By Muyiwa Adetiba
I was driving on the third mainland bridge last Saturday afternoon when I got a call. Somebody in Europe had come across the CJN’s indictment in Vanguard and wanted an urgent confirmation—an indication of how quickly the news had travelled.
I promised to call the person back as soon as I could. I did. I confirmed the story since it was in many other credible outlets. We discussed the ramifications and timing of the indictment and rang off. By evening, the airwaves and social media were buzzing.
Whatever my expectations on the ramifications discussed earlier were, the sizzling buzz everywhere had relegated them into insignificance. Comments were flying; opinions, considered or not, were commonplace. Everybody it seems had something to say about the charges.
The highest echelon of PDP, the main opposition party, had gotten involved. The seven South-SouthState Governors had gotten involved. The NBA had gotten involved. Many SANs had gotten involved. Law professors had gotten involved.
Of course, the rank and file, the cannon fodders in all these breaches, had also gotten involved. Emotions had become high while logical reasoning, even among lawyers who are trained to be detached, had become low.
Let me do a quick recap for those who live in Mars or have just woken from a deep slumber. The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen has been charged with an incomplete declaration of assets by the Code of Conduct Bureau.
According to media reports, amounts running to millions of naira and thousands in dollars, euros and pounds have been left undeclared by the CJN. In other words, Nigeria’s most senior judicial officer has maintained accounts containing foreign currencies and neglected to declare them.
Deliberately? We may never know judging from the way the whole thing has become a circus. But the man in the eye of the storm claimed it was an oversight. He is a learned man who understands the importance of the rule of law even as he knows that ignorance of it is not a tenable excuse.
However, my article is not to ascertain the guilt or otherwise of the charges. I don’t think there is much to unearth anyway.
My concern is on how the whole thing is being handled. Has the government through the CCB handled things tactfully knowing the culprit here is the head of another estate of the realm; therefore an independent estate? Has it, in its attempt to nail Walter Onnoghen, tried to ride roughshod on the institution he represents?
I believe the CCB could still have achieved its purpose by being stealthy and circumspect. This public indictment of the CJN could be interpreted to be a public humiliation not only of Walter Onnoghen, but also of his position as the CJN and by extension, the judiciary.
A more careful attempt should have been made not to damage the man and the institution he represents. That is like throwing the baby out with the dirty bath water. Irrespective of how this case turns out, Onnoghen has become a damaged good.
He cannot have the respect and the authority he should have. Worrisome is that whoever replaces him, irrespective of his race, geographical zone or religion, might also not have the respect and authority he should have.
In fact, he might be seen as a stooge whose appointment is to have the back of government during the expected post-election legal battles. This means the government will not come out of this smelling of roses.
There is no set time to prosecute crime. But the timing of this one will always be suspect because it is so close to the national elections. The government cannot therefore escape the allegations of trying to influence and intimidate the judiciary.
As for Justice Onnoghen, the game is up. What he did was wrong and cannot be acceptable given his position. He is like the Caesar’s wife who must be above board. He should do the honourable thing and resign.
That will save the judiciary from further damage and stitch up some of its torn seams. It will also douse the unnecessary tension that is building up. Hiding behind technicalities and a battery of SANs, is like hiding behind a finger.
As for the 25 SANs that have coalesced to fight for the CJN, pro bono I assume, one can only conclude that they are merely defending their turf. But one can’t but wonder if our eminent lawyers are more interested in processes and technicalities that the truth.
Processes are important to curb arbitrariness, no doubt. But the purpose must be to serve the cause of justice and not to get criminals off the hook. Unfortunately, many of our eminent lawyers have become rich by perverting the cause of justice through technicalities.
Especially for the rich. I don’t see them show this much sympathy when the poor become victims of our criminal justice system. It is an eloquent statement on the direction of our moral compass.
But the most ludicrous for me is the reaction of the South-South Governors who voiced out an unconditional support without any consideration for the weight of the offense. It is unconscionable for elected governors to advice the chief law officer of the country to shun court summons.
Besides, Onnoghen is the Chief Justice of Nigeria, not of his State of birth. His offense is not on behalf of his zone. The hidden assets are in his name. South-South leaders really must stop defending their sons and daughters whenever they are alleged to have corruptly abused their positions. It has happened once too often.
I know my father would not have supported me as a child if I brought home stolen goods. That has helped shaped my attitude to crime till today. Crime will continue to flourish for as long as our ‘elders’ regard purloined commonwealth from regional or sectional perspectives.
All this heat could have been avoided if our leader could just ‘grow up’ and learn to look at the bigger picture always. We want strong institutions but the presidency sometimes undermines other arms of government as if they are inferior to it.
On the other hand, those who aspire to the presidency are busy denigrating the office they are angling for. What happened this week is a lose-lose situation for the country at the end of the day. It shows our lack of commitment to nation building, to strong institutions and to probity. Neither the accuser nor the accused nor the defenders on both sides put the long term interests of the nation first.
We need the judiciary to be strong and virile. The Executive must recognise that. But for the judiciary to perform the role for which the constitution has prepared it, its leaders must be above board.