By Eric Teniola
Crisis is not new to the Supreme Court in Nigeria. From inception, there has always been one crisis or the other, in that court. In 1958, the Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Stafford Foster Sutton, was to retire. He had earlier served as Attorney General of Kenya from 1944-1948 and served also as attorney General of British Malaya from 1948-1950.
The expectation was that his number two man, Justice Samuel Olumuyiwa Jibowu (1899-1959), was to succeed him. Justice Jibowu was at that time the first Nigerian to be serving in the Supreme Court of Nigeria. He had rich credentials. He was called to the Bar in 1923 at middle temple in London. At a time, his father was the Secretary of the Egba nation. In fact, if you look at the Nigeria Legal Practitioner’s enrollment list, you will see that Olumuyiwa Jibowu, who was sworn in on August 8, 1923, was lawyer number 69, while Justice Adetokunbo Ademola, who was enrolled on September 10, 1934, was lawyer number 121. Chief Obafemi Awolowo (1909-1987), who was enrolled on December 24 1946, was lawyer 168 in Nigeria. He had a brother, Sunbo Jibowu, who was a politician, father of Kayode Jibowu, who later became Chairman of Ikoyi Club between 1988 and 1990 before handing over to Mr. Yanju Scott, who served between 1990 and1992. Justice Jibowu was never appointed Chief Justice. Instead Justice Adetokunbo Adegboyega Ademola (1906-1993) was appointed Chief Justice on April 1 1958. A petition was written against Justice Jibowu that he made a political statement and, therefore, was not fit to be Chief Justice. When I was Press Secretary to three Military governors in Ondo state (now Ekiti and Ondo states) between 1986 and 1991, his spouse Lady Deborah Jibowu, who later became chairperson of one of the government agencies, usually visited me in my office and she told me expected great stories of her husband. Ten months after Justice Adetokunbo Ademola became Chief Justice, Justice Jibowu died on June 1, 1959. A street in Yaba, Lagos, not far from WAEC office, was named after him.
The expectation was that Chief Theophilus Owolabi Shobowale Benson (1917-2008) pioneer minister of information in Nigeria, who was lawyer number 190 and enrolled on September 9, 1947, like Chief Victor Babaremilekun Adetokunbo, Fani Kayode (1921-1995), would tell his own side of the story in the saga. He never did till he died in the early hours of February 13 2008.
In 1972, Sir Ademola gave notice of retirement. General Yakubu Gowon quickly set in motion efforts to pick a candidate to succeed him. There was an office then in Lagos Island. It lied between Strachan Street and Moloney. Though in ruins now, dilapidated and abandoned, following movement to Abuja, that office was then called cabinet office. It once served as the office of the Prime Minister. It used to be the most powerful office outside of then Dodan Barracks. It was called the heartbeat of government. All appointments and decisions passed through that office. It was in short the clearing house. That was then.
Outstanding civil servants, including Alhaji Yahaya Abubakar, Alhaji Baba Gana Kingibe, Mr. Buka Usman, Alhaja Lateefat Modupeola Okunnu, Bisi Oguniyi, Ambassador Olu Otunla, Ambassador Oladapo Fafowora, Mr. C.O. Lebi, Ambassador Olu Adeniji, Dr. Patrick Dele Cole, Alhaji Shehu Musa, Kabiyesi Festus Ibidapo Adesanoye, the late Osemawe of Ondo, Eniolorunda Ojumu, Samuel Olu Adekunle, Olusegun Olujimi Ologunebi Ogunkua, Eddy Ugbodaga, Prince Kola Adeyemi, Prince Samuel Arieoukuoba Igbinoghouau Akenzua (1917-2016), who later became the Oba of Benin, Tunde Kamiliu Kasali, Ambassador Olu Abiola, Chief Grey Longe and others once worked in that office. At the time Justice Ademola gave notice of retirement, the office was headed by Alhaji Umaru Sanda Ndayako (1937-2003), a schoolmate of General Gowon in Barewa College Zaria, founded in 1921 by British Governor General, Sir Hugh Charles Clifford (1866-1914), but was originally known as Katsina College.
