If he serves out his term, Justice Walter Onnoghen would bow out as Chief Justice of Nigeria on December 22, 2020, when he would clock 70. There are forces, celestial and terrestrial, that are hell bent on seeing that Justice Onnoghen does not last that long. In fact, if they have their way, the CJN would not last one more day in office.
Justice Onnoghen, the fifteenth indigenous Chief Justice, and the first non-northener since 1987 to ascend the exalted office, has courted trouble from the very day his predecessor, Justice Mahmud Mohammed retired, in 2016. What had till then always been a culture of seamless process of handover to the next most senior associate Justice, suddenly became a complicated power tussle once Justice Onnoghen was primed to become the next Chief Justice. The straightforward process, which allows that the National Judicial Council nominate the CJN, for the president to forward same to the Senate, was frustrated. The body language of the “powers that be” was that Onnoghen was not going to be an ideal choice. Onnoghen was CJN in acting capacity for a prolonged period until Prof Osinbajo, president, then also in acting capacity, did the needful, and ended the unfortunate logjam.
So, the onslaught to suddenly oust Justice Onnoghen is not without precedent. The question is : why?
To attempt answering that question is to delve into conspiracies. For example, there are claims that the APC is quite uncomfortable with several Supreme Court judgements that has not favoured the party. Whether the APC assumes the Supreme Court, of all courts, can dance to the tunes of politicians is not known. What is known though, is that none of the judgements of the Supreme Court not the least, on the last elections, went contrary to common sense.
Why the APC assumes the top court in the country is sympathetic to the opposition party is strange. The body language of the president also suggests the judiciary is an unwilling partner in the fight against corruption. It has been sounded loud and clear in many quarters that the judiciary is a cesspool of corruption, where judgements are bought at will. A “sting operation” two years ago led to the assault on some Supreme Court judges on allegations of Corruption. Maybe the APC has concluded that they can’t compete against the PDP in bribing judges, or they believe the judgements that favoured the PDP were outrightly bought. The APC must have resolved that they are to fight dirty if they are to ever “win over” the judiciary. Now, the gloves are off, and Justice Onnoghen is the first target.
There is no pretence about the desire of the APC-led government to get rid of Onnoghen. They believe as the head of the Supreme Court, and by extension, the judiciary, he is critical in their plans to see their fortunes change. He has to go.
The case against Onnoghen at the code of conduct tribunal smacks of desperation. The CJN is accused of failure to fully declare all of his assets, an offense punishable under the law. The speed with which the petition was filed, and charges were also filed, was unusual. No one still knows how the petitioner, Dennis Aghanya, a known ally of President Buhari, laid his hands on the assets declaration forms of the CJN. In less than a week, from the date of petitioning, the CJN was dragged to the tribunal, for a national shaming process.
Many senior lawyers have argued for, and against the trial of the CJN. Both arguments make sense, but it only requires looking beneath the surface to see what is going on. The case has little to do with the assets declaration form of Justice Onnoghen, which in reality he may be actually guilty of; but just about getting rid of him.
Consider that the attack in itself is multi-faceted. The government, while prosecuting Onnoghen at the CCT, has also proceeded to freeze his assets, while also approaching the court to compel him to step down pending the determination of the case.
The government is probably aware that the chances of prevailing against Onnoghen at the CCT are slim, considering the fact that even the more watertight case against Senator Bukola Saraki eventually fell flat. So, the attack is well Coordinated. If it misses from one angle, then it should hit from another.
The tragic thing about it is that the process involves the assassination of the character, and destroying the name and life, of an eminent Jurist, whose only crime is that he is the Chief Justice.
Late last year, when President Donald Trump of the United States nominated Justice Brett Kavanaugh into the US Supreme Court, politicians who felt his stance against their ideology would affect his judgements, launched a bitter smear campaign against him. He was accused of everything under the sun, from raping girls while in high school decades ago, to getting blackout drunk; allegations that turned out to be false when thoroughly investigated. In fact, some of his accusers were eventually found to have simply manufactured the accusations, and were playing a political script. Some of them are now being tried.
Unfortunately, the same scenario is playing out in Justice Onnoghen’s case. The campaign against him is not worth his career. His life is being systematically ruined because some politicians are uncomfortable with his dispositions. The media onslaught against him, and the media trial to which he has been subjected should be condemned. A man who rose through the ranks to reach the very top of his career should not be destroyed because of politics. The Supreme Court is not for political cases alone.
And for those who claim the case against the CJN is a welcome one as is a proof that no one is above the law, they cannot be more wrong. This case in itself is an entire abuse of the law, due process and commonsense, the rape of the judiciary and the public shaming of a fine Judicial officer who has chosen to not look at the faces of politicians.