The diminishing number of justices of Nigeria’s apex court, the Supreme Court, may negatively affect their ability to deliver on their key roles as the court of last instance.
This is as justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, Amina Adamu Augie, yesterday formally bowed out of the Court, with a call on the National Assembly to carry out a holistic amendment of the 1999 Constitution to enhance the effective functioning of courts in the country.
Justice Augie urged the Godswill Akpabio-led 10th National Assembly to make it a point of duty to amend the constitution so as to free the courts from undue hardships hindering their effective performance.
Justice Augie spoke in Abuja at a valedictory court session held in her honour as she retired from the Supreme Court Bench after attaining the mandatory retirement age of 70 years for judicial officers.
The erudite jurist said justices of the Supreme Court, as the apex court of the land with final decisions to shape society’s social order, should be able to focus on what truly matters – issuing directives for formulating specific policies or amending existing ones – to better serve their intended purposes.
“But how can they do that when they are drowning in overwhelming caseload. The only way forward, as highlighted by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, during the special session marking the commencement of the 2022/2023 legal year, is to amend the Constitution to restrict the circumstances under which appeals can reach the Supreme Court.
“This marks the final instance where my voice will be heard in any court and I wish to use this opportunity to directly address the 10th National Assembly, through distinguished Senate President Godswill Akpabio, who was once my student at the Law School.
“I had the privilege of teaching him evidence and I trust that he learned well. Hence, it should be evident to him that swift action is needed from the 10th National Assembly to accomplish what others could not – amending the Constitution to enhance the functioning of our courts in Nigeria,” she said.
Justice Augie implored the National Assembly to undertake the necessary constitutional amendments so that the Supreme Court and its justices can be freed from the constraints that impede their ability to fulfill their mandate of upholding the rule of law, justice and democracy.
Following increasing workload, as a result of the depleting number of Justices of the Supreme Court, the Attorney general of the federation (AGF) and minister of justice, Lateef Fagbemi (SAN) said the federal government was prepared and ready to strengthen the apex court to attain the required number of justices as required by the constitution.
Speaking at the special court session, Fagbemi said the federal government acknowledged the sacrifices and the working conditions of the current justices of the Supreme Court and other judges in Nigeria.
The AGF said, “The President Bola Tinubu-led government shall guarantee excellent conditions of service and remunerations good enough to appreciate the onerous duties of judicial officers at all levels.
“While we appreciate the urgency in reviewing the remuneration of judicial officers – which had not been done for over a decade – as an integral component of our judicial reforms, we are also appreciative of the greater goal of achieving true independence for the judiciary which can only be achieved through a comprehensive and sustainable reform process that requires attention to details.”
LEADERSHIP Friday recalls that the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, had recently decried the heavy workload put on judges due to the high number of political litigations in the country.
Ariwoola, who spoke on Wednesday during the swearing-in ceremony of nine new justices of the Court of Appeal in Abuja, said political cases “are taking a monumental toll on our dockets. The times we are in are not pleasant.”
LEADERSHIP had exclusively reported on Monday that the number of the justices of the Supreme Court had further reduced to 11 following the retirement of Justice Augie from the country’s apex court.
Of this number, seven of them will be selected to hear the appeal brought to the apex court by the presidential candidates of the Peoples Democratic Party, Atiku Abubakar, and his counterpart in the Labour Party, Peter Obi, who are disputing the verdict of the Justice Haruna Tsammani-led Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal that recently affirmed the victory of Bola Tinubu in the 2023 presidential election.
Consequently, lawyers who spoke to LEADERSHIP on the matter called for the speedy replacement of the justices who have retired from the court to aid the speedy dispensation of justice.
Nigeria’s Supreme Court consists of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and such number of justices of the Supreme Court, not exceeding 21, as may be prescribed by an Act of the National Assembly.
LEADERSHIP Friday reports that between May 2022 and September 2023, about six justices of the apex court had either retired voluntarily after attaining their mandatory retirement age, or died.
Justice Mary Peter-Odili retired on May 13, 2022. She was quickly followed by Justice Ejembi Eko on May 23 and former CJN, Ibrahim Muhammad, on June 27, and then Justice Abdu Aboki in August.
Justice Centus Chima Nweze of the Supreme Court passed away in July 2023 and now Justice Augie will be bowing out as a Justice of the court.
Mr Abdul Balogun, SAN, called on the National Judicial Council (NJC) to do the needful by replacing the justices to aid speedy dispensation of justice.
According to him, the apex court justices already have so much in their hands and can no longer afford to have their numbers reduced.
“The NJC should do the needful by screening and appointing more justices to the apex court to aid justice delivery. Already, they are not many, and to further have them reduced is a problem to justice delivery in the country for the apex court”, he said.
On his part, Barrister Aham J. Nweke said the problem created by the vacuum cannot be quantified.
“The vacuum should be quickly filled in the interest of justice for all Nigeria,” he said.