• Says judiciary under his watch will be of unquestionable integrity
Omololu Ogunmade in Abuja
The Senate Wednesday cleared Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen as the substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN).
Justice Onnoghen, who had been acting as CJN since November 10, 2016, was cleared after intensive screening which lasted for an hour and 10 minutes in the Senate.
With his confirmation, he emerged the first southerner to become CJN in 30 years after Justice Ayo Irikife.
Answering questions from the senators on the rampant cases of corruption in the judiciary, the new CJN who admitted that the Nigerian judiciary was a product of a corrupt society, said he would preside over a judiciary that is strong-willed and of unquestionable integrity.
He also assured his audience that the judiciary over which he would preside would emerge from its present predicament and image crisis as a reformed and vibrant organ of state.
“The judiciary is part of the society. There is corruption everywhere but efforts are being made to check it, in accordance with our rules. The judiciary under my watch will be strong-willed.
“The judiciary under my watch will be of unquestionable integrity. I believe that the judiciary will come out of the present situation stronger,” he pledged.
He also assured the senators that the judiciary under his leadership would not be compromised, explaining that once the judiciary of any nation “is politicised, that is going to be the end of that country”.
Justice Onnoghen also warned against unfounded accusations against judges, stating that whenever that is done, “you are dealing with the privileges of men and women who have no privilege of talking back”.
He also said the judiciary had no issue with calls for the establishment of a separate court for the trial of corruption cases with a view to speeding up the course of justice.
However, he said merely setting up a separate court for corruption matters would not solve the problem, if the handlers of the cases fail to dutifully carry out their responsibilities.
According to him, there are three principal figures involved in every matter – the investigator, the prosecutor and the judge – pointing out that if any of the personalities fails to thoroughly discharge his/her responsibilities, it will lead to frequent adjournment of cases and prolonged trials.
He cautioned that except the existing system is improved upon, the establishment of new courts would make no difference.
Justice Onnoghen also spoke on the rampant cases of conflicting judgments in the courts, observing that the problem was not totally alien to the course of adjudication.
However, he identified two factors responsible for conflicting judgments, saying a conflicting judgment may arise when a plaintiff files a suit on one matter in a state and files another in another state.
According to him, the processes will not be the same, submitting that while the judge in the first state can reserve judgment, the other may dismiss it, depending on the existing processes in each state.
Secondly, he said conflicting judgments could also arise when several appeals emanate from a single case, pointing out that a conflicting judgment in such instance occurs when a judge does not thoroughly examine all the appeals before delivering his judgment.
Justice Onnoghen also expressed concern over recurring cases of disobedience to court orders, noting that this could only be addressed by the legislature and the executive, adding: “The judiciary will welcome a day when a decision is handed down by the court and it is obeyed. That is when the judiciary will be independent.”
Looking undeterred by the risk of losing his confirmation, he did not mince words when he slammed the senators along with other politicians, whom he accused of bringing cases to the Supreme Court when they actually know that such cases ought to terminate at the Appeal Court.
He cautioned politicians, whom he said had cultivated the habit, and disclosed that a new arrangement was being evolved which would ensure that any lawyer who brings a case designed to terminate at the Appeal Court to the Supreme Court, would be made to fund the proceedings as penalty for failing to properly advise his client.
His statement, however, prompted Senate President Bukola Saraki to end the screening session abruptly and asked the nominee to “take a bow and go”.
But Saraki’s unilateral decision generated protests from his colleagues who said they were denied the opportunity to ask the acting CJN critical questions.
Nevertheless, Saraki in his remarks, charged the new CJN to ensure that the judiciary is entrenched during his tenure as the last hope of the common man.
Saraki also congratulated Justice Onnoghen on his confirmation as the CJN, describing it as another milestone in the history of Nigeria’s democracy.
Justice Onnoghen’s confirmation on Wednesday laid to rest the agitation that trailed the failure of the Muhammadu Buhari administration to send his name to the Senate for confirmation since last November when his predecessor, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, bowed out having attained the mandatory retirement age of 70.
The Man Onnoghen
Born on December 22, 1950 in Biase, Cross River State, he attended the Presbyterian Primary School, Okurike, 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) exam.
Onnoghen 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. The jurist served as a Pupil State Counsel, Ministry of Justice, Ikeja, Lagos, between 1978 and 1979.
He later became a partner in the Law Firm of Effiom Ekong & Company, Calabar (1979-1988); and then Principal Partner/Head of Chamber of Walter Onneghen & Associates, Calabar, from 1988 to 1989.
From 1989 to 1998, he served as a High Court Judge, Cross River State Judiciary and was Chairman, Cross River State Armed Robbery and Fire-Arms Tribunal from 1990 to 1993.
Onnoghen was later appointed as Chairman, Judicial Enquiry into the crisis between students of the University of Calabar and Obufa Esuk Orok community, Calabar, in 1996, and Chairman, Failed Bank Tribunal, Ibadan Zone, in 1998.
He was appointed a justice of the Court of Appeal in 1998 and left in 2005 when he was elevated to the Supreme Court.
A fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, Justice Onnoghen has attended several conferences and seminars around the world and is a member of the Body of Benchers and Life Bencher.
He made history on April 11, 2014 when he, alongside some of his colleagues, made a landmark pronouncement in the case of two Igbo women, Gladys Ada Ukeje and Maria Nweke, who argued that they should have equal access like men to the inheritance of their parents.
In Igbo culture, women had been disinherited for ages as a result of tradition.
The two women sued the men in their families – and finally got justice as the case moved from the lower to the highest court in the land, reported The Cable.
He also upheld the death sentence handed to Chukwuemeka Ezeugo, known as “Rev. King”, the general overseer of Christian Praying Assembly, who was accused of murdering a member of his church in 2006.
Furthermore, it was Justice Onnoghen, who annulled Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s election in December 2008 and called for a fresh one, after the then Gen. Buhari argued that the election was rigged.
However, his ruling, alongside other colleagues, could not stand, as they were outnumbered by other Supreme Court justices who ruled in Yar’Adua’s favour.