Rev fr. Ejike Mbaka, the pint-sized Catholic Priest, who once gained notoriety for gazing accurately on the mindset of Supreme Court Justices, did not predict the whirlwind, this time around. Even at that, the end for Mohammed Tanko, as Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, was slow, yet abrupt.
Not many people expected it. News of his resignation from the exalted office filtered in on Monday morning, 25 June, 2022. He was said to have resigned on Sunday night, citing ill-health as reason for his inability to continue shouldering the enormous burdens of his office.
The resignation came about one and half year before December 31, 2023, his expected date of retirement. He has since been replaced with Justice Okukayode Arinwoola, the one next to him in seniority.
Pronto, the erstwhile CJN was absent from the opening of the training for Judges on Alternative Dispute Resolution organized by the National Judicial Institute, that Monday. No Supreme Court Justice graced the occasion. Traditionally, either the CJN or his representative has the privilege of opening the session.
It would appear that the path around the apex temple of justice is laced with landmines. Tanko is the second Judge to throw in the trowel at the peak of his career in less than three years. His predecessor, Walter David Onoghen, left in similar manner, over unclear portions of his asset declaration documents.
Tanko’s ill health claim, may be an appropriate euphemism for the unsavoury state of affairs between him and fellow Justices of the Supreme Court. Few days before resigning, his colleagues had dispatched a hot mail to him, which ironically turned out to be a red card. They laid sundry accusations, bordering on crass incompetence, nepotism and maladministration, at his feet.
In and outt of his professional robes, Tanko, evokes the image of a religious hermit. A Fulani from Bauchi State, with specialization in Sharia law, he is one CJN, whose tenure from inception, often swim in muddy waters. Let us revisit some of them.
Onoghen was accused of shady deals and dragged to the Code of Conducts Tribunal by some anti- corruption groups. On Friday, 25 Jan, 2019, President Buhari suspended him from office and appointed Tanko, who was next in rank as acting CJN.
About six months later, precisely, July 24, 1019, Buhari confirmed Tanko as substantive CJN. The President had sacked his predecessor, almost two years before his Dec. 2020 date of retirement, following his conviction by CoC Tribunal. Many people, especially the human rights community cried blue murder.
Under Nigerian laws, the president lacked the power to remove the CJN in that manner. He could only be sacked after approval by the National Assembly. Subsequently Tanko’s inauguration was condemned by many people.
In fact, Olisa Agbakoba, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, did not hesitate to petition the CJN. He, along with other complainants demanded Tanko’s immediate sack insisting his appointment was an infringement of the law.
“Hon. Justice Tanko Mohammed is fully aware of the state of law, yet presented himself to be sworn in by the President,” Agbakoba wrote in his petition to the National Judicial Council, NJC.
“Incidentally, Justice Tanko Mohammed 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 Governor of Abia state without the recommendation of the NJC.
“It is a matter of regret that Justice Tanko Mohammed who participated in this process will lend himself to this constitutional infraction.”
Of course, the complaints fell on deaf ears.
Intolerant religious views:
As mentioned above, Tanko’s specialization is in Islamic jurisprudence. The CJN was sometimes overwhelmed by his background, that he called for an amendment of the 1999 constitution in order to accommodate more Sharia laws.
“As we all know, there are sections of the constitution that allow the implementation of Shari’a personal law and apart from that, we cannot do more. However, we have the numbers to amend the constitution to suit our own position as Muslims,” he was quoted as saying in 1999.
The Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN led other faith based groups to caution Tanko. They said his views endanger Nigeria’s secular religious status.
Declaration of Hope Uzodima as Governor of Imo State:
One of the most controversial judgements in the nation’s history was given on January 14, 2020 less than a year after the judiciary came under Tanko’s watch. That was when a committee of seven Supreme Court Justices chaired by Tanko, declared Uzodima as duly elected Governor. He was candidate of the APC who came fourth in the 2019 Imo State Governorship Election.
Former Governor Emeka Ihedioha of the PDP was summarily removed based on complaints by Uzodima that some votes belonging to him were cancelled by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC.
However, Chima Nweze, one of the judges, in a minority judgement disagreed with the ruling of his colleagues. He held on to his views and warned of the grave danger of the decision, when at a later date Ihedioha asked the apex court to reverse its decision.
“This decision of the supreme court will continue to haunt our electoral jurisprudence for a long time to come. This court has a duty of redeeming its image, it is against this background that the finality of the court cannot extinguish the right of any person.
The court refused to reverse itself.
Tainted political links
By virtue of his position, the CJN ought to be apolitical. However, outcome of the recent party primaries, preparatory for next year’s general elections has shown otherwise.
