By Tonnie Iredia
Not many people know I am a lawyer notwithstanding that i have a law degree and was called to the Nigerian Bar many years back. What everyone appears to know me for; is broadcast journalism, having risen to the peak of it as director general of Africa’s largest television network. I am thus unable to blame myself for not finding time to be part of the numerous controversies concerning law, legal practice and the Nigerian legal system. I am further incapacitated by the uncoordinated amendments to the nation’s constitution. The other day, it was when the recall principle was put to test in Kogi state that we got to know of an amendment that had transferred the power to recall legislators from the people to the same law makers. Indeed, once a while, i feel quite bad when our lawyers, some of whom are celebrated senior advocates confuse rather than educate us on pertinent issues in our polity. Last week however, i got some relief when i discovered that many other Nigerians were more confused than me because of the many contradictory statements put in the public domain by learned people concerning the suspension of our Chief Justice, Walter Onnoghen.
The story is that Onnoghen submitted an inaccurately completed declaration of assets’ form. The man was reported to have stated in writing that he forgot to declare certain items. Understandably, there was public outcry against such a rather naive top jurist. No one imagined a possible loophole he was trying to explore until someone revealed that the law on declaration of assets is only meant to ensure compliance and that an aspect in the law says any forgetful person who pleaded mistake was to be given an opportunity to add the missing items to his form. Perhaps because this view was either not canvassed or properly publicised, some people were left to believe that a big thief had been caught red-handed. So, why was Onnoghen charged to the conduct tribunal instead of given fresh forms to properly document the missing items? On this score, why some lawyers argued that Onnoghen should have resigned is not clear. Is that the punishment for those whose forms are incomplete?
One cannot but appreciate that the code of conduct tribunal (CCT) is the only body set up to handle issues concerning declaration of assets. We are indeed reminded that in an earlier case before Justice Onnoghen, he had ruled that the CCT was the place to go in the circumstance. Why then it was argued did the same Onnoghen go to the Court of Appeal (CA) to stop his case at the CCT? Does the appropriateness of the CCT to try cases of wrong assets’ declaration mean that the tribunal is the Supreme Court on such matters? In other words, does it mean that anyone dissatisfied with the decisions of the CCT has no opportunity for appeal? Put differently, did Onnoghen in the earlier case he was said to have handled suggest that the CCT was answerable to itself? If not, why can’t a party approach the Court of Appeal on such matters? Indeed, if it was wrong for Onnoghen to take his own case to the CA, why did our lawyers not allow that court to be the one to pronounce on whether or not Onnoghen was in a wrong court? Now that the AC has rejected Onnoghen’s application, from where did the court suddenly obtain jurisdiction?
If Onnoghen’s case was before courts, why did it become the subject of legal analysis in the media? Could it be that the law of contempt of court in Nigeria has changed? Is it not prejudicial for anyone to educate television viewers, radio listeners and newspaper readers on the parties that are wrong or right in cases before courts? A few days ago, a neighbour narrated to me with excitement how “one lawyer on a TV programme took Onnoghen to the cleaners” by stating that although he had practiced for long, he did not have even a tiny fraction of what was said to have been found in the account of the CJN. Well, I made no comment because i didn’t know whether Onnoghen’s alleged huge amount and the other lawyer’s little fraction were not obtained the same way. Besides, if the relevant body decides to probe all judges today, who says Onnoghen may turn out to be the richest? Again, what was the non-legal value of the television interview? Is it those who have practiced for donkey years that are supposed to be the richest? In other words, is it how long? How many senior lawyers have been able to emulate the ingenuity of Afe Babalola in putting up one of Nigeria’s best universities?
It is not hard to observe a disturbing trend of blind support in our heated polity, in which people discuss court cases in the media. They stoutly defend their friends no matter their wrongs while helping them to vehemently oppose their opponents – a trend which politicises every subject in our country. Hence, it is not difficult to see that many of those attacking Onnoghen are friends of the executive arm of government. In same manner, those defending Onnoghen are mostly anti-Buhari. While the anti Onnoghen group thinks what matters most now is the fight against corruption whether or not the accused is framed, the other side is bothered about due process and democracy simply because it presents them as humane and people oriented. In the circumstance, no one is standing for truth as many are pursuing shadows instead of substance.
If the wrong of one side is pointed out, the defence is to point at how the other side did similar wrong things in the past. What is special about the executive removing Onnoghen when the current Senate president in his capacity as governor of Kwara state once removed the chief judge of the state it was asked? Does is it occur to anyone that ability to point out a wrong in the past cannot justify the wrong of the moment? Sometimes, the comparisons are clearly dissimilar. Sanusi Lamido, then a CBN governor was in the executive branch of government; he was nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Can his suspension be seen as same as that of Chief Justice Onnoghen who being in the Judicial arm of government was nominated by the National Judicial Council NJC and forwarded by the President to the Senate? Was the suspension of Justice Ayo Salami which was with the consent of the NJC, same as that of Onnoghen which had no input from the NJC? If not, why the comparisons? We await an end to the confusion in Nigeria caused by politics so that Nigerians especially those who are still demonstrating at home and abroad can get a deserved rest.