Justice Walter Onnoghen in a handshake with President Muhammadu Buhari
After almost three months since Justice Walter Onnoghen was recommended by the National Judicial Council (NJC) for appointment as Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), President Muhammadu Buhari is yet to forward his name to the Senate for confirmation. The Presidency has also failed to offer any explanation to the Nigerian people why the acting appointment has been allowed to drag for this long. This is antithetical to the tenets of democracy and has expectedly generated a huge controversy. It is not only against the spirit of the Nigerian Constitution, it shows a disdain and disrespect for the Nigerian people, the same people who gave the President a mandate to govern the country.
Why has President Buhari refused to forward Justice Onnoghen’s name to the Senate? Why has the government failed to offer any explanation? What is the implication of this action on the health of the nations institutions? Is the executive arm investing itself with powers not specified in the letter and spirit of the Nigerian constitution? Is the executive arm playing politics with the revered position of the Chief Justice of Nigeria? What is it that the president knows that he does not want to share with the public? Is this a witch-hunt? Is this an agenda of a group that has wrongly advised the President? These are some of the questions on the lips of the average Nigerian.
This newspaper had once made the point, indeed worthy of reiteration, that the “President should do whatever is expedient to ensure that there is credibility and stability in the judicial arm of government.” This is in light of the sting operations that had been carried out against some Supreme Court Justices alleged to have soiled their fingers with the proverbial “mammon of unrighteousness.” As the apex court of the nation, it must not only be above board, it must be seen to be above board. Any jurist who has been compromised with bribes and ill-gotten wealth cannot dispense justice. Such a judge must face the wrath of the law. However, that the President went ahead to appoint Justice Onnoghen as “Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria” shows that his white cloth of honour has not been impugned. It is against this background that the failure, till now, to forward Justice Onnoghen’s name for confirmation as substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria is extremely baffling.
Already, the president’s inaction is generating tension within the polity. Apart from a suit against the Presidency, some other pressure groups have issued ultimatums to compel the President to follow through with due process, which started with the recommendation of the NJC. By regulation, if by February 9, the appointment is not confirmed, it would lapse. There have been all manners of insinuations to the President’s action, from the primordial to the sublime. Whatever it is, the inaction and silence of the President have provided material to fuel dangerous insinuations, which challenge the very basis of the unity of the country. It is, therefore, a well-considered view that this tension ought to have been avoided, and should be nipped in the bud immediately.
Constitutional provisions are meant to be respected. In pursuance of the ideals of the modern democratic state the three arms of government — the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary — play a vital role, in ensuring stability and checking excesses. Through proper legislation, excesses of any arm of government can be checked. For example, it is the constitutional duty of the Legislature to enact laws, which help to create a framework for a harmonious existence. All the arms of government ought to know their limits.
The constitution creates institutions to perform certain roles. In the appointment of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, it is stated in Section 231(1) 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 (NJC), subject to confirmation of the Senate.” Once it carries out its statutory duty, it is mandatory for the President to complete the process. If there have been any infractions committed by the nominee, they should be made available to the confirming body. In this case, it is the Senate of the National Assembly that would deny the nominee the confirmation. What seems to be going on is that the Executive arm of government has constituted itself into an obstacle to its own race. And the question, which the Presidency has somewhat deemed a blackmail, but one, which is legitimate, is: Is this deliberate and intended for an undesirable purpose?
It is important to stress that either by omission or commission, the present administration of President Buhari is perceived to be insensitive to the respect for the diversity of Nigeria in appointments to public offices in the country. The federal character principle and respect for seniority in career positions are crucial to the continuous belief in the unity and future of the federation. To be sure, Nigerians are watching.
As far as the nation knows, there are no cogent reasons to deny Justice Walter Onnoghen his place as the next Chief Justice of Nigeria. If the Presidency is playing politics with appointments to the Supreme Court, that would be tantamount to corruption. It is, therefore, recommended that Justice Onnoghen’s name should be forwarded immediately to the Senate before February 9, for confirmation as the Chief Justice of Nigeria.