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Tensions over fate of acting Chief justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen

walter onnoghen - Tensions over fate of acting Chief justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen


Tensions over fate of acting Chief justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen

  • CJN’s three-month acting job ends Feb 10

  • Presidency: We’ll act within statutory time

Tension has begun to rise in the judiciary as the three months in which a judge can act, as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) will end on February 10. President Muhammadu Buhari has not transmitted the name of the acting CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen to the Senate for confirmation as substantive CJN.

A top source, however stated that Buhari may not confirm Onnoghen, but rather send the name of another person to the Senate for confirmation as the substantive CJN.

It can be recalled that Buhari had, on November 10, 2016, named Onnoghen who is the most senior justice of the Supreme Court, as acting CJN following the retirement of Justice Mahmud Mohammed at the statutory age of 70. However, the president had refused to forward Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation as required by the constitution.

The 1999 Constitution provides that the president of the country shall appoint the CJN on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC), and subject to the confirmation of the Senate. Section 231, Subsection (1) states, “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.”

Subsection (4) states, “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 the office has resumed those functions, the President shall appoint the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court to perform those functions.”

The NJC had, however, performed that constitutional role by recommending Onnoghen to Buhari for appointment as CJN after its meeting on October 11, 2016.

The source, who prefers anonymity, said that feelers from the presidency indicates that Buhari does not want Onnoghen as the CJN.

According to him, the presidency is still not comfortable with the judiciary, hence the plans to purge the bench of justices believed to be corrupt.

“There is a grand plan to purge the Supreme Court bench of justices who have allegedly soiled their hands with issues of bribery and corruption.

This will unfold very soon as there will be a massive compulsory retirement of some justices of the Supreme Court. This will pave way for fresh blood to be injected into the system.

“The new judicial officers that will be brought to the system are likely to be those who can fit into the present administration. This is because the presidency believes that the bench is full of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) loyalists.

“I can tell you that the Presidency is looking outside the apex court to appoint the next CJN,” he added. The Presidency, however, stated yesterday that the process of appointing a substantive CJN is on course.

“The Presidency is conscious of its statutory obligations in that regard and will act within regulated statutory time. The process is on,” Garba Shehu, the Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity to the President state.

A senior official of the Buhari administration also told New Telegraph last night that the appointment of a substantive CJN will be one of the major decisions to be taken by the president when he resumes on February 6.

“The president will on February 6 take a definite decision on the CJN. It has up till February 9 to act on that. I can assure you we are working on it,” the source said.

The source could not confirm whether Buhari will send Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation or otherwise. “President Buhari is the only one that can decide on the acting CJN’s fate.

He is considering a lot of issues on the appointment being a sensitive one. So, let’s wait till he resumes from vacation,” he said. It will be recalled that the immediate past CJN, Justice Mohammed, while opening the 2016/2017 Legal Year open in Abuja, sounded a note of caution against subverting the age-long tradition of appointing the most senior justice of the Supreme Court to head the country’s judiciary.

Also speaking on the issue, a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, J.B Daudu (SAN), said Buhari’s tardiness in appointing a substantive CJN for the country’s judiciary was “unhealthy”. Also reacting to the issue, another former president of the Nigeria Bar Association, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN) warned the Federal Government against the creation of a hazardous uncertainty in the polity by the refusal of Buhari to transmit Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation as substantive CJN.

He accused the Federal Government of setting a dangerous precedent by causing Onnoghen to linger on the post of acting CJN since November 10 last year. olanipekun described Buhari’s failure to send Onnoghen’s name to the Senate to a situation where the CJN refused to swear in the president-elect because his election was being contested in court, or the Senate refused to consider ministerial nominees sent by the president because it disagreed with the process that brought the nominees.

“Right from the appointment of Sir Adetokunbo Ademola as the first indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria in 1958, and through to 2014 when the Hon. Justice Mahmud Mohammed was appointed as the 14th indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria, change of baton at the Supreme Court had always been smooth and seamless.

“There had not been any interregnum; no appointment of acting Chief Justice, not even when the Hon. Justice S. M. A. Belgore was appointed as Chief Justice of Nigeria for about six months.

“Mr. President has not communicated with the NJC to give any scintilla of reason or excuse as to why the name of the person recommended by it under Section 231(1) of the Constitution has not been forwarded for confirmation.

To the best of my knowledge as well, Mr. President has not expressed any reservation or communicated such to the NJC about the recommended candidate. Why then the suspense?” he stated.

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