CJN: Mohammad In, Onnoghen Out

By Elizabeth Chukwuma

 Walter Onnoghen, Convicted   Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, may have finally lost his exalted position. Recall that Dalandi Umar, a senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, Chairman of the  three-man  Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, has handed over over a ten-year ban on him from holding public office , last Thursday., April 18. 2019., which finally removed him as the CJN. 

Political watchers believe that he lost his exalted position the moment Umar, read out the verdict of the tribunal to him.  This may have strengthened the resolve of President Muhammadu Buhari, of the ruling All Progressive , to quickly  request for an extension  by three months of  Justice  Tanko Mohammad,  the acting CJN,  from the National Judicial Council., NJC,  The NJC, members were said to have met immediately after  the CCT handed  down the Judgment on the former CJN, to deliberate on the Katsina state born Nigerian President’s request. The NJC did not hesitate in giving the approval . Many believe that the request was just a mere formality as he could do it without t seeking the approval of the NJC.

Soji Oye, the Council Director of Information   disclosed that the  ”approval  followed  several  hours of deliberations  during a meeting  on Thursday, April 18, 2019, to look into the President’s request for extension of  Mohammad’s  tenure as acting CJN  for an additional three months.

 Oye said the Council has since ”forwarded  its approval  to the President”. Not many  people were surprised that  the President quickly requested the NJC , to extend the tenure of  Justice Mohammed by another three  months  going by the celebrations in the Presidency over the  Conviction of Onnoghen , the former CJN at the CCT. The worry of  political Observers was that  the quick succession with which the whole matter was settled  in less than 24 hours after the Tribunal gave its Judgment  to resolve the issue  of who  would be  in-charge of the Supreme  Court and  Head of the Nation’s Judiciary  speaks volume.

The Presidential request and the NJC meeting on the  said Onnoghen issue the same Thursday that the CCT gave its Judgment clearly shows that they knew the direction of the  case  and were just waiting for an opportunity  to act out the Presidential script.The opportunity came and they did hesitate to make use of it. The implication of Onnoghen’s removal  was that Justice Mohammed, the Bauchi state born  acting CJN , has finally taken over  as the Chairman of the NJC and  Head of the country’s Judiciary. Note that in the last eight months he has been very careful in taking certain decisions for fear that Onnoghen may be recalled to office. This is because the government   has not sacked and the Tribunal has not convicted as he was only serving a suspension order. now he has opportunity  to initiate his own policies on how he wants the nation’s judiciary to be run in the next three months.

Walter Onnoghen: Convicted CJN

Many believe that with the abrupt removal of the former CJN by the  President through the CCT,  he would lose all his entitlements  going by the Tribunal verdict  that has been banned from holding public office  for ten years. John Okoro, a Lagos businessman noted that n if he had listened to the  earlier advise of the NJC, to resign  his appointment, without waiting for the Tribunal to remove him , he would have been paid all his entitlements  as a former CJN. The Statement by Femi Adesina, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity was very instructive. Adesina who  tried to to distance Buhari from the Onnoghen saga by insisting  that  he never ”sacked him as alleged in certain quarters insisted  that the former Cross River state born Justice   was still a sitting a CJN as at the time when the government  filed the six count charges  against him  at the Tribunal.

Adesina argument  may not hold water as critics insist that  the government jumped the gu and went straight to the CCT to prosecute the former CJN ostensibly to humiliate him and the Judiciary , which is the third arm of government. The other arms of government were are the Executive  and the Legislature.

Note that the Constitution was very clear on how  an airing member of the bench who has contravened the law could be removed.  It  provided that it is only   the NJC,   that has the ”powers to discipline  and remove a judicial officer. In the Onnoghen saga, the government had used the CCT, which is an agency of government to remove him from office.

 The former CJN , who has filed notice of Appeal, against the CCT judgment is optimistic that  the Appeal Court would reverse the tribunal decision on him to enable him resign honourably from the service. Legal experts fear that  the presidency  would follow the Onnoghen ‘s case to the Supreme Court because of their interest in it.  from the onset they saw him as a threat to the Administration ‘s anti-corruption war because of the delays in many Corruption cases brought against  some individuals , regarded as power brokers in the society , by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, an anti-graft agency of the government . Given his legal experience and years on the Bench, Onnoghen , may not want his years in the country’s public service to be a waste for stepping on powerful toes and therefore to pursue the  case to its logical conclusion. . Nigerians are watching to see how the Onnoghen  matter will end in the regular Court.  

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