PERSPECTIVE – When justice flees the judiciary, the country dies a little

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Justice Walter Onnoghen, left, and Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed.

By Owei Lakemfa
The immediate-past Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, on December 22, 2020, turned 70. It was less an occasion for celebration and more of lamentation. On this date that should have marked his retirement, his thoughts were fixated on that January 26, 2019 date he was yanked from the bench and replaced by an uninspiring Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad. The former CJN said of those events: “How can you just wake up one morning and they say you have been removed from office. Nobody is ready to tell you anything, all everybody was just saying is resign, resign. What have I done?” Onnoghen laments that nobody told him his offence.

But why would he expect anybody tell him his offence when he had not committed any? He knew he had committed no offence; those who removed him also knew that, as did discerning Nigerians, and of course, the international community. There were various reasons necessitating his removal. First, he was one of those judges the Executive tried to intimidate by raiding their homes in the dead of night in October, 2016. This was read as an attempt to harass, intimidate and brow beat the judiciary to submission. So naturally he might have been angry. Secondly, the Presidency appeared to have tried to stall his appointment as CJN. Thirdly, his suspension came a day before he was scheduled to swear in members of election tribunals in readiness for the general elections that were less than three weeks away.

In fact, the international community seemed convinced that the pending election was the immediate trigger. That was why the United States pointed out that Onnoghen’s removal was: “without the support of the legislative branch on the eve of national and state elections”. Britain said yanking off the CJN: “risks affecting both domestic and international perceptions on the credibility of the forthcoming elections.” The European Union said the removal did not follow due process.

Rather than due process, a media trial was conducted which found Onnoghen ‘guilty.’ Then lots of pressure was mounted on him to resign. When he insisted on knowing his crimes and be allowed his day in court, there was a cacophony of rehearsed voices who campaigned that he must resign to ‘save the judiciary.” If after his unconstitutional suspension, Onnoghen had refused to resign, the Executive would have in accordance with Section 292 of the constitution, required two thirds of the Senate to remove him. This might have been a near-impossible task in a Senate presided over by Dr. Bukola Saraki which was striving for independence from an overbearing Presidency. Hence, the trick to get him to resign.

So being told his offence(s) would have meant placing on the shoulders of his traducers, the enormous task of citing the constitutional provisions that can justify their unconstitutional actions. It would have meant giving Onnoghen the basis to put up his defense. There was also the possibility of the judicial executioners losing in court; that was a risk they were not willing to take. I must not forget to mention that the services of a pliant Code of Conduct Tribunal were secured. But a proper trial at the Tribunal would have dragged into the general elections which would have defeated a main purpose of the attack on the CJN, and by extension, on the judiciary.

Yes, some feeble resistance including by an infiltrated Nigeria Bar Association was put up, but the coup against the judiciary could not be stopped. In a sense, Onnoghen should count himself lucky that all that was done to him was removal and forced resignation, not dismissal and imprisonment. He can still fall back on his pension. But for me, he owes the country a duty to press for justice to be done. However, this is not the struggle of an individual; it should be a collective one to save the country.

If the Chief Justice of the Federation is denied justice and has no hope that justice will be done in his case, how can the judiciary be touted as the hope of the common man; how can an hopeless judiciary give hope? The fact that the courts continue to run with a full paraphernalia of wigged judges and robed lawyers does not mean the wheel of justice is grinding, not even slowly. We have a conquered judiciary that at crucial points in our ‘democracy’ will do the bidding of the master. As the general principle goes, justice should not just be done, but must be seen to be done.

Once a serving CJN who is the head of the judiciary and symbol of that arm of government can be removed unconstitutionally and without him being given the basic right to defend himself, whether successfully or unsuccessfully, the justice system cannot but be on life support. The ultimate cowardice exhibited is that the National Judicial Commission, NJC, has two years later, not summoned the courage to release its own findings. I am not sure this is because it is not courageous enough to pronounce Onnoghen guilty where he was found to be wanting; it is more because it lacks the courage to pronounce him innocent as this will anger the Executive. So rather than advance the cause of justice, it prefers to let sleeping dogs lie.

The Court of Appeal gave the country a glimmer of hope when on December 16, 2020, it upturned the conviction and seven years jail term imposed on the former National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Olisa Metuh, by Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court, Abuja. Everybody and organ of the judiciary knew that Metuh in the court of Justice Abang was like lamb taken to the slaughter. But for years, nothing was done to stop this parody of justice as it played out in a court room built and run with public funds. I had drawn attention to this travesty in my May 28, 2018 column titled “Bang on, Justice Abang, bang on!” That was 23 months before he finally sentenced Metuh.

Now that the Metuh trial is to start all over, who bears the costs? As for Justice Abang, like we say in the Niger Delta ‘nothing concern am.’ He will not be surcharged and I can bet that he would in no way be held accountable for his work on the bench which the Appeal Court in a 2016 judgment had described as “ridiculous” as it found that Justice Abang had “raped democracy”. If anything, as long as he continues in his old ways, he has bright prospects and chances of heading the judiciary at one point or stage, and then going into blissful retirement. The court shall rise!

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