For the Judiciary, a New Dawn

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Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen’s appointment as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria ushers in a new era for the judiciary, writes Tobi Soniyi

Last week’s appointment of Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria ushers in a new era for the judiciary.

Justice Onnoghen, 66 was sworn in last Thursday at the Presidential Villa, Aso Rock in Abuja by the president. His appointment followed a recommendation to the president by the National Judicial Council.

This appointment is significance for several reasons. The first is that he was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari in acting capacity. In recent history, all past CJNs were given substantive appointment by past presidents.
Onnoghen’s appointment by the president is in accordance with section 230 (4) of the 1999 Constitution as amended.

Section 230 (4) provides, “If the office of the 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 the office has resumed those functions, the president shall appoint the most senior justice of the Supreme Court to perform those functions.”

Why did Buhari choose to appoint Onnoghen in acting capacity? Only the president knows why. However, it is not in dispute that the executive and the judiciary have not been the best of friends in recent times.

However, the president can still regularise the appointment within the next 30 days.
Justice Onnoghen’s appointment is also important because he is the only southerner to be so appointed in recent time. The last time someone was appointed a CJN from the south was in 1985 when Justice Ayo Gabriel Irikefe was appointed. He succeeded Justice Sodeinde Sowemimo who held sway as CJN from 1983 to 1985.

However, since 1987 when Irikefe retired, the lots had fallen on Justices from the north to lead the nation’s judiciary. Mohammed Bello (1987–1995),Muhammad Lawal Uwais (1995–2006), Salihu Moddibo Alfa Belgore (2006–2007), Idris Legbo Kutigi (2007–2009), Aloysius Iyorgyer Katsina-Alu (2009–2011), Dahiru Musdapher (2011–2012), Aloma Mariam Mukhtar (2012–2014) Mahmud Mohammed (2014–2116).

It is also important to note that Justice Onnoghen is coming on board at a time when the judiciary is under immense scrutiny for corruption. Onnoghen takes over the judiciary at a very difficult period in the history of the institution.
Last month, the Department of State Security raided houses of some judges and arrested them for alleged corrupt acts. This resulted in a face off between the judiciary and the executive. The events are still unfolding.

The judiciary is yet to wriggle out of the embarrassment and the challenge of charting a way forward now rests squarely on Justice Onnoghen. How well he does this will likely define his tenure as CJN. However, experience is on his side. He will need to make the right judgment. Nevertheless, Justice Onnoghen already has his job cut out for him.

A very hard-working jurist, Justice Onnoghen does not shy away from work. Among his peers at the apex bench, he is most likely to have written the highest number of judgments. Having had part of his early education in Ghana, one is likely to mistake him for a Ghannian when he speaks.
Justice Onnoghen was born on the 22nd December, 1950 at Okurike Town, Biase Local Government Area of Cross Rivers State. He attended the Presbyterian Primary School, Okurike Town between 1959 and 1965. He later proceeded to Accra, Ghana to attend Odorgorno Secondary School, Adabraka, Accra, Ghana between 1967 and 1972 for his West African Examination Council (WAEC) Exams.

He was at Accra Academy, Accra, Ghana between 1972 and 1974 for his WAEC (A-Levels) before proceeding to the University of Ghana, Legon, Ghana between 1974 and 1977 to obtain his Bachelor of Law Degree (LL.B (Hons)) and graduated with 2nd Class Upper Division. He attended the Nigerian Law School, Victoria Island, Lagos between 1977 and 1978 for his B.L certificate.

Her previous professional appointments/positions held include: Pupil State Counsel, Ministry of Justice, Ikeja, Lagos, Ogun State (1978 – 1979); Partner in the Law Firm of Effiom Ekong & Company, Calabar (1979 – 1988); Principal Partner/Head of Chamber of Walter Onneghen & Associates, Calabar (1988 -1989); High Court Judge, Cross Rivers State Judiciary (1989 – 1998); Chairman, Cross Rivers State Armed Robbery and Fire Arms Tribunal (1990 – 1993); Chairman, Judicial Enquiry into the Crisis between Student of the University of Calabar and Obufa Esuk Orok Community, Calabar (1996); Chairman, Failed Bank Tribunal, Ibadan Zone (1998); Judge, High Court of Rivers State (1992 – 2004); and Justice of the Court of Appeal (1998 – 2005).

A Fellow, Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, Hon. Justice W.S. Nkanu Onnoghen has attended several conferences and seminars around the world.
He is a member of the Body of Bencher and Life Bencher.
Hon. Justice Onnoghen was appointed a justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (JSC) in 2005.
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