With about three weeks to his retirement from the Supreme Court, the death of Justice Sylvester Nwali Ngwuta might trigger some changes in the apex court, checks revealed.
One of such changes, according to some senior lawyers, is the vacuum his demise has left in the highest court in the land which must be filled very soon.
Justice Ngwuta passed on in the early hours of yesterday after a brief illness was just weeks away from clocking 70.
He was expected to retire from the bench and as Justice of the apex court on March 30, 2021 upon attainment of the 70-year mandatory retirement age.
He was said to have fallen sick and had been on admission in the last one week at the National Hospital, Abuja.
His remains has since been deposited at the National Hospital mortuary pending the final arrangement for his burial.
Until his death, the late Justice Ngwuta was the third in command at the Supreme Court, but our findings showed that with his demise, the hierarchy of the apex court has been altered.
The Supreme Court bench is made up of 20 Justices who are appointed in the order of seniority at the bench.
The apex court bench is headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, who is also the number one judicial officer in the country.
This entails that the CJN who is the head of the judicial arm of government presides over the country’s apex court and the National Judicial Council (NJC).
The current CJN was appointed into the position in 2019 and is due for retirement in 2023.
But the next in line to the CJN, Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, may not succeed Justice Muhammad as CJN since he is due for retirement later this month.
He was born on March 22, 1951 and will attain the mandatory retirement age of 70 later this month.
Justice Ngwuta was next to Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour but with his death, Justice Mary Ukaego Odili, automatically takes that position.
However, like Justice Rhodes-Vivour, Justice Odili would not succeed the CJN, as she is expected to retire from the apex court on May 12, 2022.
Justice Odili was appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by former President Goodluck Jonathan and was administered the oath of office by the then Chief Justice Katsina-Alu on June 23, 2011.
Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, who until now was the fifth in the hierarchy, is the likely successor of the incumbent CJN.
Born on August 22, 1958, Justice Ariwoola still has about six years to go as justice of the apex court.
He was formerly a Justice of the Court of Appeal and on November 22, 2011, he was appointed to the bench of the Supreme Court as Justice.
Born on March 30, 1951 in Amofia-Ukawu, Onicha local government area of Ebonyi State, the late Justice Ngwuta was appointed Supreme Court Justice on March 22, 2011.
He had his basic education in the Eastern part of Nigeria and got his LLB in University of Ife (Now Obafemi Awolowo University). lle-ife in 1977 and BL at the Nigerian Law School in 1978.
Meanwhile, some lawyers, who reacted to Ngwuta’s death, said the news of his passing was shocking, just as it has left a vacuum in the Supreme Court bench which must be filled very soon.
A senior lawyer, Abdul Balogun (SAN), described the late Justice Ngwuta as a thorough-bred judge who did his work diligently.
He said, ”No doubt, his death has created a vacuum that will be difficult to fill. The NJC should meet and decide on a replacement for him so that appeals at the apex court don’t suffer.
”His death has also brought changes in the hierarchy of the court. If I am not wrong, he was the third in command at the court before his death. With his death now, all that has changed.
“I’m sure in a matter of months from now, a replacement will be announced because if that is not done, some appeals will suffer at the court”.
Another Abuja-based senior lawyer, Liman Abdulrasheed, described the late Justice Ngwuta as a thorough judge.
He noted that some of the landmark judgements he delivered while serving as a justice of the Supreme Court will be difficult to forget.
He said, ”No doubt, his legacies will continue to speak for him. Some of the landmark judgments he delivered will stand the test of time and he will always be remembered.
”I know it is a matter of time and the vacant position will be filled after a meeting of the NJC”.
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