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How the sack of a Chief Justice divided Nigeria

Onnoghen was formally sworn in as Chief Justice on March 7, 2017
Illustration by Nonso Brendan for The Question Marker
Onnoghen was formally sworn in as Chief Justice on March 7, 2017
Illustration by Nonso Brendan for The Question MarkerI

Last January, the Executive Director of Anti-Corruption And Research-Based Data Initiative (ARDI), Dennis Aghanya, filed a petition against Walter Nkanu Onnoghen, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, at the Code of Conduct Bureau. The case of the ARDI was simple: there were inconsistencies in the assets he declared on taking the oath of office. The Chief Justice, the petition stated, seemed “to have suppressed or otherwise concealed the existence of these multiple domiciliary accounts owned by him, as well as the substantial cash balances in them.”

The reaction of the Federal Government was swift. It filed a six-count charge against the Okurike born Justice for concealing some of his assets, which included an estimated $3million.

When the trial began on January 14 at Code of Conduct Tribunal, Justice Onnoghen was absent in court. Seven days later, on the adjourned date of the trial, the accused was still nowhere around the courthouse. On January 26, more than two weeks after ARDI filed its petition, President Muhammadu Buhari jarred the nation by announcing the suspension of Justice Walter Onnoghen.

“The nation has been gripped by the tragic realities of no less a personality than the Chief Justice of Nigeria himself becoming the accused person in a corruption trial since details of the petition against him by a Civil Society Organization first became public about a fortnight ago,” Buhari said.

The president thought that since the justice’s “moral authority so wounded, by these serious charges of corruption, more so by his own written admission” that a resignation would have been a more honourable path.

Shortly after reminding the nation that “the fight against corruption is one of the tripod of policies promised to Nigerians by this administration”  and expressing flat dissatisfaction “with the alarming rate in which the Supreme Court of Nigeria under the oversight of Justice Walter Onnoghen has serially set free, persons accused of the most dire acts of corruption, often on mere technicalities, and after quite a number of them have been convicted by the trial and appellate courts,”  the appointment of Honourable Justice Tanko Ibrahim as the acting Chief Justice was officially declared.

Born in Okurike Town, Cross Rivers State in December 1950, Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen had his early education at the Presbyterian Primary School, Okurike Town, and obtained his West African Examination Council (WAEC) O-Level certificate from Odorgonno Senior High School, Accra, Ghana. A graduate of the University of Ghana,  attended the Nigerian Law School, Lagos, in 1978.

After Law School, he took on the position of the Pupil State Counsel, working with the Ministry of Justice in Lagos and Ogun State. From 1979, he would enter a partnership at the Law firm of Effiom Ekong & Company, Calabar, and would become the the Principal Partner/Head of Chamber of Walter Onnoghen & Associates, Calabar in the late 80s.

In 1989, he was appointed the High Court Judge of Cross Rivers State Judiciary and in the course of judicial duties was made the Chairman of Cross Rivers State Armed Robbery and Firm Arms Tribunal, a position he held between 1990 – 1993. When the conflict between the Students of the University of Calabar and Obufa Esuk Orok Community erupted, he was appointed the Chairman, Judicial Enquiry into the crisis. From 1992 to 2004, he was the Judge, High Court of Rivers State, and from 1998 to 2005 served as the Justice of the Court of Appeal.

One of the landmark moments of his career happened in February 2016, when he was the head of the seven-man panel of Justices which reviewed and upheld the death sentence of Chukwuemeka Ezeugo, nationally known as  Rev. King, of the Christian Praying Assembly.

Onnoghen’s participation in electoral processes first came to limelight in 2007 when he gave a dissenting judgment that annulled the presidential election, but his verdict was “a minority judgment.”

After his nomination as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria by then Acting President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, was approved by the Senate, he was formally sworn in on March 7, 2017 as Justice Mahmud Mohammed’s successor.

Shortly, on assuming the most prestigious position in the country’s Judiciary, came the incriminating petition that would hatch a scandal which threatened the Judiciary in ways that was, until then, not thought possible.

The suspension, which came three weeks to the Presidential Elections and eight hours after Onnoghen made public his decision to inaugurate the judges that would be responsible for the 2019 elections petition tribunals, caused a furore across the country. The police blockaded Justice Onnoghen’s office. Groups, both online and offline, indulged in pro and anti-Onnoghen protests. The Nigerian Bar Association rejected the presidential move, labelling it an “attempted coup.” The body ordered its members to boycott courts for two days.

“The action of the Executive portends a slide into anarchy and complete deconstruction of the Rule of Law and due process. It amounts to an absolute breach of the Constitution and the usurpation of the powers of the Senate and the National Judicial Council,” its president, Paul Usoro (SAN), stated.

The National Democratic Institute (NDI) released a statement which asserted that the suspension “has raised doubts among electoral stakeholders about the independence of the Supreme Court and Electoral Tribunals in upcoming general elections.”

