By Ikechukwu Nnochiri – Abuja
Former Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, on Friday, opened up for the first time and revealed why he was unceremoniously removed from office in 2019 by the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration.
Onnoghen, who spoke at a book launch ceremony he attended with his wife, said he was booted out of office over a false allegation that he held a secret meeting with former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, prior to the 2019 general elections.
Atiku was the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and a major threat to the re-election bid of President Buhari who was the flag-bearer of the ruling All Progressive Congress, APC.
It will be recalled that President Buhari had on January 25, 2019, about 29 days to the presidential election, suspended Onnoghen from office as the CJN and swore-in the next most senior jurist of the Supreme Court, Justice Tanko Muhammad to take over the leadership of the judiciary.
Onnoghen’s suspension came barely eight hours after he announced his decision to inaugurate judges that would preside over election petition tribunals.
President Buhari’s action elicited varied reactions from both within and outside the judicial circles, with the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, describing it as a coup against the judiciary.
Meanwhile, over two years after he was removed as CJN and later convicted by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, on a six-count corruption charge the Federal Government preferred against him, Justice Onnoghen, on Friday, gave his own side of the story.
He said the rumour about his alleged meeting with Atiku, gained traction around January 2019.
Justice Onnoghen said though the rumour was brought to his attention, he however decided not to react to it since he never travelled to Dubai or had any form of meeting with anybody, including Atiku.
The former CJN said he was however surprised that though the Federal Government had all the machinery to investigate the allegation with a view to ascertaining if his rumoured meeting with Atiku was true or false, it never did so, but rather opted to pounce on him unlawfully.
He said he was not shocked when his trial at the CCT was quickly arranged, even when he was not invited for questioning as required by the law, or accused of any wrongdoing.
Onnoghen decried that in a bid to get him out of the way, by all means, FG, procured the ex-parte order it relied upon to unlawfully suspend him from office, even when all the parties had already joined issues at the tribunal.
He said: “Prior to my suspension, I was confronted with no allegation.
“There were rumours that I met with Atiku in Dubai. But as I am talking here today, I have never met Atiku one on one in my life.
“As if that was not enough, I was also accused of setting free, some high-profile criminals, whereas I ceased to be a High Court Judge as far back as 1978.
“In Supreme Court, I did not sit alone, we sit in panel. In all these rumours and outright accusations, I was not given the opportunity to defend myself.
“Let me make it clear that the office of the CJN was not for Onnoghen, but for all Nigerians who swore to guide and protect the Constitution of the Federal Republic.
“As I have said severally, Judicial officers must be courageous. And I want to beg all serving judicial officers not to be discouraged by what happened to me in the hand of the Executive arm of the government.
“Emerging brand of Nigerian judges should not go the direction of injustice, because, without courageous judges, Nigeria is doomed.
“Here, let me sound this note of warning that the appointment of judicial officers must never be allowed to be politicized, otherwise, democracy and democratic governance will be dead.
“During my tenure, the problem of Nigeria was not the Nigerian judiciary, but those who had no regard for the rule of law.
“We must therefore be committed to the rule of law and dispense justice without fear or favour.
“Truth stands. Crush it, it will still stand because it is truth”, Onnoghen added.
He said his ordeal in 2019 was not the first, noting that at a point during former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime, a Commission of Inquiry that was set up then, indicted him of wrongdoing, even when he was not invited or allowed to appear before the panel to defend himself.
Onnoghen said because former President Obasanjo was a leader who listened to advice, his case was referred to the National Judicial Council, NJC, for review.
He said at the Council, the truth surfaced and he was found to be innocent of the allegation.
The former CJN, therefore, urged Nigerians to always stand by the truth at all times, adding that only truth and justice can rescue Nigeria.
Meanwhile, he commended the author of the book entitled ‘Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 2009, Practice, Procedure, Forms and Precedents’, Chief Ogwu James Onoja, SAN, for a job well done.
Among special guests at the event included the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Abubakar Malami, SAN, who was represented by the Solicitor-General of the Federation, Mr Dayo Apata, SAN, and Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State who was represented by the Attorney-General of the state.
Others were Justices of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice John Tsoho, President of the National Industrial Court, Justice Benedict Kanyip, as well as Senior Advocates of Nigeria.