By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, the way events happen at the speed of light, in our dear beloved country Nigeria, is unbelievable. I flew out of Lagos yesterday on a few hours flight to Sierra Leone but within that twinkle of an eye, a monumental development had occurred back home. Thanks to social media, cyberspace was awash and agog with the story of President Muhammadu Buhari literally firing the Chief Justice of the Federation, Honourable Justice, Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen GCON, with automatic alacrity, even though the President claimed that his action was merely a suspension.
I’m not a lawyer but I’m knowledgeable enough about the Constitutional supremacy, rule of law, fair hearing and judicial process. For now, I will not go into the rights and wrongs of the allegations against the CJN, Honourable Justice Onnoghen because the matter is subjudice as it is still being dealt with by the courts. The President’s actions yesterday would seem to belie this crucial fact. The case against CJN Onnoghen may later turn out to be unassailable, but until then he should be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to enjoy his right to be presumed innocent until declared guilty by a court of law. It is for him to choose the path of honour and resign, but it is also entirely his discretion, knowing the strength of his case and the conviction about his innocence, to insist on remaining in position until the outcome of the case against him is known.
Without jumping to any conclusions yet, I took time to read President Buhari’s speech dealing with the swearing in of the newly appointed Acting Chief Justice of the Federation, Honourable Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed. I was alarmed by what I read. The rhetoric seemed to me to be even worse than it has been in the past. The dictatorial and strident tone and toga of the President in his first speech as Military Head of State was all too palpable for me. I am certain that this speech will go down in the annals of Nigerian history as one of the epochal speeches that shaped Nigeria. Whether for good or ill, only time will tell. Let me therefore literally and figuratively take the pain to quote him verbatim.
A short while ago, I was served with an Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal issued on Wednesday 23rd January 2019, directing the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen, from office pending final determination of the cases against him at the Code of Conduct Tribunal and several other fora relating to his alleged breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers.
2. The nation has been gripped by the tragic realities of no less a personality than the Chief Justice of Nigeria himself becoming the accused person in a corruption trial since details of the petition against him by a Civil Society Organization first became public about a fortnight ago.
3. Although the allegations in the petition are grievous enough in themselves, the security agencies have since then traced other suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars to the CJN’s personal accounts, all undeclared or improperly declared as required by law.
4. Perhaps more worrisome is the Chief Justice of Nigeria’s own written admission to the charges that he indeed failed to follow the spirit and letter of the law in declaring his assets, citing ’’mistake’’ and ’’forgetfulness’’ which are totally unknown to our laws as defences in the circumstances of his case.
5. One expected that with his moral authority so wounded, by these serious charges of corruption, more so by his own written admission, Mr. Justice Walter Onnoghen would have acted swiftly to spare our Judicial Arm further disrepute by removing himself from superintending over it while his trial lasted.
6. Unfortunately, he has not done so. Instead, the nation has been treated to the sordid spectacle of a judicial game of wits in which the Chief Justice of Nigeria and his legal team have made nonsense of the efforts of the Code of Conduct Tribunal to hear the allegation on merit and conclude the trial as quickly as possible considering the nature of the times in which we live.
7. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, we have all seen the full weight of the Chief Justice of Nigeria descend on the tender head of one of the organs of justice under his control. There is simply no way the officers of that court, from the Chairman to the bailiffs, can pretend to be unaffected by the influence of the leader of the Judiciary.
8. Not only the trial court, but others have been put on the spot. Practically every other day since his trial commenced, the nation has witnessed various courts granting orders and counter-orders in favour of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, all of them characterised by an unholy alacrity between the time of filing, hearing and delivery of judgment in same.
9. The real effect has been a stalling of the trial of Justice Onnoghen, helped along by lawyers who insist that these orders, whether right or wrong are technically valid, and must be obeyed till an appellate Court says otherwise. No doubt, that it is the proper interpretation, but is it the right disposition for our nation?
10. Nigeria is a constitutional democracy and no one must be, or be seen to be, above the law. Unfortunately, the drama around the trial of the Chief Justice of Nigeria has challenged that pillar of justice in the perception of the ordinary man on the street. For it is certain that no ordinary Nigerian can get the swift and special treatment Justice Onnoghen has enjoyed from his subordinates and privies in our Judicature.
11. In the midst of all these distracting events, the essential question of whether the accused CJN actually has a case to answer has been lost in the squabble over the form and nature of his trial. This should not be so.
12. If Justice cannot be done and clearly seen to be done, society itself is at risk of the most unimaginable chaos. As a Government, we cannot stand by wailing and wringing our hands helplessly but give our full backing and support to those brave elements within the Judiciary who act forthrightly, irrespective of who is involved.