Former Vice President and the then presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party, Atiku Abubakar condemned the suspension as a tyrannical gesture, a “dictatorship taken too far.” He called it “an ongoing rape of our nation’s hard-earned democracy by those who dined with anti-democratic forces.”

Femi Fani-Kayode, former Aviation Minister, said that the suspension was “totally unacceptable, a clear breach of the rule of law and the Constitution and a manifest violation of the principle of separation of powers.” He believed that the only way of saving the nation from anarchy was to “begin impeachment proceedings against Buhari.”

The British High Commision in Nigeria noted that “the timing of this action, so close to national elections, gives cause for concern. It risks affecting both domestic and international perceptions on the credibility of the forthcoming elections.”

However, lawyer and diplomat, Dr. Babafemi Badejo, argued that “The President’s statement cannot be faulted even if some Nigerians may read motivations to it. The courts are there to look into issues of whether the President has power to suspend and whether the CCT can issue the order it made.”

Lauding the presidency, the governor of Kaduna, Nasir el-Rufai tweeted that, “Justice must give way to legal gymnastics and absurd technicalities.”

In a response to the observations of the United Kingdom and other international organizations, National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress, APC, and former Governor of Edo state, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, said that Nigeria’s sovereignty must be defended and that while the country accepts collaboration and suggestions “on how we can improve on our electoral process” it will not accommodate “any foreign interference in the internal affairs of Nigeria.”

On the emergence of new allegations of gross misconduct at the beginning of April, Onnoghen resigned from office. However, the resignation only added to the drama that had been trailing him. For his tribulations would come to an explosive climax when the Code of Conduct Tribunal found him guilty of false declaration of assets in breach of the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau for public officials. A panel led by Danladi Umar dismissed him from the position of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of National Judicial Council. The 68 years old Justice was convicted on the five counts in which he was accused of false assets declaration. The tribunal chairman also ordered the ban of the defendant “from holding any public service for a period of 10 years. The money in the five accounts which the defendant has failed to disclose its source and has not adduced evidence of how he amassed such huge amount of money in the five accounts that was not declared, is hereby confiscated, seized and forfeited to the Federal Republic of Nigeria as the money was acquired illegally.”

Onnoghen will not be the first CJN to get the sack letter. When General Murtala Muhammed overthrew the regime of General Yakubu Gowon in the coup of 29 July, 1975, he initiated a disciplinary campaign that saw the dismissal of public officials and members of the armed forces. The same gesture was extended the Judiciary and the greatest casualties of the exercise was Justice Taslim Elias, the Chief Justice of Nigeria at the time. He reputation ensured that the dismissal got international coverage. Unlike the case of other scandal-ridden government officials, a great number of the members of the Supreme Military Council objected to the removal of the CJN, but a retract of an already published decision would embarrass the new regime. The Muhammed regime would later explain that the controversial sack of Justice Elias was based on health grounds. However, deputy to Murtala Mohammed and former President, Olusegun Obasanjo would state that the true reason behind the sack of the CJN was the loss of the “credibility and confidence” in the Judiciary.

And the absence of this credibility and confidence would be one of the reasons the Federal Government cited on suspending Onnoghen. The verdict of the Tribunal would not be the end of the road. “We know that all is not over in this matter,” Senior Advocate of Nigeria and member of Onnoghen’s legal team, Mr Okon Etuk, told pressmen after the conviction. “The wheel of justice grinds slowly but surely, this is not a matter that will end here.”

Reactions to the findings and conclusions of the Tribunal has been mixed. While some quarters are assured justice had been done on the Onnoghen-gate, other quarters see ethnic coloration and stark politicization of the judiciary. Fani-Kayode promptly responded to the decisive development with a tweet which in part read: “The conviction of CJN Onnoghen by the CCT is not surprising. It is part of a wider plan, an unfolding script and a hidden agenda.”

Chief Ifedayo Adedipe (SAN) is sad that a tragedy “has befallen the institution of the judiciary; a case in which the Honourable Chief of Justice of Nigeria is put in the dock and convicted as a felon.”

However, the Deputy Director of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability project (SERAP), Kolawole Oludare, has lauded the conviction, but insists that the Code of Conduct Tribunal must “put pressure on public officers like presidents and state governors to make voluntary public declaration of their assets.”

This assumption of a Federal Government conspiracy to humiliate the sacked Chief Justice has been reinforced by a biographical sketch of Dennis Aghanya published by The Cable, which establishes a long-standing devotion of the author of the petition to the president. But whatever script of witch-hunting and selective prosecution that could be playing behind the scene as theorists like Fani-Kayode are keen to suggest, Onnoghen is clearly defiant. He would not leave the stage without a final act. According to a ThisDay newspaper report, he has since filed 16 grounds notice of appeal before the Court of Appeal in Abuja. Mr Etuk had assured reporters, “We shall avail ourselves of all the processes and the hierarchy of the judiciary and we know that the judiciary will redeem itself.” Apparently, the fight is far from over—or not. ✚

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