Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen.

As he prepares to assume office at a time when the Nigerian judiciary is riddled with allegations of corruption, all eyes are on the incoming Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, to see how he would steer the ship of the third arm of government out of troubled waters.

* Work Hard to Clean Judiciary’s Image – Justice Umar Abdullahi (retired)
* Isolate Bad Judges, Defend Good Ones – Okoye
* Restore Public Confidence in Courts – Senator Ndoma Egba, Abeni, Others
* Fight For Independence of Judiciary – JB Daudu, Uche

Not many Nigerians knew Justice Onnoghen as the next in line to succeed the current CJN, Mahmud Muhammad, as the head of Nigeria’s judiciary, until when his name shot to limelight, under controversial circumstances, early last month.

On the night of October 7, personnel of the Department of State Service (DSS) had raided the houses of some judges of High Courts, Appeal Court and the Supreme Court, accusing them of corruption.

As the news of the raids broke out the following morning, some news organisations included the name of Justice Onnoghen among the Supreme Court justices that were arrested after the night raid.

As his name circulated quickly, some Nigerians linked the attack to a ploy to scuttle the chances of the senior jurist from succeeding Justice Muhammad.

The allegations forced the DSS to promptly address a press conference, where it denied that the home of Onnoghen had been ransacked. “The service would want to clearly state that it has never invited Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen for investigation, neither is he being investigated by the service,” the DSS said.

The DSS also revealed that the sum of N270million in both local and foreign currencies had been recovered during the raids; while it later emerged that seven judges (two Supreme Court Justices) had been picked.

For Onnoghen, it was a huge relief that his name had been cleared of the stain of corruption allegations that were drawing massive criticisms against the judiciary from all angles.

Perhaps his bigger relief came just four days after the debacle, the National Judicial Council (NJC) recommended him to President Muhammadu Buhari as the most senior justice to succeed Muhammad.

This followed his earlier nomination to the NJC by the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC).

Even if he is eventually appointed by the president, as provided by Section 231(1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, the appointment will still be subject to confirmation by the Senate.

If confirmed, Justice Onnoghen, an indigene of Cross River State, will be the first CJN from the southern part of Nigeria in about 29 years, and the 17th CJN in the country.

Justice Onnoghen: A profile

Hon. Justice Walter S. Nkanu Onnoghen was born on December 22, 1950 at Okurike town, Biase Local Government Area of Cross Rivers State. He attended the Presbyterian Primary School, Okurike town between 1959 and 1965 and later proceeded to Accra, Ghana to attend Odorgorno Secondary School, Adabraka, between 1967 and 1972 for his West African Examination Council (WAEC) exams.

He was at Accra Academy, Ghana, between 1972 and 1974 for his WAEC (A-Levels) before proceeding to the University of Ghana, Legon, Ghana between 1974 and 1977 to obtain his Bachelor of Law Degree (LL.B (Hons)) and graduated with a Second Class Upper Division. He attended the Nigerian Law School, Victoria Island, Lagos between 1977 and 1978. He was called to the Bar on July 8, 1978.

Among the professional appointments/positions he held include: Pupil State Counsel, Ministry of Justice, Ikeja, Lagos State (1978 – 1979); Partner in the Law Firm, Effiom Ekong & Company, Calabar (1979 – 1988); Principal Partner/Head of Chamber of Walter Onnoghen & Associates, Calabar (1988 -1989).

He became a High Court Judge, Cross Rivers State Judiciary (1989 – 1998) and served as chairman, Cross Rivers State Armed Robbery and Fire Arms Tribunal (1990 – 1993). He was also chairman, Judicial Inquiry into the crisis between Students of the University of Calabar and Obufa Esuk Orok community, Calabar (1996) and also chairman, Failed Bank Tribunal, Ibadan Zone (1998).

He is a fellow of Chattered Institute of Arbitrators and has attended several conferences and seminars around the world. He is a member of the Body of Benchers and Life Bencher. He was appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria (JSC) since 2005.

On February 5, 2016, Justice Onnoghen read the lead judgement, alongside a panel of seven justices, which dismissed Senator Bukola Saraki’s interlocutory application challenging the jurisdiction of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) to hear his false asset declaration allegation for not being properly constituted.

Justice Onnoghen also held that the tribunal was by the provisions of its enabling laws and the constitution conferred with the quasi-criminal jurisdiction, and thus, could validly issue a bench warrant. He thus held that the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 was applicable to the proceedings of the tribunal.

He dismissed the allegation by Saraki that he was not properly served with the charges and held that the charges filed before the CCT before the appointment of the Attorney-General of the Federation were valid.

