Tribute: Memories of Justice Mamman Nasir – By Mahmud Jega
During the Gowon era, when Nigeria had only 12 states, state commissioners were much more prominent than they are today. Many commissioners’ portrait pictures appeared in the newspapers every day. So many, indeed, that during my primary and secondary school days I made an album of military governors and their commissioners for every state.
One of the most prominent commissioners then was Malam Mamman Nasir, Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice of North Central State [present Kaduna and Katsina states]. His picture, wearing a black coat and white wig, often featured in New Nigerian. I soon made a connection because the songs of Dan Kwairo and Ali Dan Saraki made many references to “Minister Nasiru,” who was very close to the Premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardaunan Sokoto. In 1975, not long after the Gowon regime was overthrown and Nasir lost his job as Attorney General, New Nigerian featured a front-page picture of him, announcing his appointment as a Justice of the Supreme Court. It was the only case I ever read of in Nigeria, of a man going straight to the Supreme Court from the bar.
In 1978, Justice Mamman Nasir made another career first when he stepped down from the Supreme Court and became President of the Court of Appeal in succession to Justice Dan Ibekwe, who passed away. He remained in that position until 1992 when he retired early in order to become the Galadiman Katsina and District Head of Malumfashi in Katsina State. As it happened, over the previous year, I got to hear many stories up close about Justice Mamman Nasir because my first cousin, Justice Abubakar Jega [now sadly deceased], became the Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal in 1991 and was working very closely with its President. As it happened, Justice Nasir was my father’s classmate at Government College, Kaduna in 1943-47. He however told Justice Jega after his appointment as Chief Registrar that even though he was his son, he came first in the interview and he did not slant matters in his favor.
The Chief Registrar became highly devoted to Justice Nasir and he told many stories about him, including that the Appeal Court President almost never drank the tea supplied to his office. After a year, so much tea, sugar, milk and biscuit had accumulated in his office, so the Chief Registrar sent it to the President’s house. When Nasir heard, he scolded the CR for sending packets of tea and sugar to his house and ordered him to go and retrieve it. The stuff that old judges were made of.
For some reasons of family history, the then Emir of Katsina, Muhammadu Kabir Usman, did not want Nasir as Galadiman Katsina. It was a tough tug-of-war and the military ruler General Babangida apparently intervened to force the emirate council’s hand, from what we heard at the time. I also saw him up close at his Malumfashi palace that year when our brother Aliyu Kardi married his daughter.
It was in July 1993, in the heat of the June 12 crisis, that I got a chance to sit down with Justice Mamman Nasir at his home opposite the Kasuwar Barci market in Kaduna. I accompanied my boss at Citizen magazine, Mohammed Haruna to the house. We asked him if what General Babangida said was true, that judges ridiculed themselves by giving contradictory rulings in the June 12 case. The old judge said, “Judges did not ridicule themselves but politicians tried to ridicule the judiciary.” He said [referring to Arthur Nzeribe and his notorious Association for Better Nigeria, ABN] that no one should have gone to court and asked for an election to be stopped since the Constitution provided for election.
Secondly, Justice Nasir was angry that instead of going to the Appeal Court, many people instead went to High Courts of coordinate jurisdiction in order to upturn the FCT High Court’s order to NEC not to announce the June 12 election results. He said given the gravity of the situation, the Appeal Court could even sit in the night to hear the case. He told us a story of what happened when a student whose name did not appear on the graduation list obtained a High Court order to stop the University of Ibadan’s convocation on Friday afternoon, hours before it held. He said UI’s management panicked but they were told to quickly go to the Appeal Court’s Ibadan Division. The judges sat at midnight and discharged the injunction.
We also asked Justice Nasir why he stepped down from the Supreme Court to the Appeal Court. First, he said he saw no difference between courts at different levels. He said in England, there are magistrates who do not want to become high court judges; they serve out their entire career as magistrates. As to the 1978 case, Justice Dan Ibekwe died just when the Constituent Assembly that produced the 1979 Constitution was badly split over the issue of Shari’a. A compromise had been struck to create a Shari’a Division in the Appeal Court instead of creating a Shari’a Court of Appeal, and military Head of State General Olusegun Obasanjo sweetened the deal by convincing Nasir to step down from the Supreme Court and head the Appeal Court. He however retained his seniority as a Supreme Court judge.
Galadiman Katsina also told us many stories about Sardauna, including how he was appointed the Northern Region Minister of Justice in 1961. He was a Senior Crown Counsel in Jos, under the Attorney General, when he was summoned to Sardauna’s house. When he got there at 7am, Sardauna was having the first of his two daily Cabinet meetings. Straight away, Nasir was told that he was to be appointed the Minister of Justice but should first go and resign from the civil service by paying a month’s salary in lieu of notice. His monthly salary was 33 pounds and he was asked if he had the money to pay. He said he didn’t, so Sardauna dipped his hand in his pocket and brought 5 pounds. He then asked all the ministers to contribute. They all dipped their hands in their pockets and soon collected the 33 pounds. Mamman Nasir went to the Treasury, paid it and collected the receipt. During Sardauna’s second Cabinet meeting at 2pm, he brought the receipt, which Sardauna gave to Minister of Finance Alhaji Aliyu Makaman Bidda to confirm if it was genuine. When Makama confirmed it, Mamman Nasir was immediately sworn in as Minister of Justice [in those days, the Attorney General’s post was separate].
No wonder that Galadiman Katsina was the father of Gamji Clubs all over the North, in memory of Sardauna. I saw him quite often in 1993-94, when he headed the Northern Elders Forum together with Alhaji Abdurrahman Okene. They held many seminars to prepare the Northern position ahead of the Abacha Constitutional Conference of 1994-95. Nasir ended up as the conference’s Deputy Chairman. Afterwards, he headed one of the Abacha transitional agencies.
I last saw Justice Mamman Nasir in 2015, when my brother Justice Abubakar Jega died in the Hajj stampede. He was still agile but had virtually lost his voice. Still, he went to the house many times to accept condolences. Galadiman Katsina was a very good man, a great jurist, an astute administrator and politician, who labored very hard to keep Sardauna’s memory alive, one of the pioneers of the legal profession in the North and who devoted his entire life to national service in many different capacities.
May Allah reward him with Aljannat Firdaus.