The Onnoghen Saga: An open-minded perspective
Like many democratic countries, Nigeria has not been without her fair share of spectacle on the public scene in terms of its mode of governance and its administration. With just little over a week into the new year, the nation still shedding holiday euphoria, Nigerians woke up to the news that Hon. Justice Onnoghen, Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), who heads the nation’s Supreme Court and the National Judicial Council, had been petitioned for allegedly operating undeclared foreign accounts contrary to the Code of Conduct for public officers.
Unsurprisingly, the incident provoked controversy with two distinct sides; one in solidarity promoting the fight against corruption and the other for the sheer disregard for the rule of law in charging the country’s head jurist to the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT). Regardless of the hue and cry, the Federal Government through the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit unwaveringly froze Justice Onnoghen’s five affected accounts by means of Presidential Executive Order No. 6 of 2018, and demanded his resignation as the CJN. The stage had now been set for a dramatic series of events that would unwind in the following weeks.
Due to Justice Onnoghen’s absence in two proceedings, President Muhammadu Buhari, as advised by the CCT, suspended him as the CJN pending the conclusion of the trial and pursuant to Section 11 of the Interpretation Act, Cap 123, Vol. 8, LFN, 2004. In the event that the CJN is acquitted, his reinstatement is certain.
Although Justice Onnoghen admitted ownership of the foreign accounts, he explained that he forgot to declare them as statutorily required of public officers. By the admission along with banks extracts, prima facie cases were established which indicate that crimes had certainly been committed. However, evidence does not solely determine a conclusion as substantive law merely governs rights and obligations. Enforcing them to secure convictions and sentences is entirely a different sport as it requires total compliance to stipulated rules and procedures.
Two Sides of the Coin
There are interesting views that the swift suspension of Justice Onnoghen as the CJN, especially bearing in mind the timing being so close to the presidential elections, has a venomous political flavor to it. In deed politics has often been termed a very dirty game. Ironically, this is a reputation that has always seemed to be carried with pride. Even at that, the vicinity of the Judiciary has always seemed to be respected on the surface…until now.
The repercussions of this suspension, have further stirred up feelings of unease and anxiety within the legal sphere. The circumstances surrounding this planned trial leave much to be desired, not the least because the trial may occasion clear constitutional breaches. Sections 153(1), 271 (1), 292(1)(a)(ii) and Paragraph 21 of Part 1 of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution are to the effect that any judicial officer accused of an offence must first be subjected to investigation and disciplinary action by the National Judicial Council prior to any trial. Suffice to add that by virtue of Section 157 of the same constitution, The CJN as a judicial officer can only be removed from office by the President acting on an address supported by two thirds majority of the Senate for his inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment (whether arising from infirmity of mind or body) or for misconduct or contravention of the Code of Conduct. Anything contrary to this procedure is unconstitutional.
Prominent legal practitioners have opined that dangerous precedents were being set especially as some of the legal issues already settled by the Supreme Court in the case of Saraki vs Federal Government were being reopened in Justice Onnoghen’s case. For instance, on the issue of the appearance of the accused and the question of service, it has become settled that once an accused is aware, he has been deemed served. Unfortunately, this is still being debated at the tribunal.
Although the arguments of established legal minds will always have a solid ground, the overwhelming evidence in the petition against the CJN cannot be ignored. The immediate attraction was the huge sums of money found in Justice Onnoghen’s possession. When it was stated that sums like $700,000, $3,000,000 were found in his account, there was bound to be a national uproar.
A different opinion that has gradually gained traction is that the basis for community and social cohabitation does not begin with the law. It begins with the moral integral which is based on the premise that people will find the need to come together and cohabit with an inherent or deduced understanding and that they will be truthful to one another. This is seen as the moral foundation upon which the law stands.
In the same vein, if indeed Justice Onnoghen was trying to subvert the institutions of due process of the country, in running accounts that do not reflect the ideal salaries of a Nigerian judge, he would have infringed on the moral premise; the foundation of community, the principal pillar from which everything about our coexistence devolves. Consequently, winding through the provisions of the law and emasculating this criminal act was the point of error on the part of most observers. In truth, for democracy to be existent, there has to be a society. Similarly, for the judiciary to exist, the society must be in existence. Thus, to destroy the basis of society inadvertently negates the institutions we claim we are protecting. It is a compelling argument that the errors of the executive were enabled by or incidental to his stratagem. The primary issue is the moral tenet and not its legalistic underpinning. This opinion will however only hold ground in the event that Justice Onnoghen is indeed guilty. Whether this can effectively be proved remains to be seen.
While the intentions of the government and the suspension of Justice Onnoghen continue to be the subject of debate among Nigerians, one thing remains certain – fighting corruption should always be worthwhile, but corruption itself breeds in different ways including an absolute disregard for the rule of law. In today’s world, especially in a democratic environment like ours, there can be no alternative to the rule of law.