Mixed Reaction Trails Onnoghen’s Resignation

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Walter Onnoghen,
Walter Onnoghen
  • Falana blames suspended CJN
  • Ozekhome attributes exit to pressure from ‘cabal’

Onyebuchi Ezigbo and Alex Enumah in Abuja

The sudden resignation of the embattled Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, received mixed reactions among lawyers and politicians at the weekend, with some accusing him of bad timing.

Others said his decision to leave was good for the judiciary, and yet others blaming President Muhammadu Buhari for precipitating a bad example.

Onnoghen, who is facing trial before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) over asset declaration issues, was suspended by Buhari in January, in an unprecedented development that was widely alleged to be politically motivated.

Surprisingly, Onnoghen resigned as CJN on Friday, barely a day after the National Judicial Council (NJC) was reported to have recommended his compulsory retirement.

Consequently, senior lawyers gave the resignation mixed reviews Saturday.

A human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN) condemned the way Onnoghen was suspended by Buhari, though said the former CJN should have thrown in the towel immediately after admitting infractions bordering on asset declaration.

Falana said while criticising the manner of his suspension by the federal government, he had called on Justice Onnoghen to resign because he had admitted that he forgot to declare his assets.

“But the NBA misled his lordship by its resolution to order boycott of courts in solidarity with immorality. In justifying the action of the ex-CJN the NBA refused to pay attention to the injunction of the late Lord Denning (the master of bourgeois jurisprudence) that a judge should not be perceived as a law breaker.

“Initially, the main allegation against him was that he failed to declare his assets. He admitted the contravention of the law by saying that he ‘forgot’. That was when he ought to have bowed out. But he stayed on and allowed himself to be misled by politicians and lawyers.

“No doubt, the Buhari regime did not want to appoint him on grounds of corruption. He had been indicted by the Eso panel in 1994. He was also confronted with allegations of corruption but he promised to turn a new leaf. Due to public pressure, he was appointed.

“He played into the hands of the government. The NBA and senior lawyers stood by him. Lawyers filed cases at the federal high court and national industrial court to stop his investigation and prosecution.

“The federal government reacted by charging him at CCT, which suspended him from office in questionable circumstances. Even though he had boasted that he was innocent, he called his driver as a witness and closed his case at the CCT.

“The same day the NJC indicted him based on serious allegations of corruption and unlawful enrichment levelled against him by EFCC. Hence, NJC recommended his compulsory retirement. In a hasty move to prevent his sack, he resigned his appointment.”

In his case, Mr. Ahmed Raji (SAN) said the resignation of Onnoghen would help to burnish the image of the judiciary.

“The resignation of Hon Justice Onnoghen is a welcome development, which is good for the image of the judiciary and the country as a whole.

“My humble appeal to the president is that he should, please, accept the resignation so that we can put the whole episode behind us while all the lessons learned in the process are not lost on us,” he added.

Raji said stakeholders in the justice sector should see the current development as a wakeup call. He also welcomed the exoneration of Justice Tanko Muhammad, who was appointed acting CJN by Buhari after Onnoghen’s suspension.

He said one of the distinguishing elements in Justice Tanko’s case “is the existence of an order of the CCT which directed the president to swear him in, being the most senior Justice. Justice Tanko took his time to confirm the existence and veracity of the order.

“Besides, there should not be vacuum in respect of some national offices to avoid complications in the system. The office of the CJN is one of such offices.”

From January 11, when the CCT announced the planned arraignment of Onnoghen, to his arraignment on February 15, and his subsequent suspension by the president on the orders of the CCT, the judiciary and Nigeria have been a topic of global discussion. The situation attracted wide condemnation, with many warning that it portends great danger for both the judiciary and democracy in Nigeria.

In a statement he issued yesterday, Dr. Mike Ozekhome (SAN) yesterday said Onnoghen chose to quit because he knew he did not stand a chance in the case of non-declaration of asset, as his fate had been pre-determined by a cabal in the Buhari government.

Ozekhome said Onnoghen “is a victim of politics. I knew it would come sooner than later. When Justice Walter Onnoghen’s travails started in January, I predicted that the cabal was out to rubbish him.

“They desired to bespatter him with the paintbrush of shame, odium and obloquy in such a way as to make him visibly unfit for the position of the CJN. They went after his jugular, using the CCB/CCT.

“The CCT was unrelenting: it discarded its earlier precedents; ignored court rulings barring it from trying Onnoghen. It was the case of the falcon not hearing the falconer.

“The Court of Appeal became complicit. It refused to deliver judgements in Onnoghen’s cases argued before it over six weeks ago. Nigerians watched Onnoghen being mob-lynched. Onnoghen was tried in the media, criminalised, humiliated.

“So, Onnoghen, faced with the reality of the situation, knew that his fate had been pre-determined by the cabal, signed, sealed and delivered.”

Ozekhome also accused the NJC of jumping into conclusion over the case. He said the council acted on unproven allegations, saying any attempt to harass and humiliate the judiciary sets the stage for the destruction of democracy.

“Otherwise, how can NJC hold that it decided not to delve into the allegations relating to assets declaration levelled against Onnoghen because they were subjudice, yet convicted him on the petitions written by EFCC and others, when the said petitions remained in the realm of mere unproven allegations?” Ozekhome queried.

Chairman of the Inter Party Advisory Council (IPAC), Mr. Peter Ameh, said the resignation of Onnoghen had put the country’s judiciary in serious jeopardy. Ameh believed the travails of the embattled CJN, which culminated in his resignation last week, portended grave danger for democracy and the rule of law in Nigeria.

Ameh told THISDAY by telephone yesterday that by failing “to adhere strictly to due process of law in suspending the CJN, Buhari had put the judiciary at the mercy of some desperate state chief executives that will move against chief judges at the slightest provocation.

“What happened to the CJN is capable of weakening the judiciary. It is a dangerous precedent if you have a president who comes and says he is suspending the CJN pending the outcome of investigations.

“I think the NJC has already been weakened by the initial suspension of the CJN and the body will tend to act in support of the president’s action. If the CJN has been put to media trial and public opinion, the NJC will find it difficult to go against that, else it will be regarded as corrupt too.”

Ameh faulted the excuse by the federal government that it suspended Onnoghen so that he would not influence the hearing of the petition against him by the NJC.

According to the IPAC chairman, such defence by the Buhari administration does not hold water because even the acting CJN did step aside from his functions before a petition written against him was considered by the NJC.

Ameh said, “I am not saying that the acting CJN is not qualified, but we must get things right. Processes and procedure are important in law. An action ought not to be taken before observing due process. What we must understand is that the process that led to the suspension of the former CJN did not follow the rule of law. One of the things that is crucial in a growing democracy is the rule of law, that even if a person is caught red-handed, his case must still go through the process of the law because taking the rule of the law out of a democracy means we are not operating a democracy anymore.”

Ameh cited the development in Kogi State, where the state Chief Judge was sacked by the House of Assembly under the prodding of the state government. He expressed concern that if allowed to continue, the judiciary in the country would lose its independence and democracy will also be imperiled