The Supreme Court is currently seeking to appoint eight new justices to fill vacancies on its bench. With the current number of judges reduced to 13, the court is facing a mounting workload and is aiming to reach its full complement of 21 justices. The Chief Justice of Nigeria has sent notices to various legal professionals, including the Nigerian Bar Association, heads of courts, and judges of the Supreme Court, requesting nominations for qualified candidates. The nominations will be processed into a shortlist and forwarded to the National Judicial Council for assessment and interviews. Ultimately, the list of successful candidates will be sent to President Bola Tinubu for appointment, pending confirmation by the Senate. Interested lawyers from different regions of Nigeria have been invited to submit their expressions of interest to the Nigerian Bar Association. The available slots are distributed regionally, with the South-east having two slots, the South-south with one, the South-west with two, the North-central with two, and the North-west with one. The North-east is the only region without a current vacant slot.
The principle of regional balance is applied when appointing judges to the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, and other federal courts in order to ensure representation from different regions. However, there can be disparities in the number of representatives from each region due to retirements, disciplinary actions, and deaths, which occur in an unpredictable manner. Additionally, appointments to fill vacancies are not conducted frequently, which can lead to certain regions being underrepresented until the next round of appointments. Despite the consideration for regional balance, it should be noted that equal representation from all regions is not always achieved in the bench of various courts after each round of appointments. The specific criteria used to determine which region has a vacant slot to fill is not publicly disclosed.
Make-up of Supreme Court
At present, the Supreme Court bench has unequal representation from different regions. The South-west region holds three slots, while the South-south and South-east regions have two and one slot respectively. The North-west and North-east regions both have three slots, and the North-central region has one slot.
If the ongoing appointment process proceeds as planned, the South-west region will have five slots, the South-south region will have four slots, and the South-east region will have three slots on the Supreme Court bench. The North-west region will also have five slots, the North-central region will have three slots, and the North-east region will remain with three slots.
Criticism has been raised regarding the consideration of geographical spread in appointments to the Supreme Court and other federal institutions. Some argue that competence should be the primary criterion for such appointments, rather than regional representation. It is worth noting that historically, the Supreme Court bench included justices from the Igbo and Yoruba ethnic groups during Nigeria’s independence.
Although the Nigerian constitution allows lawyers with at least 15 years of experience at the Nigerian bar to be appointed directly from the bar to the Supreme Court bench, this practice is rarely followed. In practice, the Supreme Court bench is typically reserved for judges from the Court of Appeal. Only Teslim Elias and Augustine Nnamani have had the opportunity to be appointed directly from the bar to the Supreme Court bench in the history of Nigeria.
In 2017, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) made a notable attempt to have lawyers appointed directly from the bar to the Supreme Court bench. The then acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, had requested nominations, and the NBA, led by Abubakar Mahmoud at the time, forwarded the names of nine lawyers for consideration. However, their efforts did not result in any appointments.
Subsequent NBA presidents, including Paul Usoro and Olumide Akpata, also made similar attempts to have lawyers appointed to the Supreme Court bench, but these efforts were not successful. The current NBA president, Yakubu Maikyau, has now issued a new call for eligible lawyers to express their interest in a Supreme Court judge position.
However, according to a Supreme Court judge, John Okoro, the likelihood of appointing lawyers directly from the bar to the Supreme Court bench may currently be slim. In the past, the appointment of judicial officers used to be a more secretive process, with outstanding lawyers being approached by judges for appointment. However, the appointment process has become more competitive, and vacancies on the bench are typically filled by judges already within the system.
Lawyers, including Olisa Agbakoba, who was nominated by the NBA for a Supreme Court appointment in 2019, continue to challenge their exclusion from Supreme Court appointments. Critics, such as Onomigbo Okpoko speaking on behalf of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN), argue that the process of appointments to appellate courts appears to systematically exclude competent lawyers.
Current Supreme Court judges and the regions they represent
· Olukayode Ariwoola, Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) – Oyo State (South-west)
· Musa Dattijo Muhammad – Niger State (North-central)
· Kudirat Motonmori Olatokunbo Kekere-Ekun – Lagos State (South-west)
· John Inyang Okoro – Akwa Ibom State (South-south)
· Chima Centus Nweze – Enugu State (South-east).
· Amina Adamu Augie – Kebbi (North-west)
· Uwani Musa Abba Aji – Yobe State (North-east)
· Mohammed Lawal Garba – Zamfara State (North-west)
· Helen Moronkeji Ogunwumiju – Ondo State (South-west)
· I.M.M. Saulawa – Katina State (North-west)
· Adamu Jauro – Gombe State (North-east)
· Tijjani Abubakar – Yobe State (North-east)
· Emmanuel Akomaye – Cross River State (South-south)