Onnoghen-Gate Offers A Redemptive Window For Nigerian Judiciary By Peter Claver Oparah

Penultimate week, the Code of Conduct Bureau, acting on a petition by an anti-corruption organization, charged the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen to the Code of Conduct Tribunal for non-declaration of assets and many other offences, which contravene the country’s law guiding public officials. Onnoghen has advanced a reply to the CCB charge and he pleaded forgetfulness in declaring a huge chunk of his assets. The CJN has been arraigned in the tribunal though he evaded appearance, presumably on the advice of some senior lawyers, politicians especially of the PDP stock and tribal groups that have seen the trial as a witch-hunt of their son. He and his cronies have filed multiple cases against his arraignment, the Code of Conduct Tribunal still insists on sitting over his case, he has even challenged the jurisdiction of the tribunal to try him. Not being a lawyer, I will not delve into the meat of the issue more especially as it is in the courts and needs such immunity to take its natural judicial course.

Last week, however, the President, acting on the orders of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, suspended Onnoghen after he dithered from doing the needful; which is resigning after he had admitted to breaching the law. The government proceeded to appoint and swear in an Acting CJN to head the judiciary pending the time Onnoghen would clear his name of the multiple charges against him. 

One thing that should be noted, however, is that none of those that are struggling to defend the suspended CJN has tried to dispute the charges against him. Most importantly, the suspended CJN has admitted to the misdemeanours so trying to defend him against the charge is foolhardy. With such clear cut course, it should have been an easy issue to sort out as the apt expectation is that the suspended CJN should protect what is left of the integrity of the judiciary he heads by submitting his resignation having admitted to have fractured the law he is supposed to protect. But then, the suspended CJN has carelessly allowed himself to be dragged into a mischievous political maelstrom that threatens to drag the country’s judicial system, struggling against heavy patches of corruption, into the mud. The suspended CJN should have resisted the temptation by his partisan supporters to politicize what should be a very simple issue and walk away with his sins, irrespective of what the courts will eventually decide on his case. He has been charged with corrupt acts and he has admitted though pleading forgetfulness which is a wild, queer and untenable excuse the judiciary he heads had, over time, dismissed as non-alibi for wrongdoing.

So far, the laughable reason we have heard from the backers of the suspended CJN is that he was being indicted and prosecuted at the wrong time and also that he was supposed to have been brought to the National Judicial Council, which he heads, before being charged to court. 

In the first case, one is left to wonder if crime and wrongdoing are appropriately timed. Is it that the purveyors of this ridiculous thinking believe that there are appointed times for punishing wrongs? Is it that there are special times for the trial of a CJN that has sinned? Is it that there is a special mission the person that occupies the position of CJN is involved in that makes him immune from punishment for wrongdoing at certain times of the year or season? Some have said that we are approaching election and as such that the suspended CJN’smisdemeanor should have been kept under wraps till after the election. Pray what special role has a Justice Onnoghen that no other judge has that makes him indispensable even in the face of committing a serious crime close to election time? Does this watery reason confirm the thinking held generously that the suspended CJN features prominently in the wild calculations of PDP for power? Is there something the PDP planned with Justice Onnoghen that makes them and their allies feel that we should look for a more convenient time punishing him for infracting the law till after the election? Where in our statutes is this arcane reasoning enshrined? What time is convenient here? What and who determines the convenience? 

On the second case of taking the suspended CJN first to the NJC before taking him to the court which is constitutionally vested with the power to deal with issues like his, I have a feeling that this is a fraudulent way to side-step our laws to protect the many noxious corruption issues that weigh down our judiciary. On my last check, no law in this country grants the CJN or judges the indirect immunity enshrined in this reasoning. And on my last check too, the Code of Conduct Tribunal is a special court, within the judiciary and the country’s laws vested with the power to deal with such issues as the Onnoghen issue and nowhere in our constitution is it provided that a judge or any person that violates the Code of Conduct laws should be first dragged to an inner room trial, as the suspended NJC is supposed to be. The government is even very justified in not taking Onnoghen to an NJC he heads, which will likely inter his case in the heavy latrine of filth on which the Nigerian judiciary rests. This thinking was reified by Onnoghen’s alleged refusal to call the statutory NJC meeting just before his suspension on the fears that he would be required to stand down by the NJC, which is what the government has done.

