By Issa Aremu
Last Friday, President Muhammadu Buhari suspended Honourable Justice Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria reportedly based on an interim order by the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) over allegations of breaching the code of conduct of public officers.
The President also announced the appointment of Mr. Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammed as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria.
The development has generated a lot of reactions with some for and others against the move by the Federal government, some for and against the embattled Chief Justice.
The suspension of a Chief Justice of the Federation on the eve of 2019 elections must necessarily raise eyebrow and suspicions.
The chief justice, among other functions, has the power to constitute election tribunals for in case of petitions that promise to be in torrent. My interest is, therefore, academic especially with respect to institution building in Nigeria, in this case the judiciary. So rather than agonizing over the trial and suspension of the Chief Justice Onnoghen, all stakeholders in the Judiciary sector and Nigerian democracy must organise to save the administration of justice from the age- long perception of corruption, double standards and self help. Given the importance of rule of law, equity and justice to sustainable liberal democracy, more than ever before, Nigerian judiciary needed reform and restructuring as a precondition for the transformation of Nigeria from corruption and underdevelopment to development and prosperity.
This is one lesson of the Onnoghen saga.
The devil is in the technical details of the suspension of Mr Onnoghen. However the substantive allegations and causal defence of the chief justice fanning “mistake’’ and “forgetfulness’’ on the imperative of assets declarations must also task our imagination. For one, in a country that has been running huge budget deficits, it is curious that a public officer of chief justice standing could allegedly have surplus accounts in millions of foreign currency.
Certainly those who dispense justice to all must be accountable for their source of wealth if they would ask us all to do the same.
In his celebrated book, Audacity of Hope, a former American President, Barack Obama, noted that some countries like “, Nigeria …have developed two legal systems — one for foreigners and elites, and one for ordinary people”.
Would Nigeria conclusively prove Obama’s literary acid test?
It is commendable that President Buhari in his address on the chief justice suspension urged for enhanced fight against corruption, (which is the substantive issue in the chief justice saga) regardless of who is involved. According to the President, “the fight against corruption is one of the tripod of policies promised to Nigerians by this administration.”
The late Justice Mustapha Akanbi was the pioneer Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and Chief Gani Fawehinmi was the globally tested human rights lawyer who fought corruption in public space until he passed on about decade ago.
What would be the reactions of both Justice Mustapha Akanbi and Gani Fawehinmi to the President’s revelation that “it is no secret that this government is dissatisfied with the alarming rate in which the Supreme Court of Nigeria under the oversight of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen has serially set free, persons accused of the most dire acts of corruption, often on mere technicalities, and after quite a number of them have been convicted by the trial and appellate courts”?
Why on earth would a set of lawyers for whatever reason seek “restraining court orders” to prevent accountability on the part of the head of the nation’s judiciary to evade accountability? Why “shopping” for restraining court orders in a National Industrial Court meant for dispute resolution mainly in “matters relating to or connected with any labour, employment, trade unions, industrial relations and matters arising from workplace, the conditions of service, including health, safety, welfare of labour, employee, worker and matter incidental thereto or connected therewith”?
I was also a labour delegate of 2014 National Conference during the Jonathan administration. It’s time President Buhari administration revisited the recommendation of the confab with respect to appointment of judicial officers. One of the critical resolutions is that the “ process leading to and concerning the appointment of judicial officers should be advertised, done openly and transparently and essentially on merit.” What is as well at stake in the chief justice saga was the character and principles of the judicial officer in the eye of the storm.
There are varying perceptions of the positions and methodologies of the late progressive Advocate and irrepressible human rights activist, Chief Gani Fawehinmi SAN on topical national issues of the times he was alive. However there was (and there is!) Still a consensus that the late non-state actor was a fighter both in words and deeds against corruption, which President Muhammed Buhari had rightly observed, could kill the republic if we do not exorcise it. What would be his reaction to the current chief justice saga?
What would be the reactions of Justice Mustapha Akanbi who audaciously prosecuted a number of judges on account of graft?
In one of Justice Akanbi’s last interviews entitled “Corruption Will Kill Nigeria.” he had this say: “When it comes to the judiciary, it is my constituency and I don’t want to run that institution down. But there is the need for those in authority to look at the judges they have now. There was a case in which we arrested a gentleman and took the person to court. After we sought leave of the High Court to prosecute the gentleman – I don’t want to mention his name – we were granted leave and he was asked to be locked up so that later the matter would be taken up. When the matter came to court the following day, the gentleman applied for bail.
Curiously, the same judge who granted leave for us to prosecute him, instead of deciding the application for bail, he just discharged and acquitted him when there was no application for discharge and acquittal. Was that judge acting in ignorance? Or had he an ulterior motive? Or did he claim ignorance of the law on application for bail? Instead of deciding it, he unilaterally discharged and acquitted the person. We appealed, the appeal was allowed and the gentleman was rearrested before I left the office. I don’t know what happened after that”. This might be a case of like with unlike, but the principle is the same that the judiciary like all institutions must engage in self-critical assessment.”
*Comrade Aremu, Member National Institute, is the Labour Party (LP) governorship candidate in Kwara State.