He also noted that there was an attempt by Saraki to intimidate the ýCCT by claiming that it disobeyed the order of a Federal High Court barring it from continuing with the proceedings pending the determination of a suit filed by the Senate President to challenge the trial.

“I have looked at the records, there is nowhere such orders were made,” Justice Onnoghen ruled.

Following this judgement the CCT proceeded with the Senate President’s trial on three counts bordering on false assets declaration.

The pronouncement is hailed as having strengthened the new Administration of Criminal Justice Administration (ACJA, 2015).

Daunting Challenges

One major challenge the new CJN would be facing on assumption of duty is the fight against corruption, which is also taking a toll on the judiciary.

Some months before the clampdown on judges suspected to be corrupt by the DSS, the outgoing CJN, Justice Muhammad, had alluded to the fact that the Nigerian judiciary was bedeviled by corrupt elements; hence he said the judiciary was determined to purge itself by weeding out corrupt and indolent judges.

While flagging-off the 2016 annual judges’ conference of the Federal High Court in Abuja, Justice Muhammad said it was regrettable that the judiciary was perceived as compromised due to the misconduct of a minute minority on the bench.

“Such acts of misconduct rub off on the rest of us and create the impression that all judicial officers have their hands soiled with the proceeds of corruption. That is why the independence of the judiciary must remain unquestionable if we are to retain the trust and confidence of the people of Nigeria.

“We must be apolitical, neutral and most importantly, independent in matters that pertain to the business of the court. We must shun the lure of corruption and the temptation to adjudicate on narrow perceived grounds, which may offend even our own rules of court. Similarly, we must ensure that unnecessary delay is not countenanced nor permitted within our courts.

“No doubt, where we dispense justice promptly, properly and transparently in active collaboration with all stakeholders in the administration of justice, then the reputation of our courts within the public sphere will be enhanced. On the contrary, no greater harm is done to the judicature than when it becomes accused of the very vices that it seeks to eliminate in our society,” he reportedly said.

Similarly, the president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) had, on assumption of duty, harped on lawyers with integrity deficit

“Under my administration we will not tolerate senior lawyers undermining justice administration in any way. Senior lawyers must demonstrate leadership and courage to assist courts to dispense justice. We are going to pay attention to lawyers who abuse the rules of professional conduct in the discharge of their duties.

“The NBA under my watch will work hard to ensure that we flush out lawyers with integrity deficit. Most importantly, we are going to place emphasis on change of attitude. Efficacy of the justice system hinges on the ability of lawyers to operate within the scope of the rules of professional conduct,” Mahmoud was quoted as saying.

In February, President Buhari described the judiciary as the major headache of his administration’s fight against corruption.

The president, during a town hall meeting with Nigerians at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, said: “On the fight against corruption vis-à-vis the judiciary, Nigerians will be right to say that is my main headache for now.

“If you reflect on what I went through for 12 years, when I wanted to be president, I attempted three times and on the fourth attempt, through God and the use of technology, it was possible for Nigerians to elect an APC candidate as president.

“In my first attempt in 2003, I ended up at the Supreme Court, and for 13 months, I was in court. In the second attempt in 2007, I was in court close to 20 months, and in 2011, my third attempt, I was also in court for nine months.

“All these cases went up to the Supreme Court until the fourth time in 2015, when God agreed that I would be president of Nigeria.”

It is against this background that many analysts see the new CJN emerging at a very critical period in the history of the Nigerian judiciary.

Two serving justices of the Supreme Court are also presently under probe. They are Justices John Inyang Okoro and Sylvester Ngwuta. The duo have now stopped sitting on any panel at the Supreme Court.

Also, the Chief Registrar, Supreme Court, Barrister Ahmed Gambo Saleh, along with two other senior ranking officials of the court, has been charged with the diversion of N2.2 billion.

Another major challenge he would have to contend with is the shortage of justices at the Supreme Court. There are presently 11 justices on the Supreme Court bench who are being overworked due to the heavy workload at the apex court, adjudged to be one of the busiest in the world.

The new CJN would also have to work hard to redeem the already battered image of the Nigerian judiciary.

An indication that the integrity of the judiciary has suffered a dent following the DSS raids emerged penultimate week when the CJN, Justice Muhammad, sent out what was regarded as a save-our-soul message to Nigerians, saying the “rising antagonism” against the system was disturbing. He appealed to them not lose faith in the judiciary.

“The Chief Justice of Nigeria is indeed deeply concerned by the rising antagonism over the recent arrest of our judicial officers and other issues pertaining thereto,” he said.

He assured Nigerians that the arm would not shield any of its officials accused of corruption. “The National Judicial Council is currently investigating the various complaints made against a number of judicial officers. As soon as such investigations are completed, appropriate recommendations will be made to the president or governors, as the case may be, who will have the final say on the fate of the affected judicial officers who could then be charged for the offences disclosed from the facts against them and be prosecuted if necessary,” he said.

