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Judiciary and its many controversies

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Justice Walter Onnoghen

The Judiciary, the once most revered of the three arms of government has come under severe scrutiny and turbulence in the past three years.

The stage for the crackdown on the judiciary could be traced to the statement made by President Muhammadu Buhari shortly after he was sworn in in 2015.

He had told the world that the judiciary was his major problem and vowed to rid the arm of government of corruption, and to reposition it as truly, the last hope of the common man.

Although, the statement received the desired criticism for trying to whittle down the powers of the judiciary, no one ever envisaged what the executive had in stock for the sector.

The first shocker was the raid, in October 2016, on two Supreme Court justices and some other judges of high courts for alleged corrupt practices in an atmosphere that denigrated the judiciary. While the country was yet to overcome the shock of the mid-night raid, the executive through the office of State Security Service (DSS) demanded that the affected judicial officers step down to allow for their prosecution.

Although the leadership of National Judicial Council officially reacted to the raid, describing it as the height of impunity, the affected judicial officers were eventually abandoned to bear their crosses, and one after the other, they faced trials in a most humiliating manner at the end of which most of them were discharged and acquitted.

Not even the Nigerian Bar Association showed the political will at that time to protect their house from imminent collapse. Rather, the dissenting voices among members gave further impetus to their adversaries.

As the judiciary was recovering from the assault, it was confronted with yet, another strict resistance from the executive. In what was considered a judicial aberration, Mr. President had decided to appoint the embattled Justice Walter Onnoghen on acting capacity in total neglect to the tradition of ensuring that no vacuum is created in that office.

Following the recommendation of National Judicial Council, Mr. President was expected to have forwarded the nomination of Justice Onnoghen to the Senate for screening and confirmation even before the eventual exist of his predecessor, Justice Mahmoud Abubakar.

However, this was not to be as he remained on acting capacity for months. Many blamed the delay in forwarding his name to the appropriate quarters on the investigation of judges by security agencies, which was ongoing then.

Having been sworn in as acting Chief Justice of Nigeria on November 10, 2016, the delay in sending his name to the Senate for confirmation raised serious apprehension about his fate, particularly as he inched closer to the three-month stipulated tenure on acting position.

Section 231 (1) has stipulated that the appointment of a person to the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.

Meanwhile, Subsection 4 provides that: “If the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria is vacant or if the person holding the office is for any reason unable to perform the functions of the office, then until a person has been appointed to and has assumed the functions of that office, or until the person holding has resumed those functions, the President shall appoint the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court to perform those functions.

Subsection 5 however provides that: “Except on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council, an appointment pursuant to the provisions of subsection (4) of this section 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.”

Based on the knowledge of the law, the Presidency was under severe criticism, especially as it had absolved Justice Onnoghen of any corruption allegation.

But it took the intervention of the Vice President, Professor Yemi Obsinbajo to transmit Onnoghen’s name to the Senate and his appointment was eventually confirmed on March 7, 2017.

Aware of the controversies and integrity questions hovering on the judiciary, Justice Onnoghen upon his confirmation pledged to bring lasting reforms that would redeem the battered image of the judiciary. But he also kept talking on the implications of dependent of judiciary on the executive, stressing that until the third arm of government gained total freedom in appointment and funding, it may remain an appendage of the executive.

His administration also thrived on discipline. Several judicial officers have been subjected to strict disciplinary actions including suspension, forceful retirement and in some cases, expulsion.

To many, the fate that has befallen Justice Onnoghen was not totally a surprise considering the rough road that led to his position as the chief judicial officer of the federation.

Interestingly, the acting CJN, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad was a member of the NJC when the Council, at its 85th meeting held on March 14, last year, took a decision and sanctioned Justice Obisike Orji by forcing him to go on a compulsory retirement for allowing himself to be sworn in as the Acting Chief Judge of Abia State without being recommended by the NJC.

Both the suspension of Onnoghen and swearing-in of Muhammad in acting capacity followed the same pattern with Justice Theresa Uzokwe, who was suspended by the Abia State House of Assembly and Justice Orji, who was subsequently sworn in as acting Chief Judge by Governor Okezie Ikpeazu.

While earlier placing Justice Orji on suspension in January last year, the NJC said in a statement: “The suspension of the Chief Judge of Abia State (Justice Theresa Uzokwe) by the State House of Assembly without a prior recommendation by the NJC violates the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

“Consequently, the subsequent act of appointing and swearing-in of Justice Obisike Orji as the Acting Chief Judge is invalid for being unconstitutional.

“Furthermore, the conduct of Justice Obisike Orji in presenting himself to be sworn in raises potential questions of misconduct that Council is now looking into.

“Council, therefore, resolved to query and suspend Justice Obisike Orji, pending the outcome of its investigation.”

Later in March last year, following further investigations by its panel, the NJC said: “Justice Obisike Oji was earlier queried by the Council for allowing himself to be sworn in as acting Chief Judge, and thereby colluding in and aiding an unconstitutional process.

“His reply was unsatisfactory and the Council recommended his compulsory retirement.”

The NJC, at the same meeting held on March 14, last year, found Justice Uzokwe culpable and recommended her compulsory retirement.

It directed the third most senior Judge in the judiciary of the state to step in as the Acting Chief Judge, pending the conclusion of investigations of allegations of acts of misconduct levelled against Justices Uzokwe and Orji.


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