By Soni Daniel, Northern Region Editor; Henry Umoru, Ikechukwu Nnochiri & Levinus Nwabughiogu
ABUJA – THE National Judicial Council, NJC, has re-nominated Justice Walter Onnoghen for appointment as Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN.
The council took the decision at an emergency meeting in Abuja, yesterday, after which it forwarded its resolution to Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, barely 24 hours after Onnoghen’s name was reportedly transmitted to the Senate by the Presidency for confirmation.
Acting Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Walter Onnoghen taking the oath of office before the President at the State House, Abuja. Photo by Abayomi ADESHIDA 10/11/2016
Following this development, the Presidency said, last night, that the transition of Justice Onnoghen from acting to substantive CJN now rests with the Senate, and not President Muhammadu Buhari.
The NJC took the action in view of the fact that it may be impossible for the Senate which is currently on recess, to reconvene and screen Onnoghen before tomorrow when his constitutional three months tenure as acting CJN will expire.
The Senate, yesterday, confirmed receiving the nomination but it was not clear whether it will summon an emergency session to confirm Onnoghen before February 21, when the Senate will resume plenary.
In line with Section 231(5) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, the NJC urged the Acting President to extend Onnoghen’s acting tenure for another three months.
Though Onnoghen is statutorily chairman of the NJC, a source at the meeting, which was held in camera, told Vanguard that the extension letter sent to the Presidency was signed by Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad.
Justice Muhammad is the second highest ranking jurist at the Supreme Court.
Insinuations were rife that he was President Buhari’s first choice for the CJN position.
However, the source, who pleaded anonymity because he was not permitted to speak on behalf of the NJC, said Justice Muhammad was favourably disposed to Onnoghen, who is currently the most senior justice of the apex court clinching the judiciary top job.
“All the NJC members that attended the meeting were unanimous in the decision to re-nominate Justice Onnoghen. We have already forwarded the letter to the Presidency,” the source added.
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.”
Onnoghen, from Cross River State, is the first Southern jurist to qualify for the CJN position in about 30 years.
President Buhari had on November 10, 2016, okayed him to head the judiciary in acting capacity.
The appointment, based on a recommendation letter from the NJC, followed the retirement of former CJN, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, who bowed out upon clocking the 70 years mandatory retirement age.
Onnoghen will clock 70 on December 20, 2020. He was elevated into the apex court bench in 2005.
Delay by President Buhari to forward Onnoghen’s name to the Senate till few days to expiration of his three months acting tenure had fueled insinuations that he could be sidelined from emerging substantive CJN.
Justice Ayo Gabriel Irikefe, who held sway as the CJN in 1985, was the last southerner that headed the apex court.
Onnoghen’s fate now rests with Senate — Presidency
Meanwhile, the Presidency said, last night, that the transition of Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen from acting to substantive CJN rested with the Senate and not with President Buhari.
A top official told Vanguard that the President Buhari-led presidency had done its duty by nominating and forwarding Onnoghen’s name to the Senate on Tuesday, thereby putting to rest insinuations that Buhari wanted to deny the Southern part of the country of the post in favour of a Muslim northerner.
The submission of the name of the acting CJN confirms Vanguard’s report on Monday, which quoted a Presidency source as saying that Onnoghen’s name could be sent to the Senate as early as Tuesday this week.
It would be recalled that a Presidency official had told Vanguard on Sunday, under condition of anonymity, that Buhari would send the name of Onnoghen to the National Assembly this week.
The source had said: “Yes, the name of the acting CJN will be forwarded this week to the Senate for confirmation. There is nothing wrong with the acting CJN’s nomination to warrant stopping him from being confirmed.
“However, Nigerians must note that the government has a role to play in checking and establishing that whoever is appointed into such critical position of trust and service to nation and humanity is without blemish.
“So far, most Nigerians have come to the conclusion that the acting CJN, Onnoghen, is a man of integrity who has shown that he is ready to reposition the Nigerian judiciary to serve the people justly without fear or favour.
“His name could be with the Senate as early as Tuesday this week or thereabouts.”
The source explained that all issues relating to the transmission of Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation had been resolved in his favour, adding that the Presidency needed to do some checks on the person of Onnoghen before sending his name to the National Assembly.
Senate may not hold emergency session to confirm Onnoghen till February 21
Although, the Senate has received the letter nominating Onnoghen for confirmation as CJN, sources in the Senate told Vanguard, yesterday, that Senate may not confirm Onnoghen until February 21.
The Senate had suspended plenary on January 26 to enable the standing committees consider the 2017 Budget. Senate President Bukola Saraki, who was to have received the letter, yesterday, may not read the said letter until February 21, when plenary will resume.
A Senate source, who noted that though the lawmakers could be recalled from break if there is an emergency, however, said that such a situation has not arisen. “Yes, it is true that the Senate President is in receipt of the letter nominating the CJN this morning, that is the much we can confirm.’’
It could not be immediately confirmed if the President of the Senate would refer Onnoghen’s nomination to the Committee on Judiciary before resumption of plenary or slate the confirmation for the main plenary.
The source said: “The Senate would decide what procedure to take in the confirmation hearing but there is no pressure whatsoever since the National Judicial Council had approved the extension of the period Onnoghen could stay in office in acting capacity.’’
Onnoghen, the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court took over as Acting CJN following the retirement of the immediate past CJN, Mahmud Muhammed who left office on November 10, 2016.
It would be recalled that The Judiciary had been gripped by tension following possible threats to its age-old succession tradition following President Muhammadu Buhari’s failure to appoint Onnoghen as substantive CJN since November, 2016.
Section 231 (1) of the 1999 Constitution states that “The appointment of a person to the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.
“2) The appointment of a person to the office of a Justice of the Supreme Court shall be made by the President on recommendation of the National Judicial Council subject to confirmation of such appointment by the senate.
“3) A person shall not be qualified to hold the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria or a Justice of the Supreme Court, unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been so qualified for a period of not less than fifteen years.
“4) If the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria is vacant or if the person holding the office is for any reason unable to perform the functions of the office, then until a person has been appointed to and has assumed the functions of that office, or until the person holding has resumed those functions, the President shall appoint the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court to perform those functions.
“5) 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-appointment a person whose appointment has lapsed.”