By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
The chains that break you are the chains that make you. And the chains that make you are the chains you break”, is a popular quote credited to acclaimed American poet, Anthony Liccione.
This aphorism could best describe the uncanny scenario playing out before Justice Walter Onnoghen, the man whose uneasiness got activated before he even wore the crown as the 17th Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN.
Justice Onnoghen, who until about 48hours ago, remained the primus inter pares in the justice sector, was the longest serving Acting CJN in the annals of the country.
Onnoghen hails from Cross-River State. He was appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court in 2005.
On November 11, 2016, following the mandatory retirement of the immediate past CJN, Justice Mohammed Mahmud, President Muhammadu Buhari, inline with the provisions of Section 230(4) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, appointed Onnoghen who was the most senior Justice of the apex court, to take over the mantle of leadership of the judiciary.
The appointment was sequel to a recommendation the National Judicial Council, NJC, made to President Buhari on October 10, 2016.
In line with the practice and in a bid to avoid a vacuum upon the exit of the then CJN, Justice Mahmud, who clocked the mandatory retirement age on November 10, 2016, the NJC, forwarded two names to the Presidency- Onnoghen’s name and that of his next in rank, Justice Tanko Mohammed.
Delay by President Buhari to transmit Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation as provided in section 231(1), fuelled insinuations that crystallized in varied conspiracy theories.
Aside alleged plot to sideline Onnoghen who happened to be the first Southern jurist, in about 30 years, to attain such judicial height, insinuation was rife that the second nominee, Justice Mohammed, who hails from Bauchi State, was President Buhari’s first choice candidate for the position of the CJN.
The theories gained more buoyancy after President Buhari, who hesitantly succumbed to pressure by allowing Onnoghen to head the judiciary in Acting capacity, deliberately ignored him in that position till he almost became statutorily ineligible to take over as the substantive CJN.
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Onnoghen had till February 10, 2017, to get his appointment validated by the National Assembly or be removed from office, and President Buhari had travelled outside the country on medical leave.
Perturbed by the situation, the NJC, at the end of its emergency meeting, wrote to the then Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, urging him to extend Onnoghen’s tenure as the Acting CJN.
According to Section 231(5) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, “Except on the recommendation of the NJC”, Onnoghen’s appointment by President Buhari, “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 elapsed”.
Unknown to the NJC, Prof. Osinbajo had on February 7, 2017, transmitted Onnoghen’s name to the Nigerian Senate for confirmation as substantive CJN.
On March 1, 2017, the Senate screened and confirmed him as the 17th CJN, and on March 7, Onnoghen who will clock the 70 years mandatory retirement age on December 20, 2020, was sworn in by then President Osinbajo, while his boss was away.
The first streak of trouble for the new CJN started simmering after President Buhari, upon his return to the country, described the judiciary as the “major headache” of his administration.
Lamentation of the President came not too long after operatives of the Department of State Service, DSS, raided homes of eight superior court judges.
Meantime, the proverbial “shit” finally struck Onnoghen’s fan on January 9 after the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, acting with unprecendented supersonic speed, recommended him for prosecution on the strength of a petition dated January 7.
The said petition was lodged against the embattled CJN by a group under the aegis of Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative.
It accused him of corruption and failing to declare his assets as prescribed by law.
Remarkably, the petitioner is headed by a former aide to President Buhari, Mr. Dennis Aghanya. The CCB, having recommended the CJN for prosecution, the Federal Government immediately entered a six-count charge against him before the Code of Conduct Tribunal on January 11.
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Thus, the Mr. Danladi Umar-led CCT summoned Onnoghen to appear before it on January 14 to take his plea to the charge.
Determined to fight back, the embattled CJN refused to honour the summon, even as he challenged the jurisdiction of the CCT to try him on allegations contained in the charge.
He contended that FG failed to follow the laid down judicial precedent as encapsulated in a recent Appeal Court decision in Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391(CA), to the effect that any misconduct attached to the office and functions of a judicial officer, must first be reported to and handled by the NJC, pursuant to the provisions of the laws.
The same day, FG filed a motion for the tribunal to ompel Onnoghen to step aside as the CJN and Chairman of the NJC, and for him to hand over to his next in commend, Justice Mohammed.
While the CJN was contending with the CCT, three separate high courts, as well as the National Industrial Court, issued interim injunctions stopping the tribunal from taking further steps in the matter.
On January 21, in two to one split decision, the CCT panel, said it would proceed with the trial tomorrow, despite the court orders.
Not relenting, Justice Onnoghen, through his team of lawyers led by a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, last Thursday, persuaded the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal to suspend further proceedings at the CCT, pending the determination of an appeal he lodged against his trial.
Though he succeeded at the appellate court, in a counter move, FG, secretly obtained an interim order from the CCT, which empowered it to suspend the CJN and appoint Justice Mohammed in his stead.
It was gathered that while Chairman of the Tribunal, Umar and another member, Mrs. Julie A. Anabor, granted the ex-parte orders sought by FG, the third member, Mr. William Agwadza Atedze, declined to accede to the request, insisting the Applicant should go and put Justice Onnoghen on notice.
Placing reliance on the said ex-parte order, President Buhari, on Friday, suspended Onnoghen and installed Mohammed to take over as Acting CJN.
The action of the CJN has continued to elicit reactions from both within and outside the judicial circles, with the NBA discribing it as a coup against the judiciary.
“The Nigerian Bar Association unequivocally rejects and condemns this attempted coup against the Nigerian Judiciary and evident suspension of the Nigerian Constitution by the Executive arm of the Federal Government.
“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 Nigerian Judicial Council”, NBA which is the umbrella body of lawyers in the country stated.
Onnoghen was suspended barely eight hours after he announced his decision to inaugurate judges that will take charge of the 2019 election petition tribunals.
He had in a statement that was signed by his Senior Special Assistant on Media, Mr. Awassam Bassey, said he would as part of his duties, swear in members of the 2019 National Assembly, Governorship & State Assembly Election Petition Tribunals o yesterday.
While Nigerians await what happens next, the evident truth is that this convulated constitutional crisis is far from over.