By Mike Ezekhome , SAN
I knew it would come sooner than later. When Justice Walter Onnoghen’s travails started in January, I predicted that the cabal was out to rubbish him. They desired to bespatter him with the paintbrush of shame, odium and obloquy in such a way as to make him visibly unfit for the position of the CJN. They went after his jugular, using the CCB/CCT.
The CCT was unrelenting: it discarded its earlier precedents; ignored court rulings barring it from trying Onnoghen. It was the case of the falcon not hearing the falconer.
The Court of Appeal became complicit. It refused to deliver judgments in Onnoghen’s cases argued before it over six weeks ago. Nigerians watched Onnoghen being mob-lynched. Onnoghen was tried in the media, criminalized, humiliated.
The Bench kept mute (as usual). The Bar became lily-livered. Lawyers whispered in hush tones. Some even supported Onnoghen’s excoriation as if that massaged their over bloated egos.
So, Onnoghen, faced with the reality of the situation, knew that his faith had been pre-determined by the cabal, signed, sealed and delivered. Otherwise, how can NJC hold that it decided not to delve into the allegations, relating to assets declaration levelled against Onnoghen because they were “subjudice”, yet, convicted him on the “compelling petitions” written by EFCC and others, when the said petitions remained in the realm of mere unproven allegations. I am yet to be shown a Law that makes allegations or suspicion, no matter how grave, a conviction against a citizen of Nigeria, without arraignment, trial or due process. It was simply a case of working from the question to the answer.
So, Onnoghen did the reasonable thing under the circumstances. He invoked section 306(1) of the Constitution. He resigned.
The section provides as follows:
“Save as otherwise provided in this section, any person who is appointed, elected or otherwise selected to any office established by this Constitution may resign from that office by writing under his hand addressed to the authority or person by whom he was appointed, elected or selected. (2) The resignation of any person from any office established by this Constitution shall take effect when the writing signifying the resignation is received by the authority or person to whom it is addressed or by any person authorized by that authority or person to receive it”.
By resigning, Onnoghen removed the wind from the sail of his traducers. He shamed them. He disallowed them from humiliating him to the last, dragging his name further in the mud. Those who are guffawing and backslapping each other should bury their heads in shame. Onnoghen even saved the spin doctors in the presidency from bothering about the nightmare of the impossibility of garnering two-third majority votes of a rabidly independent Senate to remove Onnoghen. That would have been the 8th wonder of the world. This is because of the provisions of section 292 (1) of the 1999 Constitution, which state: “a judicial officer shall not be removed from his office or appointment before his age of retirement except in the following circumstances – (a) in the case of – (i) Chief Justice of Nigeria… by the President acting on an address supported by two-third majority of the Senate.”
To be sure, Onnoghen who was suspended from office on January 25, 2019, had pointedly accused the EFCC of levelling “malicious and speculative” allegations against him, concerning alleged car and monetary gifts, some as far back as 2008. It did not matter to Onnoghen’s traducers that there was no way Onnoghen could receive gifts to pervert the cause of justice in two cases (mentioned by the EFCC) that involved eminent Justices such as Musa Dattijo Muhammad, Clara Bata Ogunbiyi, Kudirat Motonmori Kekere-Ekun, Ejembi Eko, Sidi Bage, Katsina-Alu (then CJN), Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad (Ag CJN), John Afolabi Fabiyi, Olufunlola Adekeye, Suleiman Galadinma and Bode Rhodes-Vivor.
When you want to hang a dog, simply give it a bad name. How could Onnoghen have influenced about 11 Justices of the Supreme Court to pervert the course of justice with a mare car gift worth N7 million? One of the allegations was that the sum of N24 million which accrued to him between 2017 and 2018 as estacodes and paid through the Chief Protocol officer of the Supreme Court, one Ngozi Nwankwo, had suddenly become a criminal offence.
Onnoghen’s traducers did not care that Rule 13.5 (2) of the Revised Code of Conduct for judicial officers (published February, 2016), permits a judicial officer to accept “personal gifts or benefits from relatives or personal friends to such extent and on such occasion as are recognized by custom”.
