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Nigeria sails in uncharted waters

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PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari has suspended the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, from office and sworn in Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed JSC as CJN in an acting capacity. The President said his action was in compliance with an Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) directing him to suspend the Chief Justice pending final determination of the cases against him. It is not surprising that the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), many Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN), prominent politicians and other groups have kicked against the President’s action, while several others have welcome it.

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It is clear that Nigeria has set sail on uncharted waters. One prays and hopes it will navigate the journey successfully and peacefully, and emerge the stronger for it. However it is important to remind ourselves of how we got to this pass, and consider whether there were alternative routes which could have been taken. The relevant facts could be briefly summarized as follows: A Civil Society Organization (CSO) submitted a petition to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) alleging that Chief Justice Onnoghen had breached the Code of Conduct for Public Officers. Onnoghen admitted in writing that he had been in breach of the code due to what he described as ‘mistake’ and ‘forgetfulness’. The CCB referred the matter to the CCT for trial, whereupon all the governors of the South-South geopolitical zone of Nigeria met and publicly issued a bizarre directive that Onnoghen should not appear before the CCT. Many politicians and political groups made similar statements, thereby politicizing the matter. When the CCT met, about 80 SANs and many other lawyers appeared for Onnoghen who did not attend.

The counsel submitted that it was illegal and unconstitutional for the CCT to try Onnoghen. They stated that, because the CJN was a judicial officer, the CCB should have referred the matter to the National Judicial Council (NJC) for consideration and subsequent action as deemed necessary. During the ensuing fortnight several cases on the matter were instituted and rapidly determined at various courts in the land. Meanwhile Onnoghen stayed put in office; he asserted that, contrary to reports in the social media, he had not resigned from office; he caused a statement to be issued that, in exercise of his powers, he would be inaugurating the election tribunals which would adjudicate in the 2019 election cases.

Although there are several issues involved in this matter, this write-up focuses mainly on the submission of the SANs that the extant legal and constitutional provisions require that any alleged (or perhaps even admitted ?) infractions by the CJN must first be tabled before the NJC for adjudication – an issue which is contested by other legal luminaries. Surely the submission of the SANs raises a conundrum – to wit, the allegations against the CJN must first be presented to the NJC over which the CJN presides! A way out could have been for the CJN to recuse himself from office pending determination of the matter. He did not and, clearly, had no intention of doing so. In the so-called advanced western countries which we so much admire and often quote, persons in the situation in which Justice Onnoghen found himself would have gone further and resigned immediately from office for the sake of personal honor, preservation of the dignity of the judiciary, as well as the peace and stability of the country.

A sad feature of our national life is the periodic undignified trooping of dozens of the members of the inner and outer bar to the courts to “appear” for the defendant(s), usually in high profile cases of rich persons charged with criminal or quasi-criminal offences. A sadder and intolerable feature is the prolonged stalling and or determination of such cases purely on the grounds of legal technicalities without considering or pronouncing on the substance. It is very disturbing that, with predictable regularity, cases of alleged criminal infractions by high profile individuals and groups are deliberately politicized on the spurious grounds of defending “democracy” and “human rights”. Such cases are stalled and befuddled with legal shenanigans until the substantive issues fade out of public view without ever being argued or determined. In the present case it has been alleged by various groups within and outside Nigeria, including some hypocritical foreign governments, that the removal of Justice Onnoghen is a ploy to delay the forthcoming elections. The swearing –in of the election tribunals by the Acting CJN, Justice Mohammed, on the exact day scheduled by Justice Onnoghen has disposed of that allegation.

We must always face our problems squarely and deal with them without allowing mischievous distraction by ethnic, religious or other spurious considerations. It is high time Nigeria is freed from the shackles of a suffocating legal system which places greater premium on the enthronement and promotion of legal technicalities than the pursuit and respect for truth, justice, and observance of not only the letter but also the spirit of the law. Sadly many of the Nigerian bench and bar cannot be correctly described as “ministers in the temple of justice”.

  • Professor Oyediran is a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan



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