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Onnoghen: Hope of confirmation as chief justice uncertain


Justice Walter Onnoghen in a handshake with President Muhammadu Buhari

Justice Walter Onnoghen in a handshake with President Muhammadu Buhari

• NASS Has No Powers To Confirm Him Without President’s Letter, Says Nwabueze
• Senior Lawyers Warn President

Unless the National Assembly confirms the appointment of the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen on or before February 10, he would loose his office.

But confirmation of such appointments at the National Assembly can only happen when the president transmits a letter to the Senate, nominating a candidate to be so appointed.

With barely two weeks to the expiration of his appointment in acting capacity, some Nigerians are already arguing that the National Assembly can without waiting for the President’s letter, go ahead and confirm him as the substantial CJN.


This is because, Section 231 (5) of the 1999 Constitution as amended, stipulates that any person so appointed “shall cease to have effect after the expiration of three months from the date of such appointment, and the President shall not re-appointment a person whose appointment has lapsed.”

In essence, Justice Onnoghen, if not confirmed would leave the office on February 10.

Onnoghen was appointed the acting CJN by President Muhammadu Buhari on November 11, 2016, following the retirement of the immediate past CJN, Mohammed Mahmud on November 10.

This is the first time the holder of the office is appointed in acting capacity for such a length of time in recent times. He now has till February 10, 2017 to get his appointment validated by the National Assembly or be removed from office.

Stakeholders are concerned that the uncertainty on whether Justice Onnoghen would be the substantive CJN or not, might impede justice administration and judicial reforms in the country. This development also confirms worries from different quarters that there are grand plots to deny Justices from the Southern part of Nigeria the opportunity of heading the apex court in Nigeria.

Curiously, the next in rank to Justice Onnoghen is a Northerner, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad from Bauchi State.

Former president of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN) has warned that denying Onnoghen the office would endanger stability and peaceful succession at the apex court.

He added that such action would ultimately affect justice administration in the country negatively. He therefore urged the president to respect the constitution.

His words: “If Nigeria as a country can rightly not afford the luxury of a vacuum in the office of President of Nigeria for one day, I submit with every respect and force, that we should stop toying with the idea of creating an avoidable, but dangerous vacuum in the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria. The Judiciary is so sacred, central, unique, crucial, critical and pre-eminent to us as a nation, and we must do everything to safeguard its interest and protect its independence. Thus, all men of goodwill should join in the clarion call for the appointment of a substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria without any further delay!”

A constitutional lawyer, Mr. Sebastine Hon (SAN) queries the idea of the National Assembly confirming the CJN suo moto.

According to him, the National Assembly only possesses confirmatory or confirmation powers, as far as the emergence of a new CJN is concerned.

He said: “I strongly counsel Mr. President to formally appoint Justice Onnoghen and immediately forward his name to the Senate for confirmation. This will not only create a North-South balance in the sharing of federal positions, but will also reassure the Judiciary that it is not being deliberately maligned.

In similar vein, popular constitutional law scholar, Prof. Ben Nwabueze (SAN), believes that the National Assembly cannot bypass the process of receiving a letter from the President. He told The Guardian that the National Assembly does not possess such powers under the law of the country.

Many senior lawyers were apprehensive in commenting on the issue when The Guardian sought their views.

Coalition in Defence of Nigerian Democracy and Constitution (CDNDC) in a statement by the Co-Convener, Ariyo-Dare Atoye said any attempt by the present leadership to alter the existing tradition of appointing the CJN and other judicial heads to suit ethnic interest will spell doom for Nigeria.


“This development is unsettling the judiciary and has equally raised serious concern across the country, with some groups and individuals alleging ethnic conspiracy to deny Justice Onnoghen, being the first Southerner in 30 years to merit the CJN position based on established judicial convention,” the group said.

According to group, the consequences of ethnicising and politicising of the judiciary will bring down the nation to her knees.

“We must never allow this circle of impunity into our judicial system. When justice becomes ethnicised at the Supreme Court level to serve executive interest, we can as well kiss this country goodbye,” the group said.

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