He never headed any court as an administrative head but providence took him straight to the zenith of the system. Walter Onnoghen is an uncommon CJN, living through an uncommon season. LANRE ADEWOLE brings the story of a jurist who wasn’t a judiciary prince, but occupying a troubled throne.
AS 2018 was winding down, a concrete plan to settle the ‘Onnoghen Problem’ once and for all was firming up somewhere in Abuja. A strategic meeting at an upscale location had settled on the Master Plan to achieve certain electoral aims and after shifting through the ‘Victory Plan,’ a very senior public figure had enthused, “judiciary is the only problem.”
As 2019 was breaking loose, another strategic meeting in Abuja had resolved that it was unacceptable for governorship candidates of a certain political party, not running in two major “voting” states and it was decided that the said very senior public figure, should intervene. At the said meeting were attendees who were playing along, but not really for the “high-powered” intervention, to get the judiciary play ball on the two troubled governorship slots, but a centralised political agenda, had brought everyone together under the same roof, despite belonging to different tendencies in the “House.”
The motion, according to a source at the second meeting, who was aghast at the plan to get “high-powered” intervention, to settle what was purely a judicial matter, was moved by a sitting governor from the Northern part of the country, with a troubled second term ambition.
Sunday Tribune was informed that while the meeting did not agree on the particular mode of achieving the planned “reinstatement” of the missing governorship slots, the inside source had narrowed the mode to possible buying of judgment, to reverse the “misfortune in the two affected states, located each, in the Northern and the Southern protectorates of the country.
He was shocked at the extent of the execution
Because the source would benefit if the judiciary insisted on the rule of law and constitutionality in the running of the affairs of the affected political party, especially in the area of the process of candidate nomination, all attention was being paid to the monitoring of certain judges handling litigation arising from the contentious nomination processes of the party. Despite being an insider, the source has since realised, with the coming of the alleged non-declaration of asset trial of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Nkanu Sylvester Onnoghen as well as the intrigues and controversies, dogging the yeoman efforts to rid him of the influential seat, that his “colleagues” in the strategy committee, do not make empty boast and could even shock the best of those who think they know them.
Between Esho and Babalakin panels
Onnoghen was an unwanted CJN. The current administration left no one in doubt, about its animosity towards him, at least, professionally. At a meeting in Lagos with media executive in the wake of the infamous midnight raid conducted on the homes of some judges across the country late 2016, by the DSS, Minister of Information, Culture and Orientation, Lai Mohammed confirmed that the administration was seriously considering an advice from unnamed sources that “we should get our CJN from outside.” He had hinged the administration’s decision on “our desire to reform the justice sector.” His proposal was rejected outright by the media bigwigs in attendance, culminating in him leaving without extracting any buy-in from the media leaders.
This early-day antagonistic posture has possibly shaped the psyche of those who knew of the original history between Onnoghen and the Buhari administration, and which may have accounted for the national and international uproar against the latest onslaught to make Onnoghen, unappointable, from the word go.
Apart from labouring to paint him as a soiled hand that should not be allowed anywhere near the dispensation of equity and justice, with the bank account saga, his traducers are equally digging into his past, especially the 1994 Justice Kayode Esho Panel indictment, which they said ordinarily should have terminated his sojourn in the judiciary about a quarter of a century back. But what his accusers may not realise or trying to conveniently side-step, is the Justice Bolarinwa Oyegoke Babalakin Review Panel, which quashed his indictment in the White Paper issued on the Esho Panel Report.
The quashed indictment was the first major weapon the Buhari administration tried using against him when he was to mount the saddle as the acting CJN. Despite the realisation that no indictment was pending against him, Buhari did not buckle until the outgoing CJN, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, threatened to swear in Onnoghen as the most senior justice of the Supreme Court. Hours before the departure of Mahmud, Buhari reluctantly invited Onnoghen to Aso Rock Villa on November 9th 2016, to swear him in as the first Southern CJN in about 28 years of Northern domination, which produced seven CJNs from that part of the country in succession.
Then, came the drama of his substantive appointment. While living former CJNs were said to have intervened before Buhari agreed to appoint him in acting capacity, in order to forestall an imminent constitutional crisis, it took providence taking Buhari out, on a sick leave for VP Yemi Osinbajo to send Onnoghen’s name to the senate for confirmation, despite constant feedback from the presidential villa that Buhari had locked the NJC letter nominating him in substantive capacity, in his desk locker, vowing not to send his name to the Senate and also ready for the consequences of the acting period running out, without confirmation or extension of acting period for another three months.
Suspicion on why Onnoghen was truly not wanted by the current administration has fuelled a highly-flammable can of conspiracy theories, the most-grounded being the desire of the President to have another Northern justice of the apex court, replace Mahmud, allegedly because Onnoghen, being from the same South-South geo-political zone as former President Goodluck Jonathan who Buhari defeated to become president, might not align with the vision of the administration, in sympathy with his kinsman’s controversial loss.
But nothing official came from the president and all remained a conjecture until Mohammed opened up at the Lagos meeting that seniority as usual would not count in Onnoghen’s favour.
Having met brick walls in the quest to side-step him for another Northern jurist, particularly from Mahmud, who reportedly took the President on, following the infamous raid and insisted that seniority must count in the succession plan, the administration was said to have resorted to other plans, at least “to have their own person there (as CJN)” a knowledgeable source told Sunday Tribune.
One of the plans then, checks revealed, was to still go ahead with the said reform mentioned by the minister by kicking out about 11 senior justices of the apex court including Onnoghen and appointing the second female CJN in history in the person of Justice Mojisola Kekere-Ekun, first in acting capacity. Buhari reportedly back-tracked after he was said to have been shown another plot, running by the side of his own agenda, aimed at helping a certain political tendency, to hijack the apex court and by extension, the judiciary. Kekere-Ekun is from Lagos State.
