By Ikechukwu Nnochiri

ABUJA—President Muhammadu Buhari, yesterday, declined to respond to a suit seeking to declare that the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad, is unfit to head the judiciary in substantive capacity.

The court had on May 3 ordered Buhari to show cause why the appointment of Justice Muhammad to take over from the removed ex-CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, should not be invalidated.

Buhari
President Buhari

Others the court also directed to react to issues raised against the acting CJN included Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, as well as the Senate.

The order followed a suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/420/2019, lodged by a human rights lawyer, Chief Malcom Omirhobo.

The plaintiff is urging the court to declare that Justice Muhammad, who is currently the most senior jurist at the Supreme Court, was not capable to replace Onnoghen.

Specifically, he prayed the court to declare that the acting CJN, having made himself available as a tool used in the violation of the constitution, especially with regard to the “illegal” removal of the former CJN, was, therefore, not a proper and fit person to be recommended for appointment to head the judiciary.

Equally cited as defendants in the suit were the acting CJN himself,  National Judicial Council and the Federal Judicial Service Commission FJSC.

Meantime,  of the seven respondents, only NJC, FJSC and Justice Muhammad were represented in court, yesterday.

The acting CJN, through his lawyer, Mr. A.O Ajana, told the court that his appearance was “in protest.”

He stressed that he had yet to be served with all the relevant processes the plaintiff filed against him.

Though it was confirmed that President Buhari, AGF, Federal Government and Senate, were duly served with hearing notices, however, no reason was given on why they spurned the court’s summons.

In his ruling, Justice Inyang Ekwo held that it was in the interest of fair-hearing to allow all the defendants to respond to the suit.

CJN condemns improper dressing of lawyers to court

Justice Ekwo subsequently gave the defendants 14 days to respond to the suit, even as he adjourned it till June 3 for hearing.

The court further ordered that hearing notices should be served on all the parties that were absent at the proceeding.

The Plaintiff is, among other things, urging the court to declare that the suspension and/or removal of a CJN from office, was a shared responsibility of the 1st Defendant (NJC), 5th defendant (Buhari) and 7th Defendant (National Assembly).

He argued that President Buhari lacked the constitutional powers to unilaterally suspend and/or removal a sitting CJN from office, as was done in the case of Onnoghen.

Besides, he prayed the court to declare that by combined interpretation sections 1(1 )(2), 231(4), 292(1)(a)(i)(b), 153(1)(i), 158(1) and paragraph 21 (a)(b) of Part 1 of the Third Schedule of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, “it is unlawful and undemocratic for the 4th and 5th Defendants (Federal Government and President Buhari), to declare the office of the CJN vacant on January 25, 2019 and consequently appoint and swear in the 3rd Defendant as the acting CJN”.

He, therefore, applied for a court order to restrain the National Assembly from confirming any appointment of Justice Muhammad as the substantive CJN.

Likewise, for, “An order, compelling the 2nd Defendant (FJSC), to select and the 1st Defendant (NJC), to recommend the most qualified Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria that is fit and proper,   to the 5th Defendant, for appointment to office of the CJN, and for the confirmation of the 7th Defendant with a two third majority vote”.

Aside praying the court to bar President Buhari from appointing Justice Muhammad as the substantive CJN, the Plaintiff, in a 65-paragraph affidavit he filed in support of the suit, stressed that unless restrained by the court, the Executive Arm of Government would continue to violate the extant provisions of the Constitution and sanctity of the judiciary.

It will be recalled that President Buhari had since extended Justice Muhammad’s initial three months tenure as the Acting CJN, based on NJC’s recommendation.