Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen was sworn-in by President Muhammadu Buhari last Friday as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN. He took over from Justice Mahmud Mohammed who retired that day after attaining the mandatory age of 70 years.
Onnoghen’s appointment was in compliance with Section 230 (4) of the 1999 Constitution as amended which provides that, ‘If the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria is vacant of 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 the office has resumed those functions, the president shall appoint the most senior justice of the Supreme Court to perform those functions.’ Onnoghen is the most senior justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
Section 231 of the 1999 Constitution as amended also provides that the President shall appoint a person to the office of CJN ‘on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC) subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.’ The NJC had at its emergency meeting on October 11 recommended Justice Onnoghen to President Buhari for consideration for appointment as CJN. Buhari is yet to act on this recommendation.
Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen, CFR, was born on December 22, 1950 at Oturike, Biase Local Government Area of Cross Rivers State. He had his primary education in Oturike in 1959-66. He had his secondary and university education in Ghana where he attended Odorgomo Secondary School, in 1967-72 and the University of Legon 1974-1977, where he obtained his Bachelor of Law (LLB) degree. He was at the Nigerian Law School, Lagos 1977-1978 and did his National Youth Service in 1978-1979. He became a High Court Judge in Cross Rivers State in 1989 and was appointed Justice of the Court of Appeal in 1998. Justice Onnoghen was elevated to the Supreme Court in 2005. He is also a Justice of the Supreme Court of The Gambia. He served as chairman of the Cross Rivers State Armed Robbery and Firearms Tribunal 1990-1993.
Justice Walter Onnoghen is taking over as the CJN at a time when the Nigerian judiciary is on trial. The judiciary has lately been riddled with allegations of corruption that have lowered its esteem in the public’s eyes. An immediate challenge before Justice Onnoghen is to redeem the judiciary’s battered image by weeding out corrupt and indolent judges. The recent raid of some judges’ houses by DSS agents and their subsequent arraignment for alleged corruption heightened this challenge.
Speaking soon after his inauguration last week, Acting CJN Onnoghen assured Buhari of “the fullest cooperation of the third arm of government in the continuation of the war against corruption and misconduct in the judiciary.” He should best demonstrate this by ending the NJC’s seeming foot-dragging in the face of petitions against judges. Justice Onnoghen should work hard to change this narrative. Nigerians have often accused NJC of allowing corrupt judges to escape with a slap on the wrist even when cases of corruption have been established against them.
NJC is the body that is constitutionally empowered to punish erring judges with appropriate disciplinary measures. Justice Onnoghen must ensure that NJC is seen to be performing its statutory duties on corrupt judges, otherwise other agencies may be forced to wade in.
Although shortage of justices at the Supreme Court has also been identified as a challenge facing the judiciary, it should not constitute a reason for justice not to be dispensed promptly, properly, transparently and in active collaboration with all stakeholders in the administration of justice.
That way, the reputation of Nigerian courts within the public sphere will be enhanced. We advise the Acting CJN to be courageous, bold and firm in asserting the independence of the judiciary. We also urge President Buhari to act on NJC’s recommendation and forward Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation as substantive CJN.