These lead to the poser of why a judge, the Chief Justice of Nigeria for that matter, the very chief priest in the temple of justice, be circumspect in appearing before a legally empowered court? Why should he shy away from appearing in a tribunal under his watch to defend himself, if he feels he has more defence to offer than the one he had already offered? Why should senior lawyers, judges and players in the temple of justice be the ones advising their chief priest not to appear in a duly constituted court? Are they not inadvertently shooting down the source of their own authority? What moral or even legal rights do they have to speak against others who tow their lines of illegality and shun courts? Are the judges and lawyers in the know that their own legal authority to compel obedience to their pronouncements and rulings is limited because they are not vested with the powers of enforcement? What happens when those vested with the power of enforcement stay away from the courts and treat pronouncements and rulings from the courts as mere rhetorics? Are the judges and lawyers that advised the suspended CJN to shun the CCT aware that they are indulging in self-immolation for they have no rights and power to compel others to appear in their courts? Now that Onnoghen has been suspended, will they still advise him not to appear in the CCT? And if a bench warrant is issued for his arrest, are they equipped to stop its execution?

It is trite to state that respect for law is founded on the need to keep anarchy at bay and submit to the authority of certain people to interpret the law for the orderliness of the society. Such respect is rooted in according respect to the law by all and sundry;- the CJN, judges and lawyers included. There is no intendment in this to elevate some, including judges and lawyers. above the law. There is no intendment to clothe judges with immunity that sees them sit over the affairs of men and being above the law. The justice system is premised on having men who are unblemished make pronouncements and adjudications in other people’s cases. Judges, like Caesar’s wife, are expected to be above board, shorn of vices, cant and misdemeanours which not only enriches the quality of justice they dish out but compels others to accept and obey their decisions. Judges are men who should have outgrown blemish and chicanery. They should stand taller than ethnic, tribal and sectional affiliations. Judges should not pander to partisan influences and should be above board in all their dealings. These are the qualities that give the judiciary the aura needed to decide the fates of other men.

It is however sad that the Nigerian judiciary is a den for black market racketeering where justice is sold and bought off the shelf like tissue paper. It is terrible that the judicial system in Nigeria suffers from the dearth of quality, untainted and independent minds that could be trusted to give objective judgments on issues. It is painful that the judiciary is brimming full with low minds and men of straw who trade on justice and see the judiciary as an avenue to make inordinate wealth. Perversion of justice has given rise to a total shredding of confidence in the judiciary and where this odious order is challenged there has always been a hoopla raised about interference in the judiciary and at such moments, senior lawyers who got their seniority by hawking and trading on justice, acting as shameless middlemen between unethical judges and damned patrons, have always formed illicit cahoots with judges to ensure the rotten status quo is kept from harm’s way. Truth is that the Nigerian judiciary is infected with multifarious avarice that have worsened justice delivery in Nigeria. The kind of illicit alliance that is formed to prevent Onnoghen from doing the right thing and quitting after admitting wrongdoings stands to wreck the confidence and integrity of the Nigerian judiciary. If the system is prevented by such gang-up from cleansing, what remains is a voodoo system that survives on similar gang-up of its leading lights. 

 But it can suffice to state that such sordid cases as the Onnoghen case, debilitates and reduces the judiciary in the eyes of the citizens that should look up to it to show the way in moral candour. However, it plays out, the judiciary is the greatest loser. Let the Onnoghen-gate offer the Nigerian judiciary the opportunity to carry out a radical surgery of its inner covens and cleanse the rotten judiciary of its mountain-top piles of debris and reflate the country’s justice system with the needed confidence it needs to function effectively.

Peter Claver Oparah

Ikeja, Lagos

E-mail: [email protected]


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