Onnoghen’s Stark Revelations

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Walter Onnoghen

Finally, former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen has revealed that his ouster from office was made possible by mere political intrigues orchestrated by the Federal Government, writes Davidson Iriekpen

For the first time since he was removed as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen, penultimate week broke his silence on the possible reasons for his removal. The former CJN, who spoke at the unveiling of a book titled ‘Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 2009, Practice, Procedure, Forms and Precedents’, by a senior lawyer, Chief Ogwu James Onoja (SAN), attributed his sack to political intrigues.

He disclosed that prior to his removal, he was accused by the executive of meeting with former Vice President Atiku Abubakar in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, preparatory to the 2019 general election. According to him, the rumour was thick and spread fast, but he decided not to react to it because he never travelled to Dubai or held any meeting with anybody, including Atiku.

The former CJN, however, said he was surprised that despite the fact that the Federal Government had all the machinery to investigate the allegation of the rumoured meeting, it never did, but opted to go after him and his office.

Onnoghen was removed under controversial circumstances in 2018. Despite the plethora of orders and precedents, the Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government proceeded to remove him from office.

Narrating his ordeal, the former CJN said he was not surprised when all of a sudden, his trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) was arranged, even when he had not been invited to defend the allegation or any wrongdoing. He said the action of the government against him got to the peak when in the course of the trial and when parties had joined issues, an ex-parte was suddenly brought in, and what followed was his illegal and unlawful suspension as CJN.

Onnoghen said if the judiciary is not free from political manipulations, the dispensation of justice according to the rule of law would be a mirage. He emphasised that justice is possible when “you know who is dispensing justice,” adding that the surest way to guarantee justice and democracy is to adhere to the rule of law.

The former CJN said that ordeal was not the first, adding that at a point during former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime, a commission was set up and that he was indicted of wrongdoing, even when he was not invited or allowed to appear before the commission to defend himself. He, however, said because former President Obasanjo was a leader who listened to advice, the matter was referred to the NJC for review. He added that at the council, truth surfaced before he was appointed to the Supreme Court. He urged legal practitioners to be courageous enough to stand by truth by defending the rights of Nigerians because only justice can rescue Nigeria.

“Nigeria is structured on the rule of law, any democracy not founded on the rule of law is a dictatorship. It’s only when the rule of law prevails that you can get justice. Prior to suspension, I was confronted with no allegation. There were rumours that I met with Atiku in Dubai. As I am talking here today, I have never met Atiku one-on-one in my life. As if that was not enough, I was also accused of setting free, high-profile criminals, whereas I seized to be a High Court Judge as far back as 1978.

“In Supreme Court, I did not sit alone. We sat in panel. In all these rumours and outright accusations, I was not given opportunity to defend myself. Let me make it clear that the office of the CJN was not for Onnoghen but for all Nigerians who had sworn to guide and protect the Constitution of the Federal Republic,” he said.

Though the presidency has not responded to or debunked Onnoghen’s revelations, the way it plotted his removal from office confirmed the impression that he was never wanted in the first place. Even when Nigerians were anxiously looking forward to the day he would on his own tell the story about what led to his ouster beyond the reasons the Federal Government gave, they didn’t expect that it would be based on mere political intrigues.

For many who listened to the former CJN penultimate Friday, it was not a surprise that he was removed. Onnoghen was the longest to serve as acting CJN in the annals of the country.

Upon the retirement of Justice Mohammed Mahmud as CJN on November 10, 2016, the NJC forwarded two names to the Presidency – Onnoghen’s name and that of the next in rank, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad. But the delay by President Muhammadu Buhari to transmit his name to the Senate for confirmation as provided in section 231(1), fuelled insinuations of conspiracy to truncate seniority status of the Supreme Court.

Aside alleged plot to sideline the former CJN who happened to be the first Southern jurist, in about 30 years, to attain such judicial height, insinuations were also rife that the second nominee, Justice Muhammad, who hails from Bauchi State, was President Buhari’s first choice candidate for the position of CJN.

