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FACT CHECK: Can a non-lawyer become Supreme Court Justice? And is Tanko a non-lawyer?




DURING a protest held in Abuja on Monday by lawyers, one speech stood out. A legal practitioner, who has been identified as Okere Kingdom Nnamdi, delivered a passionate speech that was caught on tape by reporters.

Nnamdi described as a “constitutional aberration” the appointment of Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad to the Supreme Court of Nigeria and his recent assignment as the Acting Chief Justice.

“There are so many lacunas in the 1999 Constitution,” he said. “That same constitution will tell you that an Islamic scholar from a Sharia Court of Appeal can be promoted to the Supreme Court of Nigeria, not minding that he was not called to the Nigerian Bar, that he didn’t read law, because he is an Islamic Scholar.”

“That was how the likes of Tanko Muhammad came to the Supreme Court. Let him tell us his enrolment number. Every Nigerian lawyer that is called to the Nigerian Bar that attended a university and the Nigerian Law School has an enrolment number. He does not have any,” he alleged.

Nnamdi, a graduate of Imo State University and Founder of Kingdom Human Rights Foundation International, also urged the federal government to follow the due process of the law, and not be found guilty of ethnic bias. He asked: “Is the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria reserved for the people of the North? Are we a federal republic of Northern Nigeria?” The video of his speech in the last 24 hours has gained traction in social media platforms.

But what does the law say?

The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria regulates basic issues about the judiciary and contains numerous provisions concerning superior courts of record — from the Customary Court of Appeal of a State to the Supreme Court.

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Section B, Part II, Chapter VII of the document talks about the Sharia Court of Appeal of a State and what qualifies a person for appointment to the office of a Kadi.

“The appointment of a person to the office of a Kadi of the Sharia Court of Appeal of a State shall be made by the Governor of the State on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council,” says Section 276(2).

Sub-section (3) adds that “a person shall not be qualified to hold office as a Kadi of the Sharia Court of Appeal of a State unless – (a) he is a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been so qualified for a period of not less than ten years and has obtained a recognised qualification in Islamic law from an institution acceptable to the National Judicial Council; or (b) he has attended and has obtained a recognised qualification in Islamic law from an institution approved by the National Judicial Council and has held the qualification for a period of not less than ten years; and (i) he either has considerable experience in the practice of Islamic law, or (ii) he is a distinguished scholar of Islamic law.”

In other words, a person may be qualified either as a legal practitioner, with at least ten years of experience, or he has a degree in Islamic law approved by the NJC with experience of the same number of years.

The same liberty does not, however, apply when it comes to appointments in courts higher up the ladder. So, even though an Islamic scholar with no law degree may become a kadi at the state level, he cannot be appointed to the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

Section 238 states that a person cannot be lawfully appointed as a Court of Appeal Justice “unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been so qualified for a period of not less than twelve years”.

Section 231 makes a similar provision regarding the Supreme Court, stating instead that the candidate must have practised as a lawyer for “a period of not less than fifteen years”.

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The expression, legal practitioner, is defined by the Legal Practitioners Act as one entitled to practise as a barrister or as a solicitor, further stating that “a person shall be entitled to practice as a barrister and solicitor if, and only if, his name is on the roll” (that is, he or she has been called to bar).

It, therefore, means that to become a Justice of either the Court of Appeal or the Supreme, a person must have graduated from a law faculty, passed the bar examinations, and be entitled to practice as a barrister and solicitor in Nigeria.

Is Tanko a non-lawyer or a mere Islamic scholar?

Tanko Muhammad, according to his profile provided by the Supreme Court, studied Law between 1976 and 1980 at the Ahmadu Bello University, after which he graduated successfully from the Nigerian Law School in 1981. He obtained a Masters degree in Law from the same institution in 1984, and then a doctorate degree in 1998.

He started his career in the judiciary as a Grade II Magistrate in Bauchi State and then rose through the ranks. In 1990, he was appointed Chief Magistrate of the Federal Capital Territory High Court. From there, he became a Kadi of the Bauchi Sharia Court of Appeal, then Justice of the Court of Appeal, and then Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 2006.

He is the second most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, ranking only below Walter Nkanu Onnoghen who was appointed to the court in 2005.


It is not true that “an Islamic scholar from a Sharia Court of Appeal can be promoted to the Supreme Court of Nigeria” though he did not study Law nor was called to bar. It is also not true that Tanko was promoted to the Supreme Court based only on his background as an Islamic scholar.

Author profile

'Kunle works with The ICIR as an investigative reporter and fact-checker. You can shoot him an email via aadebajo@icirnigeria.org or, if you're feeling particularly generous, follow him on Twitter @KunleBajo.

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