What will he do to the NJC?

Part of the complaints against the Nigerian judiciary is the seeming inability of the NJC, the body that is constitutionally empowered to punish erring judges to wield the big stick or level proportionate sanctions.

Nigerians have always accused the NJC of allowing corrupt judges to escape with a slap on the wrist, even when cases of corruption involving hundreds of millions of naira have been established against them. Such judges are in most cases, only retired with full benefits.

In his valedictory speech while retiring from the Supreme Court in 2012, Justice Dahiru Mustapha (retired) underscored the weakness of the NJC and recommended for an independent body to punish defaulting judicial officers.

“Please consider that thoroughly investigating petitions and allegations of impropriety against judicial officers, as well as contraventions of the judicial code of conduct, is too cumbersome for the NJC when viewed against the other responsibilities of the council.

“Besides, an independent institution with adequate statutory safeguards may be better positioned to deal with the issues of discipline and removal as opposed to an institution that is largely managed by those it is supposed to regulate.

“I strongly believe that the creation of such an institution is the only way to properly focus on the problem of judicial corruption in Nigeria as it has been adopted in several common law jurisdictions.

‘‘I hope this proposal is given due consideration and perhaps made a subject of discussion and debate to exhaustively uncover its merits or demerits as a means to demonstrate a firm commitment to fighting judicial corruption and positively restore confidence in our courts,” he said.

But a former president of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umar Abdullahi (retired), told Daily Trust on Sunday that many Nigerians accusing the NJC of covering judges were not conversant with the way the regulatory body was set up to carry out its functions.

“I think this is a misconception. People who talk about that do not know what the NJC is all about. It’s not just about judges, there are members of the Bar, people who are not even lawyers are in it, some senior and retired judges. It is a wrong notion to say that the NJC is not working according to the rules setting it. Its powers are clearly spelt out in the constitution. It has regulations that help it perform its functions.

“Sometimes people write a lot of petitions, and even before we talk about setting up a committee to investigate such petitions, the writers withdraw them. It is the right of such writers to withdraw. So what can we do about it? People should know that some members of the public are responsible for creating some of the inactions of the NJC.

“When a committee is set up, the complainants are called upon to substantiate their allegations, but somewhere along the line they will write back that they have settled and are no longer interested. Either a VIP has stepped in or they have chosen to stop. In this case, what can you do? These are some of the things people don’t understand, and they keep shouting that the NJC is protecting. No, the NJC has never protected any judge. Any judge who has a petition written against him, the NJC will step in and ask the judge to comment. Most times it is not just a simple case that can be addressed by the NJC because it has to do with a court proceeding. The judge might have made a mistake, and instead of going to the Appeal Court, the complainant will just write a petition to the NJC against the judge. The NJC is not an appeal court, so if a judge has made a mistake in the course of duty, the most important thing is to appeal to a higher court. These are the things people don’t know, the NJC needs to do more public enlightenment on how it functions,’’ he said.

Where Onnoghen Must Start

Retired judges and senior lawyers who spoke to Daily Trust on Sunday identified measures the incoming CJN must implement to return the judiciary to the path of honour.

Justice Abdullahi said the incoming CJN would have to work hard in order to restore the dignity of the judiciary, saying that current happenings have put a serious dent on the judiciary.

“I think the CJN has to work very hard to restore its dignity and respect. It has been widely exposed more than necessary. I think it has never had it so bad. The image has become so challenged and, really, it is a very worrying situation. I can tell you that as a result of this, a lot of judges are living on edge for the meantime. A lot of things have to be done quickly to resolve these issues, by embarking on mending works to restore dignity. I think the outgoing CJN and the incoming one must have learnt a lot of lessons from what happened.

“I think we should not just leave the CJN alone, we all have to wake up and come up with ideas and good thinking because a lot of damage has been done. This certainly demands a lot of putting heads together. Already, we have the NJC setting up a lot of committees like ethics, judicial policing. These are the things the incoming CJN needs to address, to work out modalities to make sure that people do the kind of work they are expected to do.

“Well, first of all, I know him to be a detribalised Nigerian like other justices at the Court of Appeal who have worked all over the country and met a lot of people. He has worked under different conditions. As far as I know, he is very honest and learned. He is a gentleman of high quality. That’s much I know about him.

“He is a very experienced judge. Normally, the training one gets at the Court of Appeal prepares one for a position of leadership. Generally, one expects him to put more efforts because he is bound to meet more challenges.

“I think the Supreme Court of Nigeria is the most overloaded in the world. In other countries they choose the cases they decide and draw a line, but in Nigeria there is no consideration, any case goes,’’Justice Abdullahi said.

