With only two weeks left for Justice Walter Onnoghen to act as the Chief Justice of Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari continues to keep the nation in the dark on why he is dilly-dallying on the appointment of a substantive CJN, ADE ADESOMOJU and RAMON OLADIMEJI write
Born on December 22, 1950, the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onoghen, will end his career on the bench when he clocks 70 in 2020.
But with the uncertainties that continue to envelope the coveted position of the CJN, whether Justice Onnoghen, who hails from Okurike town in Biase Local Government Area of Cross Rivers State, will end his career as just a Justice of the Supreme Court or the captain of the Nigerian judiciary, remains a question still begging for an answer.
He will be serving for over four years, including the period he has spent in acting capacity, if President Muhammadu Buhari forwards his name to the Senate for confirmation and eventually appoints him as the substantive CJN.
Serving as the CJN for four years plus is a feat no one else has achieved in the last 10 years after Justice Muhammad Uwais (retd.) held the most prized judiciary position between 1995 and 2006.
The six CJNs that served after Justice Uwais, including the immediate-past, Justice Mahmud Mohammed (retd.), who retired on November 10, 2016, were in office for maximum of two years.
If Onnoghen is appointed by the President in substantive capacity, he will be the 15th indigenous CJN since the country got independence in 1960.
He will be ending his career in a manner that distinguishes him from just a retiring Justice of the Supreme Court if the uncertainty is settled in his favour.
A retired Chief Justice of Nigeria is entitled to a mansion in Abuja and regular change of their luxury car, domestic staff, security, among other perks bankrolled by the National Judicial Council.
As expected, on October 11, 2016, the National Judicial Council announced that it had met and recommended Justice Onnoghen to President Buhari for appointment as the substantive CJN.
With little or nothing known about the plan of the President, who plays key constitutional roles in the process of appointing the CJN, the appointment ritual has never been characterised by uncertainty of this magnitude in the recent history of the judiciary.
How CJN is appointed
Section 231 of the Constitution deals with the appointment of the CJN.
In the spirit of check and balance, the Constitution gives the NJC, which is headed by the CJN, the power to initiate the appointment of an incoming CJN by recommending a nominee(s) to the President.
That ends the involvement of the NJC.
The President (the head of the executive arm of government) plays a pivotal role in the process as he serves as the interface between the NJC (an institution of the judiciary arm of government) and the Senate (the legislative arm of government) which does the screening.
The power of final appointment of the CJN lies with the President.
Usually, in line with constitutional provisions, as demonstrated in past appointments, the President would promptly forward the name of the nominee for the position of the CJN to the Senate for confirmation without the knowledge of the public.
The public only got to know of the ongoing process when the Senate invited the nominee for screening which was usually done in the full glare of the press.
And as soon as the screening was done, the public only waited for the date of the retirement of the outgoing CJN for the successor, who would have been screened by the Senate and his or her appointment made by the President, to be sworn in.
The Onnoghen situation
In this case, the NJC had since October forwarded Onnoghen’s name as the only nominee to the President for appointment as the CJN.
Between then and November 10, 2016, there was no sign that the President had sent Onnoghen’s name to the Senate.
As the retirement of the immediate past CJN, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, drew nearer, the anxiety in the public space thickened, with a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and legal author, Mr. Sebastine Hon, describing the situation as scary.
At last, on the eve of Justice Mohammed’s retirement, news filtered in that Justice Onnoghen would be sworn in, not as the substantive CJN, but as an acting CJN, the next day.
On November 10, after the valedictory court session held in honour of the retiring Justice Mohammed, Justice Onnoghen took over as acting CJN.
It was the first time in the history of the country that the office of the CJN would be occupied in acting capacity.
This was despite the fact that the NJC had, at the end of its emergency meeting held on October 11, 2016, recommended Justice Onnoghen to President Buhari for appointment as the substantive CJN.
But since the NJC’s recommendation in October 2016, there has been no evidence that the President has sent the name of Justice Onnoghen to the Senate for confirmation as required by law and no explanation has been offered by the presidency for the President’s action or inaction on the issue.
Under section 231(5) of the Constitution, it is believed that Justice Onnoghen cannot occupy the position of the CJN capacity for more than three months and cannot be re-appointed in that capacity thereafter.
The provision of section 231(5) reads, “Except on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council, an appointment pursuant to the provisions of subsection (4) of this section shall cease to have effect after the expiration of 3 months from the date of such appointment and the President shall not re-appoint a person whose appointment has lapsed.”
With only about 15 days left till February 10, when his tenure as acting CJN will end, the Presidency has yet to affirm or deny raging speculations that it does not intend to appoint Justice Onnoghen as the substantive CJN.
This has helped to fuel speculations that President Buhari was not interested in Justice Onnoghen because he is not from the North like the President.
Since 1987, when Justice Ayo Irikefe, who hailed from Lagos State, ended his tenure as the sixth indigenous CJN, no other person from the southern part of the country has risen to that position.