By Rotimi Fasan
ABOUT a week ago, the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mr. Walter Onnoghen, finally handed in his resignation to President Muhammadu Buhari. Embattled and harassed in a manner only he could probably explain, Mr. Onnoghen’s resignation hopefully now closes the book on one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the Nigerian bench.
It is important to underline the blight the Onnoghen trial constitutes on the bench as opposed to the bar that many senior lawyers, so-called inner bar, among other hawkers of justice, have turned into a space for giving corruption an agreeable odour. Days after the resignation was reported in the media, the Presidency was yet to acknowledge receipt of Onnoghen’s letter.
Femi Adesina, presidential spokesperson, could not confirm if the president had received the suspended CJN’s resignation letter. Like most Nigerians, he had said he only read about the resignation online.
It would seem like the Presidency or, indeed the president, is taking his time responding to Onnoghen. It is yet anybody’s guess what may be the final outcome of the former (guess he can now be referred to in such terms) CJN’s resignation. Nigerians have divided views about the trial of Onnoghen, right from when accusations were first hurled at him for failing to declare his assets as is expected of public officers of his status.
Now he has reportedly resigned, opinions have been bitterly divided about the wisdom or foolishness of the CJN’s latest step. While there are those who think he has taken the only honourable step open to him, others believe he waited too long to offer his resignation. For this latter group, Onnoghen’s pussyfooting already did a lot of damage and all he is now likely or wants to achieve with his resignation is nothing but to fight fire in order to mitigate the harsh consequences of his initial refusal to resign.
Nothing would satisfy this group of Nigerians than the law taking its natural course. Some go further to demand that Buhari reject Onnoghen’s resignation and simply sack him. They believe Mr. Onnoghen ought to have resigned the moment he had admitted in writing that he did not file, as demanded by the law, his asset declaration form.
For Onnoghen’s sympathisers, there was nothing he could have done to appease those bent on shaming him out of office. They hinged their argument on Buhari’s apparent preference for Nigerians from his part of the country or religion for appointment into important public office. Their distrust of Buhari was nowhere helped by recent revelations during Onnoghen’s trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal that suggested assets attributed to the CJN were grossly exaggerated. Nigerians learned, for example, that the CJN owned nothing close to the 55 houses attributed to him.
He owned no more than five, Nigerians would learn. His decision to fight the accusation against him might look wise if only for the reason that it gave him the opportunity to clear his name. However, it would appear that he was bound to lose the fight, whether he resigned immediately or he remained to clear his name as those sympathetic to him would interpret his decision to stay-put in the wake of the accusation against him.
Resigning immediately would have saved him the embarrassment of a trial. Although, others would have interpreted that differently: as acceptance of guilt. His kith and kin in the South-South, particularly the governors, that had urged him not to resign would have blamed him for being too squeamish and hasty. Right or left, front or back, Onnoghen was a piece of dead meat.
A government that was not already determined on the course it would follow would not have allowed the kind of open accusation that spawned the public shaming and media lynching of the CJN that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission more or less superintended. This should have been more than enough hint for Onnoghen to know that his time was up.
That is, as soon as Onnoghen realised that Buhari does not want him as his CJN, a position long made clear by the president’s failure to confirm his appointment and reinforced by Buhari allowing the EFCC to move against him (he could have quietly demanded his resignation), then Onnoghen ought to have resigned. Not because he was guilty or anything else.
It was just sufficient that he did not enjoy the confidence of the president. This is a lesson our public officers must learn or suffer a similar fate like Walter Onnoghen. Once you do not have your boss’s confidence, resign! But Onnoghen was blind to or unable to read the writing on the wall and so exposed himself to the obloquy that became his lot. He gave his accusers the opportunity to dig up dirt on him.
It cannot be clear that the infraction that eventually consumed Onnoghen was the reason Buhari had been slow to confirm him as CJN. Nigerians must remember that long after he came into office as Acting CJN, Buhari would not elevate Onnoghen to the substantive status of CJN. Onnoghen would only be made CJN when Buhari was on his medical leave in the United Kingdom and Yemi Osinbajo presided as Acting President. Onnoghen was, therefore, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s appointee as CJN, not President Muhammadu Buhari’s.
This fact that points to Buhari’s lack of interest in Onnoghen also undermines anything his government may want to say as to why it shoved him out of office. It makes the accusation against him and his trial look like the antics of a government working to a predetermined answer. Yes, the Buhari administration was never disposed to the former CJN for reasons best known to it.
There is hardly any doubt that Buhari never wanted Onnoghen as Nigeria’s CJN. There is hardly any doubt also that Onnoghen has skeletons, perhaps not as scary as has been made out, in his closet. With a little wisdom on his part, he could have avoided the roasting that came with his being docked and tried in a tribunal. Even if he had survived the trial, he could never have regained his moral authority.
Which reason might not have been too far from the thinking of the National Judicial Council, which only days before Onnoghen offered his resignation, recommended his retirement. This is as good an outcome as could be expected in the circumstance. A lot of good things can still come the way of Onnoghen should Buhari choose to be “magnanimous” at this time, forgive his previous intransigence and accept his resignation. This is face-saving and offers closure. Much to be preferred, if you ask me, to a permanently ruined reputation.