Another said to be the original plan was to appoint an outsider, preferably a senior lawyer, which Mohammed alluded to. Names were mentioned and consideration was made. Probables were also contacted. Sunday Tribune learnt one of those sounded out, was Yusuf Alli, a senior advocate. He reportedly declined. A Professor of Law, currently in the employ of the Buhari administration was also considered. He was reportedly ruled unstable and having limited practice experience and perspective.
Onnoghen as a Buharideen
Without knowing that their paths would eventually cross as heads of two arms of government, Onnoghen in 2007, in a well-applauded minority judgment had nullified the victory of late President Musa Yar’Adua, in the contest against Buhari and since coming into office, as the acting CJN, he has, in the spirit of the so-called Buhari Revolution, become a rounded-reformer himself, rolling out sweeping reforms in the judiciary, while embarking on massive cleansing of the system, earning him the sobriquet of Hurricane Walter.
Apart from sacking many judges found wanting, he moved to heal the system through the appointment of Justice Isa Ayo Salami as the head of his reform panel on alleged looters’ trial. Though Salami eventually rejected the appointment after earlier accepting it, Onnoghen’s efforts, while in acting capacity, didn’t go unnoticed and unappreciated by some government’s hirelings who were at the vanguard of the no-Onnoghen CJN agenda.
But it seems nothing would pacify his traducers than to see him go and on 7th March, 2017, when Onnoghen came on board as the substantive CJN, he and the nation began a tumultuous journey that could end up redefining the polity in a way, never seen before in the history of Nigeria’s political development.
For those who know the inner workings of his leadership’s relationship with the executive, Onnoghen could perfectly fit the bill of an architect of his own misfortune, considering how he has reportedly consistently bent backwards to accommodate the interest of the Villa, both professionally and relationally. In fact, he could be called a Buharideen, the new toga recently hemmed for those regarded as extreme supporters of the President.
Despite not soliciting such interventions during his appointment travails, certain emissaries who reportedly met the President on his behalf, were said to have reminded the Nigerian leader that were Onnoghen to be the crooked judge he was being painted to be, he would not have joined former CJN Aloma Mukhtar and Justice George Oguntade, (now retired) to uphold his petition against the 2007 election of late Yar’Adua, in a minority dissenting judgment. The President was said not to be impressed.
Incidentally, it was also the Onnoghen’s Supreme Court that gave sharper legal teeth to the Code of Conduct Tribunal when the Buhari administration doubled down on the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, by arraigning him before the Tribunal, after rubbing the executive’s nose in the mud during the Senate presidency’s contest. The apex court had ruled in Saraki’s objection to Tribunal’s jurisdiction that the trial should go on, clothing the Tribunal with the trial power the constitution did not give it. Now, it is Onnoghen’s turn to challenge the jurisdiction of the same Tribunal, though on different premises.
Before the CJN, another justice of the Supreme Court, who was among the raided judges in 2016, Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, had also been arraigned before the same Tribunal. Both Saraki and Ngwuta were acquitted.
At a Body of Benchers’ meeting, two senior advocates and two retired justices of the Supreme Court, who were worried sick about the suspected pandering to the executive, had openly warned that the judiciary might be committing class suicide without being aware, all in a bid to be seen as being anti-corruptive in nature.
They warned that the executive could come baying for money blood, if its illegalities, extremism and rascality, were continually condoned, in the name of executive-judiciary cooperation. They were prophetic.
However, the judicial system now seems ready for what appears as the final battle between it and the Buhari administration, which has dealt with the Bench and the Bar, like no other in history, as the system rose with one voice to condemn the latest onslaught against Onnoghen.
Angry Bar, Roiling Bench
While judges could not openly express their disgust, Sunday Tribune can confirm that the Bench is not only angry, but this time well prepared for a marathon with the executive, though some are considering stepping down in a historical mass resignation that could send a shock wave across the polity.
The Bar, however, is bursting loose at all hems with the leading lights taking on the Onnoghen’s battle as theirs. When the executive came for their president, Paul Usoro, a senior advocate, and arraigned him for alleged money laundering over the huge legal fees paid him, by the Akwa Ibom State government, lawyers rose for him, but not in the same way, they did for Onnoghen, who many senior advocates described as the symbol of the judiciary and once ignominiously taken down, would see the system, going down with him.
Though a couple of lawyers close to the executive have spoken in favour of his arraignment before the Tribunal, with Professor Itse Sagay kicking against the extant procedure of first bringing the allegations against him before the NJC, the preponderance of legal opinions is that the executive goofed by bringing the charge up in the first place.
On a lawyers’ WhatsApp forum, Rotimi Jacobs, a senior advocate and the one considered as the best prosecutor for the Buhari administration, condemned the filing of the charge, asking if the prosecution was thinking at all. He should know. He handled both the Saraki and Ngwuta trial before the same Tribunal.
How far can and will the Bar and Bench go in defending the sanctity of the system will be answered in days ahead.
Fifth time lucky?
Onnoghen has survived four onslaughts from the Buhari administration. The question is if he would be fifth time lucky now that the executive seems to have got him where they wanted; in public opinion dock as a villain. But it is very unlikely the executive would have its way with him, considering the reported robust assurances from nearly all his predecessors-in-office and other Bench princes, both retired and serving, who vowed that they would defend the system and by extension, Onnoghen, with their blood. But, will Buhari’s administration stop without tasting blood?.
Culled from tribuneonlineng