Onnoghen during Swearing-in by Buhari

Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen, no doubt, is assuming office as the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria at a time the image of the judiciary is at its lowest. But, can he make any difference in this all-important arm of government, asks Davidson Iriekpen

After a palpitating silence, President Muhammadu Buhari, last Thursday, swore in Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen as Nigeria’s acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), succeeding outgoing Justice Mahmud Mohammed, who has just proceeded on retirement, after attaining the mandatory age of 70. Onnoghen would occupy the office till his appointment is confirmed by the Senate.

With just a few months to the retirement of Justice Mohammed, tension had enveloped the judiciary over alleged plans to truncate the seniority standard at the Supreme Court. Findings had revealed that some entrenched interests had planned to alter the seniority rule that would probably see Onnoghen, who was the second-in-command at the Supreme Court, take over after Justice Mohammed retired from the bench on November 10.

The forces trying to truncate the seniority rule at the apex court had argued that anybody appointed to be CJN must not necessarily be the most senior justice of the Supreme Court. The fear was that if President Buhari bows to the pressures to appoint Onnoghen, the South would miss the golden opportunity to occupy the office. The last Southerner to be the CJN was Ayo Irikefe, who held the position between 1985 and 1987.

As either acting or substantive CJN, the occupant of the office is also the Chairman of the Federal Judicial Service Commis­sion (FJSC) as well as the Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC), the most powerful organ of the judiciary. Both agencies are involved in the process of promoting anybody to the position in the federal judici­ary and that includes anybody who has to become CJN.

Part of the reasons the forces were against Onnoghen’s ascension to the CJN’s office, it was gathered, was because they were not favourably disposed to having a southerner as CJN for a whopping four years, and the allegation that members of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in the South in collaboration with their northern cohorts want to have ad­equate control of the judiciary ahead of the 2019 elections.

The plot gathered momentum when the APC expressed anger with the Supreme Court’s fa­vourable verdict for the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in most of the South-south states. Sources said the par­ty is still shocked that the Supreme Court decided against its gover­norship candidates in Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Taraba, Delta and Abia States.

Against this backdrop, there is a strong perception in the APC that the current crop of Supreme Court justices are pro-PDP and that any at­tempt to make one of them the CJN would spell doom for the ruling par­ty in future elections. They also alleged that the justices of the court are corrupt and need to be headed by someone from outside, who would have been rich and not to be tempted by any inducement.

In a final push to stop him from assuming the exalted office, concerned observers had recently alleged that Justice Onnoghen was a target in the recent raid on the houses of some judges. But by a stroke of providence, operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS), who conducted the raid, missed his residence.

Unfortunately, all these seem to be in the realm of speculations now as President Buhari last Thursday proved the forces wrong by swearing-in Onnoghen, who hails from Okurike Town, Biase Local Government Area of Cross River State.

There is no doubt that Justice Onnoghen is assuming the exalted position at a time the image of the all-important third arm of government is at the lowest ebb. If he is eventually confirmed by the Senate, the new CJN has four years to spend on the saddle before he retires in 2020, the longest in recent times. The last five occupants of the office did not have the opportunity to even serve three years before the mandatory retirement age of 70 caught up with them. While some spent only one year, others spent two years.

This is why many analysts believe that with the four years the new CJN has to spend in office, he has every opportunity to turn things around for the better in the justice sector which is seriously yearning for a messiah to turn the tide around. Observers want the new CJN to do all within his power to prove those allegedly against his appointment wrong by constantly ensuring that justice is delivered to Nigerians irrespective of tribe, political party and status.

Moreover, having been on the Bench for three decades, traversed every organ of the judiciary from the High Court, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, where he has been since 2005, many analysts believe that he perfectly understands the system and how to tackle the rot in the system.

For some time now, observers believe that the judiciary, once revered, is now in the doldrums. People no longer have confidence in the institution. These days, it is common to see people deriding it. Where judgments are not leaked before they are delivered, they are sometimes vague, incoherent and incongruous.

There are other allegations that judges and justices sitting on some cases are or were induced or put under pressures “from above” to pervert the course of justice. To show how bad things are in the judiciary, lawyers and retired judges and justices have all joined in criticising the rot in the sector. They see what is currently happening as alien to them.