13. As you are all aware, the fight against corruption is one of the tripod of policies promised to Nigerians by this administration. Needless to say that it is an existential Policy which must be given adequate attention and commitment by all the three arms of government. The efforts of the Executive will amount to nothing without the cooperation of the Legislature and especially the Judiciary.
14. It is no secret that this government is dissatisfied with the alarming rate in which the Supreme Court of Nigeria under the oversight of Justice Walter Onnoghen has serially set free, persons accused of the most dire acts of corruption, often on mere technicalities, and after quite a number of them have been convicted by the trial and appellate courts.
15. Since there is nothing the Executive Arm can do after the apex court of the land has spoken on any matter, several of these individuals walk free among us today, enjoying what are clearly the proceeds of the corruption which for so long has defeated the efforts of this nation to develop and prosper.
16. It is against this background that I have received the Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal directing me to suspend the Chief Justice pending final determination of the cases against him. It also explains why I am not only complying immediately, but with some degree of relief for the battered sensibilities of ordinary Nigerians whose patience must have become severely over-taxed by these anomalies.
17. In line with this administration’s avowed respect for the Rule of Law, I have wholeheartedly obeyed the Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal dated 23rd January 2019.
18. Accordingly, I hereby suspend the Honourable Mr. Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen, GCON as the Chief Justice of Nigeria pending final determination of the case against him at the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
19. In further compliance with the same Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, I hereby invite Honourable Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed JSC, being the next most Senior Justice in the Supreme Court, to come forward to take the Judicial Oath as Chief Justice of Nigeria in an Acting Capacity.
20. Fellow Nigerians, we can only stand a chance to win the fight against Corruption, and position our dear nation for accelerated development when we stand together to contend against it.
Thank you and may God bless our country.
It is worth reiterating that this aforementioned speech read to me like a coup day speech, with all the preaching and pontificating, especially as it was littered with huge dollops of self-righteousness and moral indignation. The President sermonised in a holier than thou manner with the trenchant rectitude that has now become the hallmark of this administration particularly in the twilight days of this first term. President Muhammadu Buhari turned himself into a real four plus four. He became the Investigator, Prosecutor, Judge and Executioner in one fell swoop.
From that moment, Nigeria immediately transfigured, and migrated, to full blown dictatorship. The President, with one stroke of the pen, instantly abolished the principle of separation of powers as enshrined and entrenched in our Constitution. He more or less abolished any notion of the independence of the judiciary and checkmated the legislature with which he shares the joint responsibility for the suspension or removal of the Chief Justice of Nigeria. Indeed, the President’s action is an abrogation of the supremacy of the Constitution, a document which he has given short shrift and practically turned to toilet paper. To all intents and purposes, that is how worthless our Constitution is right now!
One thing is sure, the President is no longer in the mood for the niceties or nuances of Democratic tenets and concepts, but is firmly in the autocratic power mode that militocracy so generously offers. I weep for Nigeria and I cry for the President and his gang of powermongers who have refused to read the history of Nigeria, and, if they did, have refused to learn anything from it.
I heard and read of many Buharideens shouting, jumping and jubilating that the President has done the right thing by summarily sacking the CJN. I don’t blame them, but I wish to let them know that the ozone layer they have entered is too dangerous for anyone to contemplate.
Anytime it seemed Nigeria has been conquered, the conqueror is usually defeated by the resilience of our long-suffering people. The tragedy is, I see many lawyers in this government who are all keeping mute in the face of tyranny, just for them to remain in power, by fire by force. As I wrote to our dear President not too long ago, man shall not live by power alone.
God has been very kind to President Muhammadu Buhari. He became Head of State about 35 odd years ago and was sacked in 1985. Anyone would have thought it was over and finished for him. In less than a couple of years, many Nigerians who hailed his emergence as Head of State were jubilating on the streets when his military government was toppled in a palace coup by those close to him. But God, in His infinite mercy and wisdom, brought him from the shadows of death and restored him back to even greater power and glory in a democratic setting, after making several amazing shots at the Presidency.
Holy Moses! No one would have thought Baba would blow his second chance and shatter it into smithreens in this manner. Since 2015, it’s been obvious that President Buhari is only different from Major General Buhari in terms of change of nomenclature and uniform. He must feel a sense of nostalgia for those days when he didn’t have to share powers with the legislature and Judiciary, and now craves a return to that time he was alpha and omega.
But truth is whatever victory he hopes to record, by playing for broke yesterday, can only be pyrrhic. Nothing more. When tomorrow comes, like it would come, sooner rather than later, he would look back with regrets and ask, why did I do that which may have been needed, but totally unnecessary.
I have no doubt in my mind that whatever happens, it shall be well with Nigeria and this too shall pass away.
Dear compatriots, stay strong and resolute. The best is yet to come. God bless our great country.