A source at the Supreme Court said that one of the major tasks before Justice Onnoghen would be to find a way to raise the morale of the judiciary. The source, who did not want his name in print said: “Today, the morale of virtually everyone working at the Supreme Court, right from the justices to other support staff, is down. They are demoralised due to the recent raids by the DSS on judges who are said to be corrupt.”

A cross section of lawyers who spoke with Daily Trust on Sunday said that to surmount the challenges, Justice Onnoghen must ensure that the Nigerian judiciary no longer condones indolence, ineptitude, corruption, or any form of judicial misconduct.

Barrister Festus Okoye advised the incoming CJN to rise up to the defence of good judges, as well as to expose the bad ones. He also charged him to transform the judiciary into an honest and transparent arm of government.

“The new Chief Justice of Nigeria is taking over at a turbulent, troubling and confusing period in the history of the Nigerian judiciary. He is taking over at a period when the judiciary has been profiled as corrupt and insensitive to the economic and political challenges of the nation. The new Chief Justice of Nigeria must take the initiative in building a more transparent, honest and responsive judiciary. The new Chief Justice of Nigeria must design programmes and policies that respond to the perception by the Nigerian people, that the judiciary is part of the problems of Nigeria that must be solved. The new Chief Justice of Nigeria must rise up and defend the judges doing honest work and isolate the few that have no place in the judicial hierarchy. The new Chief Justice of Nigeria must be the Trojan Guardian of the constitutional order and engage in the Trinitarian defense of judicial independence, integrity and impartiality. He must also be the courageous sweeper that sweeps away the few mercenaries in the Nigerian judiciary,” Okoye said.

Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba said, “The major challenge before the judiciary is that of public confidence. The judiciary has to restore that. Time was when the Nigerian judiciary was respected in the world. Justice Onnoghen belongs to that generation, so he will do everything to restore the judiciary to that enviable position. This I know he has the capacity to do.”

The former Senate Leader, who was admitted to the Nigerian Law School on the same day as Onnoghen in 1978, said: “I have known him since 1978 when we met at the Nigerian Law School in Lagos. It was his uncle, a registrar at the High Court who mentioned him to me, and ever since, we struck an enduring friendship. We were called to the Bar the same day. We both have practised Law in Calabar. I can attest to the fact that his knowledge of law is beyond doubt.

“As chairman of the Cross River State Fire Arms Tribunal, he also distinguished himself by being efficient and effective. In terms of character, learning and disposition, he is eminently qualified and well suited for the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria. He is very active, and I believe he will make a difference in the judiciary.”

Another senior legal practitioner, Barrister Utum Eteng, who worked with Justice Onnoghen for 30 years, said his appointment as the next CJN would be in order.

“I have known Onnoghen for more than 30 years as a private legal practitioner in the office of the late Efiom Ekong. He is fit and proper to become the next CJN. He has the temperament, mental capacity and accurate grasp of the law as can be ascertained from his judgements reported in the Nigerian Law Reports. Justice Onnoghen has the drive to take the judiciary to the next level.

“But one thing I must remind him is that he should know that he is taking the hot seat at a time the Nigerian judiciary is on trial, when judges and justices are alleged to be fantastically corrupt. He must find space on pages of history as the CJN who cleansed the system of judicial corruption,” Barrister Eteng said.

An Ilorin-based lawyer, Abeny Mohammed (SAN), also identified the need to restore the dignity, independence and integrity of the judiciary and strengthen the NJC.

“He should strengthen the NJC to be more proactive and resolute in dealing with petitions against judicial officers to prevent reoccurrence of the ugly incident of arresting serving judges by security agents. He should do the needful to restore public confidence in the judiciary and, indeed, the entire judiciary,” he said.

Similarly, another lawyer based in Abuja, Chris Uche (SAN), said: “Hon Justice Onnoghen as the new CJN will be arriving the scene when the Nigerian judiciary is going through very trying times. He has two major challenges he must address as quickly as possible, namely: restoration of the confidence of the Nigerian people in the judiciary and defending the independence of the judiciary through the protection of its integrity.”

Joseph Daudu (SAN), a former president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), also advised the incoming CJN to be courageous, bold and always assert the independence of the judiciary.

“Whatever may have been the problems there, it is very obvious that the judiciary is the target of the executive. And the essence is to dislodge as many experienced hands from the place and fill the place up with people who will be answerable to the executive. Therefore, if they are asking the chief registrar and others alleged to have benefitted from slush funds to go, the judiciary in Nigeria will not recover in the next 100 years. These judges and justices are not there only for political cases, they are there for the generality of Nigerians,” Daudu said.

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