It was simply satanic to link Onnoghen’s gifts with Supreme Court cases in which he did not even sit as a member, simply because one of the counsel who gave him gifts appeared before the above mentioned justices during the period in question.
A strong judiciary is one of the irreducible fundamental platforms for any meaningful constitutional democracy. If you terrorise, intimidate, harass and humiliate the judiciary, using strong hand and brute force, it is a stage set for bidding democracy farewell.
The phoney and ridiculous charges against Onnoghen are that Onnoghen failed to declare his assets, and that he also maintains domiciliary accounts, contrary to the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act. Domiciliary accounts are not foreign accounts. What the construction forbids are foreign accounts, not local domiciliary accounts.
It is clear to any objective observer that the charges against Onnoghen were highly political, and designed to intimidate the Judiciary ahead of the 2019 presidential election and force out Onnoghen, who, as the CJN, would play a major role in the system to entertain disputes arising from the presidential election.
Many facts bear this simple deduction out. The petitioner, an NGO, actually committed the Freudian slip by anchoring its petition on “bearing in mind the imminence of the 2019 general elections and the overwhelming role of the judicial arm both before and after…”. The second fact is that even after recommendation of Onnoghen as CJN by the NJC on 13th October, 2016, it took VP Osibanjo the courage to appoint him as CJN on 1st March, 2017, after protests and outcry by overwhelming majority of Nigerians, and at a time PMB was actually abroad on medical vacation. Three, Onnoghen became the first Southerner to be made CJN in 30 years, after the last Southerner, Justice Gabriel Ayo Irikefe, occupied that exalted office in 1987. Four, Onnoghen had been CJN for well over a year. How come the Executive suddenly woke up from a deep slumber and discovered his operation of domiciliary accounts years before he was appointed CJN, which accounts, according to the petition, had been in existence since 2011, a period during which the CJN had already been a Justice of the Supreme Court since 2005?
When have Nigerian security agencies optimised and displayed such efficiency that a petition written by an NGO on 7th January, 2019, received by CCB on 9th January, 2019, was acted upon with such “automatic alacrity” that by 11th January, 2019, charges had been filed against Onnoghen. And wait for it, he was arraigned on Monday, 14th January, 2019, all within one week! What of the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) and Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) Act, which prescribe certain necessary steps that must be taken before a charge is filed?
How come the CCT granted an ex parte order not moved by any lawyer on record to order a sitting CJN to “step aside” from office? What would be the final punishment at the end of the trial?
This onslaught is to finally cow and annihilate the Judiciary, the last hope of the common people. Nigerians now appear to live in bondage of dictatorship and absolutism. Citizens now talk in whispers, afraid of even their shadows. Only those who support the government, however
corrupt, find peace. Like Naaman the leper, who was deeped into River Jordan seven times and became cleansed of his leprosy, all that a corrupt politician needs to do to be washed clean of his political leprosy (as white as snow), is to decamp to the ruling APC. He would be embraced immediately, given a front pew, inducted into the hall of fame, and put in charge of leading Buhari’s presidential campaign.
Some Nigerians are still playing the Ostrich in the full glare of this clear and present danger, behaving like the “Chichidodo” bird talked about by the Ghanaian author, Ayi Kwei Armah, in his epic novel, “The beautiful ones are not yet born”.
The bird hates human faeces, but paradoxically feeds on maggots that wriggle out of such excreta. Some people are bent on breaking up Nigeria.Those currently ululating over Onnoghen’s “downfall”(I consider him a hero who stood against brazen and raw display of state power) must know that what goes around comes around. When you throw a stone into a busy market, you can never say who would be hit. Whenever you point a finger at others, four are pointing against you.
Some people are still clapping with Nigeria going down the drains, with state institutions being systemically and systematically destroyed for immediate political gains. We are now operating a broken system. And some citizens are not seeing the danger because they want to be seen to be politically correct. History has shown that democratic platforms like the NASS, Judiciary and Political parties can be used by a dictatorial inclined ruler to enthrone dictatorship, absolutism and fascism. It was Learned Hand who once theorized that the only price we must pay for our liberty is eternal vigilance. I so humbly submit.