NJC meets, may extend Muhammad’s tenure as acting CJN

The National Judicial Council on Wednesday started a two-day meeting where issues of appointment into the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria are among top items on the agenda.

Our correspondent learnt that the NJC might at the end of its meeting on Thursday (today) recommend to President Buhari the extension of Justice Tanko Muhammad’s tenure as the acting CJN, pending when the process of making a substantive appointment for the topmost judicial office would be completed.

By virtue of section 231(4) of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution, Justice Muhammad’s three-month tenure as the acting CJN ends on April 25, and he cannot be re-appointed unilaterally by the President without the NJC’s recommendation.

With the reported resignation of the suspended CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, the need to extend Muhammad’s acting tenure was said to be urgent.

“The NJC will likely recommend the extension of the acting CJN’s tenure to avert a vacuum in the office because the process of making the substantive appointment of a CJN cannot be completed in about a week’s time when the tenure of the acting CJN, Justice Muhammad, will elapse,” a source familiar with the NJC’s meeting said.

Officials of the Federal Judicial Service Commission, the body with constitutional powers of advising the NJC on the appointment of the CJN, told our correspondent on Wednesday that the process of appointing the substantive person for the topmost judicial position had yet to start at the commission’s end.

Paragraph 13 of Part I of the Third Schedule of the Constitution provides that “the Commission shall have power to – (a) advise the National Judicial Council in nominating persons for appointment, as respects appointments to the office of –

“(i) the Chief Justice of Nigeria;” among other judges and heads of other federal courts.

FSJC officials explained to our correspondent that although the process of appointing the CJN would start at the commission, the NJC would need to officially inform the commission that the office of the CJN was vacant.

“The meeting of the NJC today (Wednesday) and tomorrow (Thursday) is expected to address the issue and send the necessary notice to the FJSC,” another source said.

The NJC’s ongoing meeting would be the first routine meeting of the council after a series of its emergency meetings which followed President Muhammadu Buhari’s suspension of Justice Onnoghen as the CJN and the immediate swearing-in of Justice Muhammad to replace him in acting capacity, on January 25.

The NJC had at one of its recent emergency meetings set up a panel to investigate various allegations of misconduct levelled against Onnoghen and Muhammad.

On April 3, the council reviewed the report of its five-man investigative panel and sent its recommendations which have not been made public to Buhari.

Barely 24 hours after, Onnoghen, who is believed to have been handed a negative verdict in the NJC’s recommendations, reportedly resigned through a letter he submitted to Buhari.

Reports said Muhammad was cleared by the NJC as he was found not to have done any wrong by submitting himself to being sworn in by Buhari as acting CJN without NJC’s input.

In a report by The PUNCH, Muhammad had in his response to a query by the NJC, claimed that President Buhari did not need the permission of the council to appoint him as the acting CJN.

A group, Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative, had petitioned the NJC, asking 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.

Citing section 231(4) of the Constitution, however, Muhammad had said it would only be required for the President to act based on NJC’s recommendation only in the case of re-appointment in acting capacity or appointment of a substantive CJN.

He stated, “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.”