The retirement of Justice Walter Onnoghen holds lessons for Nigeria
The acceptance by President Muhammadu Buhari of the voluntary retirement of Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) has elicited commendation from the National Judicial Council (NJC) which made the recommendation. It is a fitting end to an unfortunate saga as the nation can now heave a sigh of relief on an issue that became very polarising. But some bad precedents have been set in the process.
Under the current democratic dispensation in Nigeria, the judicial powers of the state are vested in the courts. For them to discharge such duty impartially and independently, their autonomy is constitutionally guaranteed. As commendable as the decision of the president to accept Onnoghen’s retirement may seem, it does not obliterate the arm-twisting tactics employed by the executive in the drama to get the former CJN out of office, whatever may have been the justifications for it.
Right from the commencement of the process that led to Onnoghen’s retirement, the executive showed an obvious disdain for due process and rule of law. The presumption of innocence until proven guilty was observed in the breach. Since it was obvious that the executive had made up its mind that Onnoghen had to go, what was left was how to arrive at that goal. In a democracy, that should not be allowed to happen.
Where the rights of an individual are at stake, every requirement of the law must be strictly complied with. After announcing in open court that he was not going to grant an ex-parte order, the CCT Chairman, Mr Danladi Umar secretly went behind Onnoghen’s lawyers to issue an ex-parte order which the president relied on in suspending him. But there are other lessons to be learnt from Onnoghen’s case that will also serve our judiciary, especially at a time like this.
While Judges, like Caesar’s wife must be above board, it is common knowledge that justice in Nigerian courts is most often out-rightly denied by corrupt practices. Yet, those who have the power to deny others their freedoms should themselves be beyond wrongdoing. It is therefore unacceptable, and even criminal, for a judge to ‘forget’ to declare his assets while sitting in judgment over others who had committed similar offences. Also, a public servant who has soiled his hands should have the decency to resign his appointment and should not wait until he is disgraced out of office.
That many now resort to violence or other forms of extra-judicial means in the settlement of personal disputes is an indictment on our judiciary. It is therefore high time all stakeholders sat down to realistically salvage the judiciary from the doldrums of inefficiency and corruption that have combined to render it ineffectual. For instance, in our country today, it takes a minimum of eight to 15 years in a normal situation to start and conclude a simple civil case from the High court to the Supreme Court. Commercial litigants who could not tolerate this anomaly have stopped taking their cases to court.
On the whole, we call on our judges to shun corruption and abuse of powers which are antithetical to the virile judiciary that is badly needed at this most challenging period of our national life. But we must reiterate that respect for the rule of law is the linchpin of democracy. Under the current dispensation, this principle has been routinely breached due to a seeming disregard for court rulings and the rights of accused persons. The end of justice is subverted when the executive intimidates and abuses the constitutional order. The president must resist the temptation to subordinate the law to political expediency.