ON 9th November 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari appointed Honourable Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) following the retirement of the, Honourable Justice Mohammed Mahmoud as CJN, on November 10, 2016 on attainment of the mandatory age of 70 years.
Justice Onnoghen’s appointment was sequel to the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC) as the most senior Justice of the apex court in deference to the tradition of seniority. For unexplained reasons, President Buhari has refused to forward Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation as substantive CJN.
This is the first time the office holder is functioning in acting capacity for such a long period. As Acting CJN, Justice Onnoghen is statutorily allowed to remain in office for less than a month and half from the date he was appointed.
He will cease to be acting CJN if his appointment is not ratified by February 10, 2017. This is in conformity with Section 321(5) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). According to the Section, any person so appointed “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 lapsed”.
Nigerians have wondered why the President has refused to send his name for confermation. The delay, no doubt, will impact on the administration of justice and the anticipated reforms in the justice sector. Several insinuations are making the rounds over the development. In deed, it is being alledged that grand design against justices from the Southern part of the country from becoming the Chief Justice of Nigeria is afoot. President Buhari must act fast to dispel this notion.
The last time a Southerner headed the Supreme Court was in 1985-1987 when Justice Ayo Gabriel Irikefe was in charge. The baton has moved from one Northerner to another.
Justice Mohammed Bello took over from Irikefe and held the position till 1995 when Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais assumed the office. He retired in 2006. Justice Salihu Modibbo Alfa Belgore served (2006-2007). Others were: Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi (2007-2009), Justice Aloysius Iyorgyer Katsina-Alu (2009-2011), Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar (2012-2014) and Justice Mohammed Mahmoud (2014-2016).
President Buhari should not lend credence to the impression that he is not well-disposed to forwarding Justice Onnoghen’s name to the National Assembly for validation. This will send wrong signals. The exalted position of the CJN should not be seen to be monopolized by a section of the country.
Justice Onnoghen’s name should be sent to the Senate for ratification in the spirit of equity, fairness and justice. It will be a corrupt act to deny him of the chance to serve his country as substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria.