President Muhammadu Buhari recently swore in Justice Walter Onnoghen as the new Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) in acting capacity. Onnoghen mounted the saddle to replace the former CJN, Justice Mahmud Mohammed who bowed out from office on attaining the compulsory retirement age of 70 years. But the argument has been that the Acting CJN’s appointment was tendentious. In other words, many feel Mr. President appointed him in acting capacity with the intention of using him as a green horn fit only as a gadget to be used and dumped.
On the face of it, the argument sounds convincing in a nation where the mindset, all pretences aside, is about ethno-linguistic and religious bias, suspicion, intolerance rancour and even violence of the extreme type sometimes.
The major contention has been that though the President had the right to appoint a CJN in acting platform, there was no constitutional basis for Onnoghen to be appointed as CJN in acting capacity when the coast was very clear for him to be appointed in full capacity, based on the recommendations of the National Judicial Council (NJC); and subject to confirmation by the Senate Section 231 (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as altered).
The constitution says where the office of the CJN is expressly vacant or the person occupying the position is for any reason unable to perform the functions of the office, the President ‘shall’ appoint the most senior justice of the Supreme Court to perform those functions until a substantive CJN is appointed and has assumed the functions of that office Section 231 (4). In the case of Onnoghen, he is acclaimed as the most senior Supreme Court judge on Justice Mohammed’s retirement.
So why appoint him in acting capacity after the NJC has voted him as the next in rank to the immediate past CJN? Such mistakes of the head are common in government especially when powerful positions are involved.
The CJN is the head of the third arm of government – the Judiciary. It is an office that can make or mar hitch-free governance and even the nation’s fledgling democracy if the position is care-freely occupied. What with the extent public confidence in the Nigerian judiciary has been eroded. Quite recently, seven judges, among them two justices of the Supreme Court- Inyang Okoro and Sylvester Ngwuta- were between October 7 and 8 this year, arrested for their alleged involvement in corrupt self-enrichment during a sting operation embarked upon by the Department of State Services (DSS).
Even before the coming of the immediate past CJN (Mohammed), allegations of judicial corruption were stinking to high heavens. Former CJN, Justice Mariam Aloma Mukhtar and the NJC she headed fought the menace.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had been credited as having gotten some petitions alleging ill-gotten money against some judges, too. The agency’s operatives who worked on the complaints were said to be shocked when they investigated and confirmed that some of the judges were sitting on outrageous sums of money in their accounts, as well as immovable assets they acquired but could not satisfactorily explain when computed against their legitimate income.
Indeed, another former (CJN), Justice Aloyius Katsina-Alu; and an ex-President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Isa Salami, traded bitter words bordering on judicial scandal when the latter some years ago, accused Katsina-Alu of making spirited attempts to make him pervert justice in the governorship election petition of Sokoto State. Salami said: “… He (Katsina-Alu) instructed me to direct the justices on the Sokoto appeal to dismiss the appeal of the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) governorship candidate; and I responded that I could not do so”.
Eventually, the disagreement was dragged to the NJC which set up a number of committees to examine it. None of the committees found Justice Salami guilty of any infraction.
Still, the NJC, in considering the report of the last committee that examined the matter, directed that Justice Salami should tender an apology to the then CJN within seven days. But Justice Salami refused to do so because he was not found guilty of any misconduct. This led to the suspension of Salami from office, and his forced retirement eventually. A judiciary with such odious records, supported by a horde of dishonest senior lawyers, deserves to be treated with suspicion. President Buhari has not hidden this. We think he is just being cautious in appointing the head of the Judiciary. He has floundered alright. But he deserves the benefit of the doubt. To public knowledge, Onnoghen has not and cannot been written off as a substantive CJN.
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