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Onnoghen's Exit: Not if, but when

Shuaib Imam Shuaib writes that it will serve the Nigerian Judiciary better if Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, were to retire now while the charges against him are also dropped, to allow the judiciary engage in wholesome self-cleansing

Nigeria's Chief Justice, Walter Onnoghen, has been accused of not fully declaring his assets, contrary to the provisions of the law / Photo credit: guardian.ng
Nigeria's Chief Justice, Walter Onnoghen, has been accused of not fully declaring his assets, contrary to the provisions of the law / Photo credit: guardian.ng

President Olusegun Obasanjo always has a lot to say. Exactly one year ago, he wrote an open letter to President Muhammadu and things he had to say have been quoted extensively. But there was a seemingly insignificant piece of information he let out that was given scant media attention.

The former president wrote then and warned of the dangers from actions of a PDP kingmaker who had allegedly claimed to have procured a Supreme Court judgment for his faction and was demanding more say in the party. Those dangers may just be coming to life with the recent revelations in the judicial arm of government.

It isn't just the Chief Justice of Nigeria that has been put on trial. It is the entire judicial branch of government that been brought into disrepute. While it no longer matters, corruption in the highest office and the most revered legal institution has been brought to the fore by what can only be described as an animosity between two men, Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike and Transport Minister, Rotimi Amaechi.

It has also brought to the fore, an impending constitutional crisis over the legality of putting judicial officers on trial. The battle for political supremacy between Wike and Amaechi is not only proving to be self-destructive but has escalated, spilled into the judiciary and is threatening to consume the Chief Justice. All that can happen now is for other justices of the Supreme Court to salvage their own reputations and that of the institution they represent.

From all indications, aides to President Muhammadu Buhari forced his hand to put the Chief Justice on trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal for false asset declaration and now the President has to own it. Yet, it very well could have been the president initiating the moves as part of his wider anti-corruption fight to purge the judiciary of corrupt elements.

Regardless of who wins next month's presidential elections, for the sake of the institution, Onnoghen would have to opt for early retirement. And it will be left to the remaining 15 justices of the Supreme Court to negotiate a way out. There would be nothing more ideal than to have the charges against him at the tribunal dropped and give the judiciary an opening to clean up its house.

In a sense, and because of his military background, the constitution is not and has never been the basis of Buhari's sense of right and wrong. That is why he could suggest that national interest supersedes the rule of law. And that is why everyone in the legal profession is to respond and is up in arms at every perceived insult on the law by the President, even when he has a point.

Notwithstanding, nothing could be more in the national interest than the rule of law. But his habit of seeing things only in black or white explains Buhari's dilemma when he had nominate Onnoghen as Chief Justice.

The whole country was witness to the unusually long period of time Onnoghen spent in acting capacity over the president's reluctance to nominate him. Buhari's unwillingness was reportedly hinged on security reports that were uncomplimentary to the CJN. And only the ethnic and religious peculiarities of the Nigerian society and how the issue was politicised forced the President to relent.

The civil service, army and police all have a body to discipline erring members who breach rules and engage in unprofessional conduct. In the case of the army, it is a court martial. None however protects them from criminal prosecution. Every lawyer in the country admits that no judicial officer has immunity from criminal prosecution.

And almost all ignore the glaring contradiction by insisting you cannot put a sitting officer of the court on trial without recourse to the National Judicial Council, citing the Appeal Court judgement Nganjiwa V FRN. The truth is that is what immunity means.

So far, the only exception to this line of thinking has been Prof. Itse Sagay who believes the Appeal Court ruling is restricted to judges engaged in misconduct or offenses in the course of their official duties.

Buhari's unwillingness was reportedly hinged on security reports that were uncomplimentary to the CJN. And only the ethnic and religious peculiarities of the Nigerian society and how the issue was politicised forced the President to relent.

And Sagay has said the problem with the ruling as it relates the CCT is that should a judge be disciplined by the NJC and removed from office, the tribunal will no longer have the legal power to put him on trial as he would have ceased to be a public officer.

Added to that is the fact that the NJC is not a court. It cannot put a judge on trial for murder; neither can it assume his or her guilt in such weighty circumstances. You can't prosecute a sitting president or governor unless he is first impeached.

Now, supposedly, you can't prosecute a judge unless he is impeached on recommendation of the NJC. That is immunity. And there is a host of reasons why a President has immunity from criminal prosecution. The police and military, who are constitutionally empowered to use to force of arms under strict rules, act under his authority of the president.

What is not in doubt is that whatever the Supreme Court ruling in the final verdict on Nganjiwa V FRN, could destroy or rescue the Judiciary in Nigeria. And if it wasn't for the trial of the CJN at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, most of us would be oblivious to that fact.

What has been alleged by the Code of Conduct Bureau is that there are inconsistencies in the forms filled by Onnoghen. He was alleged to have hidden at last five bank accounts with Standard Chartered Bank in one of the forms and also failed to make assets declaration at the appropriate time.

The CJN has reportedly admitted the discrepancy and so far is only contesting the legality of trying him at the tribunal. The truth is it shouldn't even get to that. The admission alone has done considerable damage to his moral standing.

The office he sits in should be held to a higher standard than any other in the land. He is after all the custodian of the constitution and shouldn't be the one that acts in breach of it. To have politicians and militants threatening to set hell loose is not to his credit.

This is exactly what the politicians want; to draw a moral equivalence between their own corrupt misdeeds and the legal travails of officers of the court who normally should uphold the highest ethical standards.
Politics and elections in Nigeria, along with legal contests that follow are no doubt straining the system.

The CJN has reportedly admitted the discrepancy and so far is only contesting the legality of trying him at the tribunal. The truth is it shouldn't even get to that. The admission alone has done considerable damage to his moral standing. The office he sits in should be held to a higher standard than any other in the land. He is after all the custodian of the constitution and shouldn't be the one that acts in breach of it.

Justices of the Supreme Court are being dragged into politics yet they are not politicians. They cannot afford to fight dirty.

In fact, they cannot afford to fight this at all. As Nganjiwa V FRN has shown, it is the constitution that will be desecrated, the rule of law will be undermined and in the absence of justice, it's the people that will ultimately suffer the consequences.

The ruling by the Appeal Court was obviously an attempt by judges of the court to protect their own. The Attorney General of Federation, Abubakar Malami, doesn't believe judges could stoop as low as to subvert the course of justice in defence of one of their own.

And dismissing the Appeal Court verdict in the Nganjiwa case as a possible conspiracy, he has insisted that all the judges are guided by judicial oaths of office and the administrative oaths of office, and are therefore bound to operate on the basis of no fear or favour.

Regardless of who wins next month's presidential elections, for the sake of the institution, Onnoghen would have to opt for early retirement. And it will be left to the remaining 15 justices of the Supreme Court to negotiate a way out. There would be nothing more ideal than to have the charges against him at the tribunal dropped and give the judiciary an opening to clean up its house.

Written by Shuaib Shuaib

Shuaibu, a former Editor of the LEADERSHIP Newspapers, is based in Abuja.

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