Alhaji Ndayako, who later became 12th Etsu Nupe expectedly, submitted the profiles of serving justices of the Supreme Court to General Gowon for consideration. General Gowon looked at the list, skipped it and did the unthinkable. He appointed Dr. Taslim Olawale Elias (1914-1991) as Chief Justice of the Federation. At the time of the appointment, Dr. Elias was not serving as a justice of the Supreme Court. He was the first Attorney General and Minister of Justice and later Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Lagos. He was lawyer number 308 and enrolled on December 15 1951. The appointment shocked many. The argument then was not that Dr. Elias was not qualified; he was not a serving justice of the Supreme Court, although he was the incumbent Attorney General of the Federation.
On July 29 1975, while away at the Organisation of African Unity meeting in Kampala, Uganda, General Murtala Ramat Muhammed (November 8 1938-February 13 1976) toppled his schoolmate and senior in Barewa ¯College, General Gowon. One of the first things he did was to fire Justice Elias as the Chief Justice of the Federation. He too did the unthinkable and appointed a non-Nigerian, Justice Arthur Darnley Alexander (1920-1988) as Chief Justice. Justice Alexander was born in Casteries, St. Lucia in the West Indies in the Caribbean. He served as a crown counsel and legal draftsman in Jamaica and as a magistrate in Turks and Caicos Islands. He came to Nigeria in 1957 on the invitation of the premier of the Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who had appealed to the Colonial Office in London to help source a legal draftsman. Alexander then served the region in various capacities. He was Legal Draftsman, Western Region, Nigeria from 1957-1969 and was acting Director of Public Prosecutions in 1958. In 1960, he was appointed the Solicitor General and Permanent Secretary of the regional Ministry of Justice and in 1963; he was made Queen’s Counsel.
In 1964, he was appointed a judge in the Lagos High Court. In 1964, the then Premier of Mid-Western region, Chief Dennis Chukwudi Osadebe (1911-1994) appointed him to head the Owegbe court tribunal, which was targeted at the deputy Premier of the region, Chief Humphrey Omo-Osagie (1896-1977) who was eventually cleared of any wrong doing. He was appointed Chief Justice of the South Eastern State now Cross River and Akwa Ibom states. At the time he was appointed as Chief Justice of the Federation, there were more than 12 serving Justices of the Supreme Court who were his seniors. Justice Salihu Modibbo Alfa Belgore has the shortest tenure, so far, as the Chief Justice of Nigeria since independence. He was the 10th Chief Justice of the Federation. He served between July 2006 and January 2007— barely six months. His predecessor Justice Muhammed Lawal Uwais retired on June 12 2006. The nearest to him is Justice Dahiru Musderphar, a close ally of General Sani Abacha, who served between August 21, 2011 and July 16 2012. But Justice Belgore was not to be the Chief Justice, but for a peace meeting initiated by President Olusegun Obasanjo with Justice Uwais, Justice Belgore, Major General Abdullahi Muhammed, then Chief of Staff to the President and the then Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Chief Ufott Ekaette, in May 2006 in the Villa. It was after the meeting that the National Judicial Council finally submitted Justice Belgore’s name via President Obasanjo to the Senate, presided then by Senator Ken Nnamani.
The calculation then was that why make Justice Belgore Chief Justice when he has only six months to serve. He fought back like wounded lion with all his contacts insisting that if only for one day, it was his right to be Chief Justice. That is all I will say on this issue for the moment.
We should not forget also that Justice Belgore is from one of the most powerful 10 families in Ilorin like the Sarakis, Abdul-Razaks, Sulu Gambaris, Barajes, Onikijipas, Oniyangis, Idiagbons, Kawus, who are regarded as untouchable in that ancient city. As I said earlier, crisis is not new to the Supreme Court. Notwithstanding it must be acknowledged too that the National Judicial Council has been implementing necessary reforms within the judiciary in the last 16 months. The council should be commended and encouraged.
• Teniola, a former director at the Presidency, lives in Lagos.