The National Judicial Council, on Wednesday, asked Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, in the absence of President Muhammadu Buhari, to extend the tenure of Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria.
This came on the heels of a confirmation by the Presidency on Wednesday that it had forwarded Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation as the substantive CJN as provided under Section 231(1) of the Constitution. One of our correspondents learnt that the NJC took the decision to ask for the renewal of Onnoghen’s acting status at its emergency meeting in Abuja, on Wednesday.
It was learnt that the NJC’s recommendation was to avert a vacuum in the nation’s topmost judiciary position pending when the Senate would confirm Onnoghen as the substantive CJN.
It was gathered that Onnoghen, whose first three-month tenure as acting CJN expires on Friday, was absent from the NJC’s emergency meeting where the resolution on the renewal of his acting tenure was taken.
Onnoghen, as the acting CJN, is also the acting chairman of the NJC, but The PUNCH gathered that he was excused from the Wednesday’s meeting in line with the tradition of the council barring a member from participating in the proceedings where issue concerning such member is to be tabled.
Top judiciary sources confirmed to The PUNCH that the second most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, who is statutorily the Vice-Chairman of the NJC, Justice Tanko Muhammad, presided over the Wednesday’s meeting.
Explaining the motive behind the emergency meeting, a top source said, “The NJC had since last week scheduled today’s (Wednesday’s) meeting to avoid a possible constitutional crisis.
“Nobody was sure of what the Presidency was doing. And it was certain that even if the Presidency sent Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation as far back as last week, there was no way the Senate would be able to confirm him before his acting tenure status expires on Friday.
“So, the only option left to save the situation was to fall back on Section 231(5) of the Constitution, which allows him to be re-appointed by the President in acting capacity upon a recommendation by the NJC.”
Section 231(5) cited by the source 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 three months from the date of such appointment and the President shall not re-appoint a person whose appointment has lapsed.”
The source added that this was not the first time a similar development of extending the acting status of a head of court would be applied.
“Some years back, when the then President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami, was removed, on the recommendation of the NJC, the acting status of the then President of the court was renewed six times,” he added.
Another source confirmed to one of our correspondents that shortly after the emergency meeting on Wednesday, the council communicated its formal recommendation for the renewal of Onnoghen’s acting status to the Acting President Yemi Osinbajo.
With this, Onnoghen will be able to act as CJN pending when the Senate will reconvene to consider his confirmation.
The NJC had, since October 2016, sent Onnoghen’s name to Buhari for appointment as the substantive CJN.
CD, CLO say process is politicised
But the Campaign for Democracy and the Civil Liberties Organisation have decried the process of confirming the CJN, saying it has been politicised by the arms of government.
The President, CD, Usman Abdul, said the process had been politicised by the legislature and the judiciary despite the clear separation of powers in the constitution.
He said, “It is quite unfortunate that the constitution is not being followed. If you look at this matter of confirmation, the legislature is playing to the gallery and the judiciary, which is supposed to be the last hope of the common man, is also playing to the gallery.
“There is a clear separation of powers in the constitution. In as much as the President has gone on a medical vacation and constitutionally handed over to Osinbajo, the acting President has the right to confirm the CJN.
“I do not understand why the arms are playing to the gallery. Does it mean that President Buhari is the sole administrator of this country? Playing to the gallery by the arms of the government is quite terrible for the nation.
“My conclusion is Osinbajo should not confirm Onnoghen as the acting CJN, but should go ahead and confirm him as the CJN. That is the right step to take.”
Also, the CLO President, Igho Akeregha, said, “The process has been politicised. It is quite unfortunate for the Nigerian judiciary and the executive. Every step taken by this administration continues to be influenced by politics. This simply shows we are not yet serious with democracy.
“It shows the Machiavellian path of the present government, which Nigerians are already seriously protesting. If any association like the NJC says Onnoghen should continue in acting capacity, the action is condemnable, repugnant and Nigerians should call for the immediate confirmation of the CJN.”
Senate won’t suspend recess to confirm Onnoghen
Meanwhile, the Senate said it had received a communication from the Presidency seeking the confirmation of Onnoghen as the substantive CJN.
The Presidency had, on Wednesday, announced the transmission of the letter seeking the confirmation of the acting CJN to the Senate through its official Twitter handle of the Office of the President, @NGRPresident.
There were, however, indications that the Senate would not call an emergency session to approve the nomination, which expires on Friday.
A reliable source close to the leadership of the Senate, while confirming the receipt of the letter, stated that Onnoghen’s confirmation would not force the lawmakers out of their recess.
The source added, “The deadline would not have affected the nomination once the name of the nominee had been sent to the Senate for approval. Once the name has been sent, the issue of three-month deadline and embargo on re-nomination is out. The nominee at that point can continue in acting capacity.
“Also, the Senate will not reconvene for the confirmation.”
The Chairman, Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Sabi Abdullahi, declined to speak on the matter, explaining that he would do so after meeting with the Senate President, Senator Bukola Saraki, for briefing.
He, however, did not return several calls to his telephone on Wednesday.