THE Senate has confirmed the appointment of Justice Olukayode Ariwoola as the substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) as stipulated by law after he sailed through the screening hurdles. Ariwoola is the third justice of the Supreme court to occupy the exalted position of CJN during the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. The tenures of Ariwoola’s two immediate predecessors did not elapse by effluxion of time. Both left office unceremoniously. While Justice Walter Onnoghen’s resignation was believed to have been orchestrated by the executive arm of government, the event leading to the exit of Justice Mohammed Tanko from the apex court was sculpted right within the judiciary, even though he claimed to have decided to retire for health reasons. The furore generated by the memo endorsed by 14 of his brother justices which strongly criticised his lacklustre handling of their welfare, among other infractions, had yet to subside when he resigned from office.
We have laid this foundation to underscore the fact that Justice Ariwoola has his job cut out for him judging by the sordid state of the judiciary that he has just inherited. And the point has to be stressed that he will need to set a pragmatic agenda for his tenure as the CJN because the challenges that must be resolved in the judiciary are multifaceted and the task promises to be arduous and daunting. However, having spent about 30 years on the bench and 11 of that at the apex court, Justice Ariwoola should be conversant with the thorny issues that constitute the bane of the judiciary in general, and the apex court in particular, and he is expected to bring his experience to bear on their resolution.
For instance, Justice Ariwoola mentioned some of the problems of the judiciary before the Senate to include inadequate funding, lack of accommodation for some judges and inadequate humanpower, with 13 justices doing the work meant for 21. Some of these challenges also featured in the leaked memo to the former CJN, Mohammed Tanko. Interestingly, Justice Ariwoola, who joined his 13 other colleagues at the Supreme Court to catalogue the alleged infractions under the tenure of his predecessor, reportedly admitted before the senators during his screening that the issues that constituted the crux of the infamous memo had yet to be resolved owing to paucity of fund. While this excuse may be accepted because he was an acting CJN who probably couldn’t go the whole hog and start to make things happen, the same will not be tolerated now that he is the substantive CJN. He has to demonstrate not just critical awareness of all the issues raised in the infamous memo, but also ensure that those infractions do not rear their heads again under his leadership of the judiciary.
Truth be told, the Supreme Court has integrity issues which must be addressed frontally and courageously. The judiciary has been steadily losing its respect and legitimacy because of the perceived takeover of the hallowed precincts of the courts by corruption. It is the duty of Justice Ariwoola to work assiduously to restore some level of respect and confidence to the judiciary by undertaking necessary reforms that would stamp out corruption and infuse the processes with integrity. Issues of accommodation and welfare, working tools and equipment for judges have to be comprehensively addressed. Justice Ariwoola will also have to deal with the challenge of poorly remunerated and demotivated judicial officers across board. His administrative acumen and ability to gain the understanding of the executive arm of government will be tested in this regard because of the parlous state of the domestic economy, but he must solve the problem if he hopes to leave any legacy in the judiciary.
There is also the issue of the declining policy-making role of the apex court arising largely from its seeming tendency to elevate technical justice over substantive justice. Justice Ariwoola must look into this. The apex court’s contradictory and divergent decisions on similar matters, especially political issues, is a serious source of concern as it has led to waning public confidence in the judiciary. Again, there is the allegation that the system has continually failed to throw up the very best lawyers as judicial officers, resulting in judges of average quality and low ethical standards, especially at the lower court levels. And many believe that the National Judicial Council (NJC) and the National Judicial Service Commission (NJSC), two agencies under the apex court, are responsible for this anomaly. The CJN chairs both agencies. It is, therefore, his call going forward to ensure that brilliant lawyers of high standards of character and conduct are appointed to the judiciary.
Another critical issue which the new CJN must treat with tact and resolve is that of financial autonomy for the judiciary. The enabling law has been emplaced but it has been largely observed in the breach, especially at the subnational level where state governors seem to prefer that the heads of the judiciary in their respective states come to them cap in hand for funding. This arrangement that promotes needless subservience also tends to impair the independence of the judiciary and vitiate positive perception of its integrity.
In the barely two years that he has left to attain the retirement age, Justice Ariwoola is urged to be deliberate and strategic in his commitment to finding solutions to the highlighted core challenges in the judiciary. Potentially, the new CJN has the opportunity to usher in a new era of responsible and effective judicial system that would enjoy the respect and confidence of all. And it is our hope and that of the citizenry that this potential will be realised as we welcome him to the saddle.
ALSO READ FROM NIGERIAN TRIBUNE