Their Lordships normally do their work shaping destinies of nations quietly cloaked in robes and rigs of relative anonymity. Few of them are known despite their decades of dogged service in the administration of justice because judges by discipline do not call attention to themselves.
His Lordship Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen is arguably the most famous jurist to have occupied that position in a generation. Despite the likes of Justices Mohammed Uwais and Mohammed Bello who served almost a dozen years each, Justice Walter Onnoghen has more name recognition today in our national consciousness even though he occupied the office for barely 2 years having been sworn in on March 7, 2017.
The reasons are not far fetched. His appointment and his suspension were shrouded in pointless controversy. For the first time in Nigeria’s history, the president refused to act on the most senior judge duly nominated by the NJC to be Chief Justice creating a constitutional crisis and leading to mass protests.
Also for the first time in Nigeria’s history, the president illegally removed the duly appointed CJN creating a constitutional crisis and leading to mass protests.
It is said that some people are born great, some people become great and some people have greatness forced upon them. The persecution of Chief Justice Onnoghen by the Gen. Buhari regime clearly is a case of greatness forced upon him!
His frame up and baseless prosecution in a case that self-imploded on a tissue of lies has made him even more an object of empathy in the public eye as a lamb led to the slaughter by a garrulous regime.
However before the political theater that propelled him into the spotlight, Justice Onnoghen had already penned his name in gold in the annals of judicial history.
Many may not recall this but Justice Onnoghen also made positive impact by himself when for the first and only time in Nigeria’s history, 5 governors lost their seats in one day via a Supreme Court ruling.
According to the BBC, “Nigeria’s Supreme Court has ordered five of the country’s powerful state governors to step down immediately.
It marks the end of a long legal battle about when exactly their terms in office, which last four years, began. They were from the ruling People’s Democratic Party, winning polls in 2007 in Bayelsa, Cross River, Kogi, Adamawa and Sokoto and vote re-runs in 2008. The BBC’s Fidelis Mbah in Lagos says it is a landmark judgement, asserting the authority of the judiciary. Some, especially in oil-producing areas, control bigger budgets than those of national governments in some neighbouring West African countries.”
The only judge quoted out of the 7-person panel by the international media was
then Supreme Court Justice Walter Onnoghen who said,”To allow the governors seeking tenure elongation will allow a culture of impunity in the system”, the AFP news agency reported.
Not only did Justice Onnoghen remove the governors of 5 states of the ruling party but he also removed the governor of his own state Cross Rivers. Sadly on the 7th anniversary of this historic judgment of January 27, 2012 he was suspended and being prosecuted by the Buhari regime.
Another historic verdict in which Justice Onnoghen featured, was the only one in which the president was just one vote shy of being removed. Per Leadership Newspaper “On December 24, 2008, Leadership Newspaper named the trio of former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, former Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Oguntade and the current CJN, Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen as the ‘’Leadership Persons of the Year’’, with the following comments:
‘’In a period of uncertainty and palpable loss of political faith, they struck a courageous blow for truth that captured and galvanized the popular imagination of Nigerians.
‘’In the face of contrived siege, they defied creeping authoritarianism and chose the road less traveled. For their fearless, judicial reaffirmation that justice is the 21st century’s most powerful idea; for lighting a candle in darkness to show the way forward, Justices Alooma Mariam-Mukhtar, George Oguntade, and Walter Onnoghen are the LEADERSHIP Persons Of The Year 2008.
The trio, in their dissenting judgment, held that the allegation of substantial non-compliance with the Electoral Act 2006 was proved by the petitioner.”
Ironically the Petitioner whom Justice Onnoghen’s award-winning dissenting judgment was given in favor of was no less than General Buhari. Tragically, rather than be recognized and venerated as was done for other dissenting justices by Gen. Buhari, he was been subjected to abuse, defamation and persecution instead.
The compelling question that right thinking people would ask is if Gen. Buhari is accusing the Chief Justice of corruption, did he himself bribe his Lordship to gain the favorable dissenting judgment in 2008? Similarly as a member of the opposition himself in 2012, did the opposition marshal enough resources to bribe His Lordship to remove 5 sitting PDP governors including two oil-rich Niger Delta states?
Clearly this is neither logical nor plausible. What is more credible is that Chief Justice Onnoghen was persecuted now not because of any corrupt personal experience Gen. Buhari had with him but because of the import of the daring dissent he rendered for future rulings. Again per Leadership Newspaper, “Justice Muhktar exhibited part of her attributes when, alongside Justices George Adesola Oguntade and Walter Onnoghen, (they) voided the 2007 electoral victory of late President Musa Yar’Adua and his then Vice, Goodluck Jonathan and sacked them from office by their epochal minority judgment.” Now that Gen. Buhari is on the other side of the divide is there any wonder that he would not want such a decision rendered against him?
Finally it is insightful to review a case decided by Justice Onnoghen during the tenure of Gen. Buhari. The latter had fallen out with Senate President Saraki and subjected him to prosecution at the Code of Conduct Tribunal. Saraki challenged the trial stating amongst others that since Buhari had not yet appointed an Attorney General, the charges against him were incompetent.
The Guardian Newspaper reported that “According to Justice Onnoghen, the charge was valid even when the AGF was not in place, saying: “Even in the absence of AGF, the charge can be valid and it is valid.” “ Consequently the Buhari regime won and subjected the senate president to trial. Gen. Buhari is the only president in Nigerian history to have arraigned heads of both arms of government (Legislative and Judiciary) for prosecution.
It is however not just in judgments past and present that Chief Justice Onnoghen has made his mark. His Lordship introduced a digital justice platform whereby all lawyers of the Nigerian bar now have a personalized Supreme Court e-mail address. Via this system, lawyers can now be served processes electronically thus cutting down the cost, expense and hardship of long distance delivery of hard copies. This development is arguably the most significant technological upgrade in the Nigerian legal system since Nigeria’s independence almost 6 decades ago.
The few foregoing examples illustrate clearly not only the gross injustice of his unfair removal and unjust treatment but the utter travesty of how Nigeria maltreats its best and brightest. Nigeria is a land that devours its inhabitants – venerating villains and vilifying the valiant. It is manifestly evil to reward a career of 4 decades dedicated to justice with injustice. But it is even worse to replace such talent with lesser.
International Human Rights Lawyer