CJN Onnoghen and A confused People

Overview

Although the 1999 Constitution states clearly that every public office holder in the country like CJN Onnoghen must declare his/her assets within 90 days of appointment, CJN Onnoghen, who happens to be the Chief Custodian of the laws of the land did not obey these same laws that he protects (sic).

This past week has left many Nigerians confused and tempers flaring after the CJN was sued by an NGO over non-declaration of assets.

The CJN had omitted three domiciliary accounts filled with money when filling his asset declaration form.

How this happened, no one knows and that widely opens doors for speculations and judgements in the court of public opinion.

Mr. Walter Onnoghen, Chief justice of the federation was to appear before Danladi Usman of the CCT on Monday the thirteenth of this month but he was (unsurprisingly) absent.

This was in accordance with the instructions of some PDP governors from the South-South region who have kicked against the arraignment process in its totality. These governors have threatened to close down the oil wells in the region if “our boy” is removed from his post.

The CJN has since blamed his error on forgetfulness even though he had ninety days to remember.

It should be of note that “forgetfulness” has absolutely no place in the Nigerian constitution of 1999, but somehow the Chief Justice of Nigeria doesn’t know this. Perhaps, he forgot that too.

Nigerians, in their usual acts have already given their own judgement on the issue, even the ones who couldn’t manage a credit in Civic education back in secondary school.

The opinions of these people are divided into two distinct groups, each pledging loyalty to either of the two major political parties in the country.

The PDP supporters believe that the timing of this is wrong as it comes very close to the general elections.

They further believe that the federal government of President Buhari is only trying to remove CJN Walter Onnoghen just so that they can have the chance to “choose” a new CJN who would serve their purpose.

The APC supporters maintain that while this is actually close to the election, a “corrupt” man cannot be left at the helm of the Nigerian judiciary just because “the election is around the corner”.

“The CJN can only appear before the National Judicial Council (NJC)”; this is another of the points used by Walter Onnoghen’s sympathizers.

They think that the CJN cannot appear before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) unless he has been investigated and found wanting by the National Judicial Council (NJC).

Seasoned senior lawyer Mr. Falana (SAN) also holds this opinion. Prof. Itse Sagay (SAN), Chairman Presidential Advisory Committee on Corruption, holds a different opinion. He reportedly said, “We should be talking of the substance. Did he or did he not do it? That is all.”

People who are opposed to Mr. Falana’s view reiterate that the NJC itself is a party of corrupt personnel who are willing to support one another. 94 lawyers were at the CCT on Monday to defend the CJN.

Recall that a similarly outrageous number of lawyers were also at the court to defend the president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) late last year.

They also argue that there is no point investigating and/or defending the CJN who, according to them, has already admitted his wrongdoing.

“The CJN already said he forgot, there is no basis for forgetfulness in the Constitution, so, that is technically a confessional statement.” said one Twitter user.

Others were quick to point out to him that even when armed robbers and kidnappers confess their crimes, they are still made to follow due process by appearing in court with a lawyer to defend them, so why deny the CJN this?

Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen Chief Justice of Nigeria
Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen
Chief Justice of Nigeria

Staunch critics of this government have not shied away from this discourse. Wasted no time in calling this move “dangerous”, “un-due“, “illegal” and a “rape of democracy”.

They want the president to suspend this trial as they believe that this is a plot by the president to remove the CJN, a Southerner and replace him with a Northerner whom they can control.

Labeling the president as nepotistic and arrogant. They believe that this is a war against the South and that everyone from that region must reject it.

The Senate president Bukola Saraki talked extensively about this via Twitter. He had this to say:

“The proposed trial of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) has once again opened up the debate on the transparency and neutrality of this administration’s fight against corruption.

As somebody who has travelled this route before, we should refrain from any media trial and political players should avoid abusing the judicial process.

Everybody who is under trial should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The haste with which this trial is being pursued leaves a lot to be desired.

From last Wednesday when the so-called petition against the CJN was initiated to the period the trial is scheduled to commence has been barely three working days. Whereas there are pending cases, where the individuals involved, have been indicted some months ago but no prosecution is being considered.

All these subjective actions politicize the anti-graft fight. They weaken national institutions. The CJN is not above the law but his trial puts the entire judicial system on trial. It sends a wrong signal to the entire world about our judiciary.

This trial, coming just about a month to the commencement of the presidential elections, the aftermath of which the CJN and the judiciary he is leading are set to play a crucial adjudicatory role, has already raised suspicions about the real motive.

There are already suggestions that this plan is set to disorganize the judicial arm after constant attempts by agents of State to undermine the federal legislature. The FG has already asked the court to remove Onoghen.

The entire country and the international community will be watching every step in this trial closely because it is definitely unusual, unprecedented and will define the engagement between the three arms of government.

This trial definitely has implications for the principle of separation of powers and the concept of checks and balances, which are embedded in our presidential system of government.”

The South-South governors, on the other hand, haven’t embraced the peaceful method of protest which the Senate President used. They have urged their supporters to resist the move with all their might.

Threats ranging from “closing their borders” to prevent people from other regions access to their states to promises to “lock all oil wells in the South South”.

This very adamant stance taken by the PDP governors from the South South has raised a lot of questions among social media users. “Is the CJN a PDP member?” one person asked.

Other people questioned the possibility of these threats being carried out and the moral standing for threatening the federal government.

If there’s anyone learning from this saga, it’s the youth from the Southwest. Several tweets discussing the “laziness” and “unwillingness” of Southwestern leaders to stand up for their “children” when they’re being “persecuted”, have been circulated.

The cases of Kemi Adeosun and Adebayo Shittu have been specifically mentioned in this conversation. “Yoruba leaders need to stand up more for their children when they are being faced with public embarrassment and persecution how the Southwestern leaders are doing”.

That was the deduction of some of the people who were never interested in the case for other than cheap political points.

Conclusion

Finally, I call on everyone out there to put aside partisanship for a minute and actually think deep then read what the Constitution says before passing their own judgement on this case.

One Twitter user highlighted something I think is very noteworthy. He said: ” if after the trial the CJN is adjudged to be not guilty and is thereby discharged and acquitted, will he be able to look into the face of any of the 94 judges (who came to defend him in court) and pass a judgement against them?”

This question raises serious concern about the integrity of our lawyers as it shows most of them to be more interested in what they can gain from huge cases like this one, rather than respecting and obeying the laws of the land, in essence, pointing towards a rot (or potential rot) in our judicial system.

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