The late renowned retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Kayode Eso, once took a long view at Nigeria’s judiciary and concluded that the institution was full of judges and justices, who ought not to have been there in the first place. Eso lamented the all-important arm of government stinks of corruption, adding that until the bad eggs in the institution were flushed out, the justice sector would continue to witness retrogression.

He wondered if it was the same judiciary that produced the likes of Sir Egbert Udo Udoma, Akinola Aguda and Olayinka Ayoola, whose names vibrate and reverberate in the Halls of Chief Justices for great African countries that produced the current crop of judges and justices. He said gone were the days when it was a pride to be counted among justices of the Supreme Court, who in the days of military dictatorship, held the notorious military decrees at bay, “But now regarded as being in the stygian chasm, pushed here and there by those who should never have been there in the institution in the first instance.”

Also, the new CJN is taking over the mantle of leadership at a time many Nigerians have lost hope and confidence in the judiciary owing to the time it takes to dispose of cases in courts. It is believe that it takes over 15 to 20 years for cases to go from the High Court to the Supreme Court. Many analysts believe that he needs not push a legislation that will make litigants reduce the number of cases that go on appeal but the time it takes to exhaust cases.

Many analysts therefore believe that Onnoghen has to take some tough decisions that would lead to the cleaning up of the institution. This can only be done when all the corrupt judges are exposed and dismissed from service. Interestingly, not feigning ignorance to the rot in the system, particularly corruption, the new CJN while speaking on the occasion of his swearing-in, promised to assist in the fight against corruption.

“In this state of our development and with your programme in tow, I assure you of the full cooperation of the third arm of government in the continuation of the war against corruption and misconduct in the judiciary. I intend to carry on where my predecessors stopped, modify certain areas but with the general ultimate goal of having a better judiciary befitting the nation, Nigeria. Thank you for the confidence reposed in me and by the grace of God, we shall succeed.”

Having taken over the leadership of the judiciary at a time the executive arm of government is believed to be doing everything possible to intimidate the all-important third arm of government, observers want Justice Onnoghen to not succumb to any such intimidation but defend the institution he represents.

The Man Onnoghen…
According to an abridged profile, Justice Onnoghen was born on December 22, 1950, at Okurike Town, Biase Local Government Area of Cross River State. He attended the Presbyterian Primary School, Okurike Town, between 1959 and 1966, from where he left for Accra, Ghana, to attend Odorgorno Secondary School, Adabraka, between 1967 and 1972 for his West African Examinations Council (WAEC) Exams. He was at Accra Academy, Ghana, between 1972 and 1974 for his WAEC (A-Levels) before proceeding to the University of Ghana, Legon, between 1974 and 1977 to obtain his Bachelor of Law Degree (LL.B (Hons) and graduated with 2nd Class Upper Division and was among the best graduating students.

He attended the Nigerian Law School, Victoria Island, Lagos, between 1977 and 1978 for his B.L certificate. He completed his compulsory National Youth Service Scheme, NYSC, in July 1979. His previous professional appointments/positions include Pupil State Counsel, Lagos State, (1978 -1979) and Partner in the Law Firm of Effiom Ekong & Company, Calabar (1979 – 1988).

He was also the Principal Partner/Head of Chambers of Walter Onnoghen & Associates, Calabar (1988 -1989); Chairman, Cross River State Armed Robbery and Fire Arms Tribunal (1990 – 1993); Chairman, Judicial Enquiry into the Crisis between Students of the University of Calabar and Obufa Esuk Orok Community, Calabar (1996); Chairman, Failed Banks Tribunal, Ibadan Zone (1998); High Court Judge, Cross River State Judiciary (1989 – 1998); Justice of the Court of Appeal (Nov 1998-June 2005).

Onnoghen was appointed a Justice to the Supreme Court since 2005. He is also a Justice of the Supreme Court of The Gambia. A Fellow, Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, Fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and Fellow of the National Judicial Institute, Onnoghen has attended several conferences and seminars within and outside Nigeria and presented scholarly papers.

He is a member of the Body of Benchers and Life Bencher; Chairman, Governing Council of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, and Vice-Chairman, Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee among others. He is currently the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court.

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This is why many analysts believe that with the four years the new CJN has to spend in office, he has every opportunity to turn things around for the better in the justice sector which is seriously yearning for a messiah to turn the tide around. Observers want the new CJN to do all within his power to prove those allegedly against his appointment wrong by constantly ensuring that justice is delivered to Nigerians irrespective of tribe, political party and status