By any reckoning, the last three years of the Muhammadu Buhari administration have been turbulent for the judiciary. The Directorate of State Services (DSS) raid on the homes of several judges in October 2016 was how it all started. Hundreds of thousands of dollars and millions of naira in cash were reportedly recovered from the raids. According to the security agency, the judges had been under investigation for months.
The DSS had even petitioned the National Judicial Council (NJC), which recommended the dismissal of only two judges and eventually became uncooperative in the investigations. In retrospect, that was just the warning shot. Next came the arraignment of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, including Ricky Tarfa and Joseph Nwabike, for allegedly bribing judges and perverting the course of justice.
The charges came with phone conversations, text messages and bank records between the lawyers and some judges. However, it was in response to the trial of Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa that saw the judiciary take the first steps in building a wall of protection around all serving judicial officers against criminal prosecution or legal proceedings by the executive arm of government. Not in anyone’s wildest imagination in those early days would the thought have occurred that things would end with the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen.
There is no denying it, the Buhari government has never been on the same page with the judiciary in its anti-corruption fight. In extending the anti-corruption fight to the judiciary, the president has shown an unusual level of aggression that suggests he believes the end justifies the means. The most recent was putting Justice Onnoghen on trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal and subsequently suspending him from office in a process that has arguably seen the government depart from all forms of constitutionality.
While the suspension has been roundly condemned by most observers, they have nevertheless exposed the rot in the judiciary in ways that pose a genuine threat to the entire democratic process. The extreme measures are testing the viability of one of the most important institution in the country and the effectiveness of laid down processes in dealing with corruption and misconduct in the judiciary.
The December 2017 Appeal Court verdict in the case of Nganjiwa v FRN, which basically conferred immunity on judicial officers has been the pillar of that protective wall. And when the federal government moved to arraign the Chief Justice before the Code of Conduct Tribunal for failure to declare his assets, it was Onnoghen himself using the powers of his office to thwart every legal avenue available to investigate or prosecute him. His legal team got injunctions from a high court, industrial court and finally an appeal court shutting down the tribunal.
For those reasons, the in – built mechanisms for the judiciary to sanction or remove corrupt officers failed. But maybe the most significant of the steps Onnoghen took was the indefinite suspension of meetings of the NJC when news of his trial at the CCT first broke. Ironically, not a single member of the council raised a voice in protest. The result was his suspension by the president in obedience to an ex-parte order from the CCT, which virtually everyone is in agreement was unconstitutional. So, in a sense, the NJC has been exposed as weak and ineffectual. Even after the council finally met and queried the already suspended Chief Justice and Acting Chief Justice Tanko Mohammed, the damage done to the council could be long lasting.
These are, undoubtedly, Onnoghen darkest days. The same can, however, be said for the legal profession. And for every day that he remains in office, he further puts all that is wrong with the judiciary in Nigeria in focus. A renewed spotlight is now being put on the corrupt processes on how lawyers are made senior advocates by the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee. And it is not just the NJC that Onnoghen has dragged into his troubles. The credibility problem has also rubbed off on the Nigeria Bar Association.
Evidence of this can be seen in the number of groups that have been popping up trying to fill the moral void the NBA has vacated. First was the National Association of Democratic Lawyers and then then the group of 20 Senior Advocates of Nigeria who are seeking reforms to save the judiciary. That these groups are being forced to make interventions outside of official channels is a sign that sooner or later, there has to be a call for accountability within the NBA, what it stands for and what its priorities should be. It is bad enough that the NBA president, Paul Usoro too is on trial for corruption. He has, indirectly, been pushing a narrative that this is a politically motivated clash between the executive arm of government and the judiciary, while both he and Onnoghen are victims. And as for corruption within the legal profession, it is a secondary issue.
Maybe the intention of the Chief Justice is to drag everybody down with him. His tenure in office has not only been tarnished by allegations of corruption against one too many officers, but sadly it now represents everything that has gone wrong with justice in Nigeria. It is no longer about the separation of powers or an overreaching executive going beyond its constitutional boundaries. It is now about ensuring that the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria or even the Supreme Court doesn’t lose its prestige. And that is why Onnoghen should not be pushed out of office in circumstances that hurt the institutions more.
A Chief Justice should not have to be dragged through a criminal trial, yet it is happening. He should not have to be suspended, that too has happened. It isn’t accidental that the Chief Justice is also the chairman of the NJC. No one envisioned he would be the one under investigation. In some ways, he holds the highest and most powerful office in the land. The people he is meant to lead in the council are now saddled with the unenvious responsibility of deciding his fate and the future of justice in Nigeria.
Our presidential system of government is modeled after that of the United States of America, where for decades, there have been debates on whether a president can be prosecuted. The consensus is that no one is above the law, but the country’s justice department treats the president as a special case and has a policy of never attempting to prosecute him. Even the laws on why and how to impeach the president are restricted to times he commits high crimes, though what constitutes high crimes is debatable. What it all shows is that regardless of what is permissible under the law, there are a class of people in high offices that should be treated with deference.
It is why the NJC shouldn’t be in a position of having to recommend the suspension or removal of Walter Onnoghen. He should have been long gone before things got to that stage. Yet, from all indications, Onnoghen is determined to hold on and force members of the council to make a decision no legal advocate should have to make and desecrate the office of the Chief Justice by sacking its occupant over allegations of corruption. Or worse, they allow him to stay on at the detriment of their own image and reputation of the courts. It is why Onnghen should just resign and save all of the institutions he is meant to hold dear from further humiliation.
By resigning, he will be protecting the Supreme Court, the NJC and restore the dignity to office of the Chief Justice, which his continued stay in office is keeping at a low.
– Shuaib, a former editor of Leadership newspaper, wrote from Abuja.
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