Two biological children of the CJN reportedly participated in and won primaries of their respective parties. Siraj Ibrahim Tanko emerged as the All Progressives Congress, APC Senatorial candidate for Bauchi North, while Sani, his brother, won the ticket of the People’s Democratic Patty, PDP to represent Shira/Giade federal constituency of the State at the lower chamber of the National Assembly.
The development raised eyebrows in the state. It was gathered that each of the sons shared vehicles, cash and other items to influence delegates decisions at the elections. They were also reported to have empowered constituents with appointments and contracts, banking on their father’s office.
“What could be the deal that made the Chief Justice of Nigeria have two of his biological sons win primaries in Bauchi? One for Shira/Giade federal constituency under PDP and the other won the senatorial ticket for Bauchi North under APC?” A bemused
“We the residents and the world entirely need to know why such unpopular candidates were imposed on the people; was it because their father is the CJN?”
Indictment by 14 Justices of the Supreme Court
The latest controversy that broke the camel’s back was the letter of allegations written by 14 Supreme Court Justices against Tanko. The Justices lamented their descrepit conditions and how things have degenerated since Tanko’s assumption of office.
They complained about lack of befitting accommodation, official vehicles and poor working conditions. They condemned poor and erratic supply of electricity to their offices and residents. They said they have been confined to work between the “hours of 8 a.m and 4 p.m daily, for lack of diesel.”
That is not all. They accused the CJN of denying them the privilege of regular trainings, while crooning round the globe with his “spouse, children and personal staff.’
“We DEMAND to know what has become of our training funds. Have they been diverted, or is it a plain denial?” They wondered.
“Your Lordship may also remember that the National Assembly has increased the budgetary allocation of the Judiciary. We find it strange that in spite of the upward review of our budgetary allocation, the Court cannot cater for our legitimate entitlements. This is
The petitioners asked Tanko to therefore act before it is too late. “Finally, Your Lordship the choice is now yours. It is either you quickly and swiftly take responsibility and address these burning issues or we will be compelled to further steps immediately. May this day never come.
The CJN’s defence:
The CJN is not one to allow a blow, unreturned. He denied the allegations hanging his.defence on the challenging economic environment in the country. Ahuraka Isah, the CJN’s spokesperson in a statement absolved him of blame.
His words: “The Supreme Court definitely does not exist outside its environment; it is also affected by the economic and socio-political climate prevailing in the country. Besides that, the apex court has to a larger extent, been living to its constitutional responsibility.”
Stating that the leaked justices’ memo was “akin to dancing naked at the market square by us with the ripple effect,” the CJN deftly punctured the premises they set out on, saying that it was utopian: “The accusation so far, in summary is that more or all ought to have been done and not that nothing has been done; which is utopian in the contemporary condition of our country.”
A disgraceful exit:
The letter by the Supreme Court Justices turned out to be a vote of no confidence that crystalized into the CJN’s unceremonious and involuntary exit.
From the point of protocols, seven Justices make up a normal constitutional sitting panel of the court on a case. Similarly, 14 Justices amount to two full constitutional panels of the court unanimously adopting the same position. They spoke with one voice, as no one dissented or disagreed.
In spite of his defence and admonition about washing dirty linens in public, Tanko went on sudden retirement, without a valedictory session in his honour. He would go down in history as one of.three former CJNs who did not enjoyed the honour. The others are Justice Katsina Alu and Onoghen, whose orchestrated downfall, many believed Tanko was Chief beneficiary.
Talk of the evils that men do…
A rocky career
Tanko was born on 31 December 1953 at Doguwa – Giade, Local Government Area of Bauchi State, He attended Government Secondary School, Azare where he obtained the West Africa School Certificate in 1973 before he proceeded to Ahmadu Bello University where he received an LL.B. degree in Islamic law in 1980. He later obtained an LL.M. degree and a Ph.D. in law from the same university in 1985 and 1998 respectively.
The former CJN began his career in 1982, after he was called to the bar in 1981, the same year he graduated from the Nigerian Law School. In 1989, he was appointed as Chief Magistrate of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, a position he held until 1991 when he became a Judge at the Bauchi State Sharia Court of Appeal. He served in that capacity for two years before he was appointed to the bench of the Nigerian Courts of Appeal as Justice in 1993. He was appointed to the bench of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 2006.
Until his rocky career came to an unexpected end, he was also Chairman, National Judicial Council
Opposing reactions from the Executive and the Legislature:
Even in retirement, the former CJN retained his reputation for opacity and meaning different things to different folks.
A case in point was how the other arms of government reacted to his last days in office. Whereas, the Senate resolved to investigate the rift that necessitated the leaked memo of the 14 Justices, President Buhari honoured the embattled CJN with the second highest national honour, Grand Commander of the Niger, GCON.
Even at that the Senate has vowed to go on with the probe.
Speak of vintage Tanko!