Anyone who has been following the news in Nigeria will have no problem to understand ours is a case of one week, one drama. The latest is the matter of Walter Onnoghen, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (now suspended and on trial), over cloudy matters of assets declaration. This is a fresh and ongoing scandal at the highest level of the country’s judiciary, but the heroes and villains are difficult to tell apart. Where does the smear of scandal fall in the ongoing drama between the Presidency and the now suspended chief justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen?
When the news suddenly got out that the CJN would be arraigned for offences related to non-declaration of assets, there were mixed reactions from Nigerians. There was dismay in the South-South, irritation in the legal community and bewilderment in the wider society. Tied to the different emotions was the knowledge of the looming elections, just over two weeks away now. Facts quickly emerged about the speed of development in the case, from the submission of petition to the filing before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT). Then the lawyers injected some more controversy about the legality of the procedure and constitutional arguments erupted. While this was going on, the CJN’S bank accounts were published publicly.
To assert that there has been many permutations and points of analysis (legal and moral, speculative and affirmative) over this issue. We need not rehash the various details other than to remind us that issues have been raised about the government’s abuse of due process, and violation of the Constitution and the legal order, all after a characteristic fashion. There are those who argue that nobody is above the law, not even the Justice of the Supreme Court, but while that may be true, it is important also that the government is seen to be fair and sincere and that its commitment to law and justice is without blemish. The shoddy handling of CJN Onnoghen’s makes no impression on legal purists and positivists who aver that the law cannot be bent to serve the purposes of expediency, otherwise the law is advertised as an ass and every institution in the administration of justice system is put to ridicule.
In the life of the Buhari Presidency, the leadership of the National Assembly, the First arm of government, has been subjected to, at least, two criminal trials (Senate Rules forgery case and CCT False Asset Declaration Case). Following those charges and trial is now this charge and planned arraignment of a serving Chief Justice of Nigeria, the head of the Judiciary, the third arm of government. Being a weighty issue, therefore, one would have imagined that the decision to put the CJN on trial with frenetic speed, following the petition against the CJN, was weighed very carefully.
The general election is just over two weeks away. The CJN, the Supreme Court and the NJC will play certain statutory roles, post the elections. And even as these events unfold, these judicial authorities are playing some adjudicatory and administrative roles regarding the determination of pre-election matters (appeals) arising from contentious party primaries. The CJN is also the head of the Judiciary. Putting him on trial while he is in office, certainly, will impact the Nigerian Judiciary negatively. The portrayal here inevitably will be that the Nigerian Judiciary is so corrupt that its head is put on trial. This depiction is not fair to many judicial officers whose integrity is solid and who are free of corrupt practices. As for Onnoghen, the game may be up for him. There appears to be no scenario where he would happily return to serve as CJN until retirement. Even a successful defense of the allegations against him may still not remove the moral obligation on him to step down from his tainted office as the CJN. Had he done the honourable thing at the beginning by stepping aside to face the allegations, he probably would now have the benefit of doubt and the safety of the judicial system to ensure fair hearing. Onnoghen’s seemingly crisis of honour and lack of self-respect has led to the degeneration of this matter into a full blown constitutional crisis. Other not-too-palatable decisions have been made by the executive arm of government, but an honourable self-recusal by Onnoghen could have tempered the storm and minimized the backlash.
The CJN is, in the eye of the law, presumed innocent, until he is proved and found guilty. Being charged at all, however, implicates his right to fair hearing. In other words, once charged and arraigned, the likelihood is that calls will be made for him to vacate office, albeit permanently, for integrity reasons. If, in the end, he is found not guilty, irreparable damage would have been done to his reputation and the integrity of the Judiciary.
The allegations against the CJN may be grave, but justice cannot be served by resorting to patent illegalities.