was only suspended.

A group, Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative, had petitioned the NJC demanding the council to remove Muhammad as a justice of the Supreme Court for allowing himself to be sworn in by the President without recourse to the NJC.

Justice Muhammad said that if the Appeal Court or the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) reversed Onnoghen’s suspension, he would immediately step aside and return to his former position as a justice of the Supreme Court.

“In my respectful view, the National Judicial Council has no role to play in the appointment of an acting Chief Justice of Nigeria in the first instance, that is to say on first appointment. The council comes in where the appointment as the acting CJN is to be renewed or extended. I humbly refer to Section 231(4) of the 1999 Constitution,” Justice Muhammad said.

He maintained: “It was for the larger interest of the judiciary and the constitutionality that I accepted to be sworn in as acting CJN with the conviction that if the order of January 23, 2019 is eventually set aside, the status quo would be restored.

“But before it is set aside, there should be no vacuum in the office of the CJN and the chairman of the NJC.”

On his swearing in by President Buhari by fiat, Justice Muhammad explained that he was summoned to the Presidential Villa by Buhari and shown the certified true copy of a motion ex parte granted by the CCT and signed by its Chairman, Danladi Umar.

He explained in details, “On January 25, 2019, I was summoned to the Aso Villa at the instance of the President. Prior to the summons, I was not aware of the fact that the Code of Conduct Tribunal made any order on January 23, 2019.

“Furthermore, beyond what I read in the newspapers and watched on the television just like any other Nigerian, I was not privileged to see any of the processes filed by the parties before the tribunal. Hence, I could not really appreciate the merit or demerit of divergent positions.

“On the 25th day of January, the President swore me in as the acing CJN and not as the substantive CJN. Justice Walter Onnoghen remains the CJN until he is removed from office in accordance with the provision of the constitution. He is only suspended.”

The Acting CJN said he had nothing to do with the speech delivered by the President wherein the latter accused Onnoghen of frustrating his anti-corruption war.

Muhammad also admitted that he was a member of the NJC panel that removed Justice Obisike Orji of the Abia State High Court for accepting to be sworn in as chief judge by the Abia State Government without a recommendation of the NJC but said his own case was different because he was only appointed as an acting CJN.

Muhammad further stated that the substantive head of the judiciary had been suspended by a valid court order which made it right for him to take over in acting capacity and, therefore, appealed to the NJC to dismiss the petition written against him.

However, it will be recalled that when President Buhari first appointed Onnoghen, he appointed him as acting CJN and not substantive CJN. President Buhari was thereafter, reluctant to transmit Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation; that was done by Acting President Yemi Osinbajo while Buhari was on medical vacation in London, the United Kingdom.

In that case, Onnoghen was recommended by the CJN to President Buhari as the most senior officer in the judiciary to succeed the retried CJN. Apparently, Muhammad would not assume that the role of the NJC would be undermined at all stages of appointing a CJN in his own case.

Meanwhile, the decision of the CJN on the response is being awaited.