ADDRESS BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE NIGERIAN BAR ASSOCIATION (“NBA”), PAUL USORO, SAN DELIVERED AT THE VALEDICTORY COURT SESSION IN HONOUR OF HONORABLE JUSTICE AMIRU SANUSI, OFR, JUSTICE OF THE SUPREME COURT OF NIGERIA, ON 03 FEBRUARY 2020
1. We thank My Lord, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honorable (Dr) Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, CFR, for inviting us to join in the celebration of one of Nigeria’s finest, outstanding and distinguished jurists, a complete gentleman, Honorable Justice Amiru Sanusi, OFR who retires today as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria having attained the mandatory retirement age of 70.
2. We thank the Almighty for the life of Honorable Justice Sanusi and thank Him in particular for keeping Your Lordship alive, well, in good health and of sound mind at 70, particularly in these days when life seems to be rather short and brutish in our land. At a time that being a lawyer not to mention, being a judicial officer, is becoming an extremely risky enterprise given the contrived minefields and boobytraps that are deliberately and mischievously placed on our way by those who seek to entrap judicial officers and legal officers and, in the process, demonize the profession and the judiciary, it is remarkable and indeed, calls for celebration and thanksgiving that Honorable Justice Sanusi has served his term in the judiciary without blemish and retires today, unscathed and spotless. Indeed, God has been kind and faithful.
3. Occasions like these traditionally call for introspection and the examination of the life and career of the retiring Justice of the Supreme Court in order to draw life lessons therefrom. In x-raying the life and career of Sanusi JSC, there are indeed lots of lessons that we could imbibe therefrom. We cannot cover all of them within our allotted time, but we will highlight two key lessons. First, it is not common in our land, particularly these days, to see political office holders who relinquish their offices and opt for a far less lucrative appointment as judicial officers. That is exactly what Sanusi JSC did in 1990 when he left his position as the Katsina State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice to take up appointment as a Judge of the Katsina State Judiciary. In terms of financial rewards and lucre, Sanusi J (as he then was) most definitely did not control and/or command the vote and purse of the State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice not to mention the closeness to power that the office confers on the occupier.
4. Beyond lucre, we must remember that, a State has only one Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice whereas the State Judiciary has several Judges all of whom are not permitted by the ethics of their office to hug political or media limelight. Sanusi JSC, as the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice was the only one with that office in all of Katsina State but as Sanusi J (as he then was), and with no crystal ball to predict his elevation to the higher Bench, he was merely one other anonymous Judge amongst several other Judges of the State Judiciary. He was not even the Chief Judge of the State with the powers to direct and administer the affairs of the State Judiciary! Absolute patriotism and a commitment to service, those are the only two elements that explain the choice that Sanusi JSC made in 1990 for such a switch in career, to wit, vacating the important and politically viable office of the Katsina State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice and opting for an unpredictable career on the Bench. We can only thank God for those choices that Sanusi JSC made seeing as we are blessed and greatly enriched by them.
5. I make these points in order to tame the exuberance of some of our politicians and public office holders who need to be reminded that, amongst our judicial officers are eminent personalities like Sanusi JSC, patriotic and service-oriented Nigerians who, in accepting appointments to the Bench, sacrificed more lucrative and financially rewarding career prospects. These are qualities that appear to be in short supply amongst our public office holders and it therefore galls some of us when these same public officers pretend to pontificate against and lecture our judicial officers and the legal profession on patriotism and service to country. The shoe should actually be in the other leg in the sense that it is our judicial officers, in the mold of Sanusi JSC who have the right to pontificate and lecture these public office holders on patriotism and duty to country, having so glaringly earned their stripes in the career choices that they made and in the quality of the services they have provided in the course of their judicial careers.
6. Sanusi JSC and the judicial officers of his ilk – and these are in the greater majority – are very high-minded and service-motivated citizens of our country who should be held up as role models for our youth and who should not and must not be demonized or vilified as a class or as individuals. Their dedication to duty, patriotism and commitment to service should be a touchstone for all of us and a constant reminder that Nigeria could and indeed will be great when our public office holders are driven by service considerations infused with overriding patriotism.
7. The second set of lessons that we wish to highlight, within the limited time that we have to deliver this Address, from the career of Sanusi JSC, is the lucidity of his judgments generally and also his consistent advocacy for fair hearing and the rule of law in the trial of criminal matters. His Lordship’s espousal of these principles and his firm grasp of criminal law principles are not surprising howsoever neither are they the product of happenstance. Between June 1979 and October 1987, His Lordship served as a Magistrate, rising through the ranks up to the apex position of Chief Magistrate – except for a 2-year stint, between February 1981 and March 1983 when His Lordship was seconded to the Niger River Basin Authority to head the Legal Department of the Authority.
8. As we all know, the predominant matters that are heard and adjudicated upon by our Magistrates Courts are criminal matters and most certainly, His Lordship must have honed his knowledge and skills in handling criminal matters from his magistracy days. To further enhance those skills, His Lordship was appointed as the first Director of Public Prosecution in the Katsina State Ministry of Justice upon the creation of the State and served in that office from October 1987 to January 1989. Without a doubt, His Lordship’s judgments and pronouncements on the Bench were greatly impacted by those years of experience in handling and prosecuting criminal matters.