The theories got a boost after President Buhari, who hesitantly succumbed to pressure by allowing Onnoghen to head the judiciary in acting capacity, deliberately ignored him in that position till he almost became statutorily ineligible to take over as the substantive CJN.

While he had till February 10, 2017 to get his appointment validated by the National Assembly or be removed from office, President Buhari had travelled outside the country on medical leave. Perturbed by the situation, the NJC, at the end of its emergency meeting, wrote to the then Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, urging him to extend Onnoghen’s tenure as the Acting CJN. According to Section 231(5) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, “Except on the recommendation of the NJC,” Onnoghen’s appointment by President Buhari, “shall cease to have effect after the expiration of three months from the date of such appointment, and the president shall not re-appoint a person whose appointment has elapsed.”

Unknown to the NJC, Prof. Osinbajo had on February 7, 2017, transmitted Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation as substantive CJN.

On March 1, 2017, the Senate screened and confirmed him as the 17th CJN, and on March 7, he was sworn in by then Acting President Osinbajo, while his boss was away. The first streak of trouble for the new CJN started simmering after President Buhari, upon his return to the country, described the judiciary as the “major headache” of his administration. The lamentation of the president came not too long after operatives of the Department of State Service (DSS), raided homes of eight superior court judges.

It did not end there. To show that he was not wanted in the position, from time-to-time, there were rumours that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was investigating him, but the commission would deny the reports. But he was taken by surprise on January 9 after the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) acting with unprecedented supersonic speed, recommended him for prosecution on the strength of a petition dated January 7. The said petition was lodged against him by a group known as Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative, promoted by a former aide to President Buhari, Mr. Dennis Aghanya.

It accused Onnoghen of corruption and failing to declare his assets as prescribed by law. The CCB, having recommended the former CJN for prosecution, the Federal Government immediately entered a six-count charge against him before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) on January 11. The Danladi Umar-led CCT quickly summoned Onnoghen to appear before it on January 14 to take his plea to the charge.

Determined to fight back, the former CJN refused to honour the summon, even as he challenged the jurisdiction of the CCT to try him on the allegations contained in the charge. He contended that the Federal Government failed to follow the laid down judicial precedent as encapsulated in a recent Appeal Court decision in Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391(CA), to the effect that any misconduct attached to the office and functions of a judicial officer, must first be reported to and handled by the NJC, pursuant to the provisions of the laws.

The same day, Federal Government filed a motion for the tribunal to compel Onnoghen to step aside as the CJN and Chairman of the NJC, and for him to hand over to his next in commend, Justice Muhammad.

While the CJN was contending with the CCT, three separate high courts, as well as the National Industrial Court, issued interim injunctions stopping the tribunal from taking further steps on the matter. On January 21, in two to one split decision, the CCT panel, said it would proceed with the trial the next day, despite the court orders. Not relenting, Justice Onnoghen, through his team of lawyers led by a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) persuaded the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal to suspend further proceedings at the CCT, pending the determination of an appeal he lodged against his trial. Though he succeeded at the appellate court, in a counter move, the Federal Government secretly obtained an interim order from the CCT, which empowered it to suspend the CJN and appoint Justice Muhammad in his stead.

It was gathered that while chairman of the tribunal, Umar and another member, Mrs. Julie A. Anabor, granted the ex-parte orders sought by the Federal Government, the third member, Mr. William Agwadza Atedze, declined to accede to the request, insisting the applicant should go and put Justice Onnoghen on notice. Based on the said ex-parte order, President Buhari, immediately suspended Onnoghen and installed Muhammad to take over as acting CJN. For many, all that transpired was carefully plotted to achieve a pre-determined goal.

Though the country has moved on since Onnoghen was forced out of office, every time the issue comes up in political and judicial debates, it evokes sad memories.