9. His Lordship must have also seen, firsthand, how easy it was to do injustice to defendants in criminal matters, possibly, inadvertently, because of a rush to judgment. And so, His Lordship made it a point in some of His Lordship’s landmark decisions, to caution against such rush to judgment and to advocate for the entrenchment of fair hearing and the promotion of the rule of law. In Omoregie v State (2017) LPELR 42466(SC) at pages 14-15 paragraphs F-E, pronounced on the nature of circumstantial evidence and the need for courts to exercise caution before convicting an accused person based thereon thus:
“There is no gainsaying that in the absence of eye witness account, a trial court is at liberty to draw some inferences from facts presented before it in proof of the guilt of an accused person where there is no direct evidence coming from any witness or witnesses. Be that as it may, before a Court can safely rely on circumstantial evidence to convict an accused person such Court must be extraordinarily careful and also be cautious in order not to convict an innocent person or person who is totally not responsible for the commission of the crime and for that reason, the trial Court must very narrowly examine the circumstantial evidence before relying on same to convict the accused person, simply because such evidence might be susceptible to fabrication just in order to rope in an innocent person into the commission of the offence that he knew nothing about. The circumstantial evidence must therefore be unequivocal and must have probative value.”
10. That is a pronouncement that is so profound and so very applicable to our circumstances today, perhaps, more than when His Lordship made the pronouncement. We hear of and experience incidents where prosecution agencies target individuals and fabricate evidence in order to frame innocent persons solely for political reasons or to achieve personal vendetta or even to add up numbers and present a picture of intense activity and success. It is in these circumstances that His Lordship’s advice to trial Courts is most apt and timely.
11. His Lordship’s decision in Ugborji v State (2017) LPELR 43427(SC) at pages 23-24 paragraphs B-C is also worth reviewing on the sanctity of the fair hearing provisions in our Constitution. The decision in that Appeal turned on the interpretation of Sections 216 and 217 of the Criminal Procedure Code vis-à-vis the provisions of Section 36(6)(a) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended). His Lordship held thus on the issue:
“My Lords, permit me to reiterate that the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria of 1999, as amended, had by Section one, made provision to emphasize or assert its supremacy. By that provision, any law/statute or provisions thereof that runs riot and violent to the provisions of the Constitution or is in conflict with the constitutional provision is null and void to the extent of inconsistency . . .
“By the provisions of Section 36(6)(a) of the 1999 Constitution as amended, reproduced supra, any person charged with a criminal offence must be informed promptly and in detail, the nature of the offence he is charged with or accused of committing in the language he understands. It seems to me that by the provisions of Section 36(6)(a), the Constitution has decreed that a formal charge has to be framed which also must be read to the accused person in the language he understands, as well as the details of the nature of the offence. The trial Court must also be certain that the accused has not been misled in his defence. The invocation of the provisions of Section 216 and Section 217 of Criminal Procedure Code to convict the present appellant of the offence of criminal conspiracy to commit armed robbery by the learned trial Judge without a formal charge framed in the circumstance, is a total breach of the constitutional provisions mentioned above.
“I must state here, that there does not seem to be many reported decisions of this Court on the interpretation of Section 216 and 217 of Criminal Procedure Code. Be that as it may, the observation of the Northern Nigeria High Court sitting in its appellate jurisdiction on Sections 216 and 217 of the Criminal Procedure Code in the case of R. Ekechukwu vs Commissioner of Police (1966) NNLR 96 is relevant to this instant appeal or situation. In that case the High Court of Northern Nigeria sitting in its appellate jurisdiction when
considering the provisions of Sections 216 and 217 of the CPC held that the two provisions empower a Court to convict on an offence not charged only if it had given the accused person notice of the facts of the offence of which he is convicted.”
12. Sometimes, in the rush to judgment, particularly in the frenzy of today’s daily media trials, there might be the temptation to abridge these constitutional provisions on fair hearing. His Lordship’s judgment, afore quoted, serves to remind all of us that a rush to judgment could actually lead to grievous and incalculable if not irreparable miscarriage of justice. These principles, we are reminded by His Lordship, not only promote fairness in trial but also meet the requirements of the rule of law.
13. There is plenty more that we could write and say on our distinguished jurists, My Lord, Honorable Justice Amiru Sanusi, OFR, but time and space would not permit. Suffice to state that the Nigerian Bar Association indeed rejoices with Honorable Justice Sanusi over his retirement and wish him a most restful and enjoyable post-retirement period. We wish Your Lordship continuing good health, in sound mind and with good humor. We wish him God’s continued blessings and protection. We note that one of His Lordship’s hobbies is farming and we wonder whether His Lordship intends to retire to his farm in Funtua. Wherever His Lordship may wish to retire to, we of the NBA wish to serve notice, most respectfully on My Lord that we would fish His Lordship out and continue to seek His Lordship’s wise counsel and direction. We also believe that the Nigerian nation has a lot to still tap from His Lordship’s fountain of formidable knowledge, experience and skills and would therefore not be surprised and indeed expect that the nation would continue to call on His Lordship for his services.
14. This Address will not be complete without my congratulating and extending our sincere gratitude and appreciation to Your Lordship’s immediate family who have, over the years, borne rather patiently, the harsh brunt and reality of Your Lordship’s punishing judicial schedules. Now, the family is likely to and may have His Lordship mostly to themselves, subject of course, to the caveat that I have already entered, to wit, the fact that, we of the NBA will continue to seek His Lordship’s counsel and indeed, the Nigerian nation, may still have need for His Lordship’s services. I thank My Lord, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, for the privilege of this Address.
Paul Usoro, SAN