Out of the blues came allegations of improper behaviour by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen. The improper behavior which is seen as a criminal offence is that the CJN did not comply with the process of dutifully filling his full assets with the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB. The bureau is the appropriate organ where public officials make full disclosure about their assets every four years or anytime they are appointed or employed by the government. Since the story broke, all hell has been let loose. Commentators and lawyers have not ceased to project divergent points of view. It is expected, bearing in mind the calibre of person involved and the fallout that may trail the whole scandal.
People have questioned the pace with which the process leading to the matter being referred to the Code of Conduct tribunal. For example, people argued that if the speed with which the petition against Justice Onnoghen was treated were the standard of justice dispensation in Nigeria, we would probably be ahead of Sweden, and at the top of the global Rule of Law ranking instead of our current 77th. By our positioning, out of 102 countries surveyed by the World Justice Project in 2018 it is evident that bureaucratic delays have adverse effect on dispensation of justice. A petition by a certain Dennis Aghanya on January 9, 2019 and received by the Code of Conduct Bureau on January 11, 2019 was expedited for the arraignment of Justice Onnoghen at the Code of Conduct Tribunal on Monday, January 14, 2019.
As a result of the haste and coming against the background of numerous largely ignored cases of impropriety pending against key political players and regime officials, including the former Secretary to the Federal Government, Mr. David Babachir Lawal (who is yet to be charged after being sacked over a contract scam about 15 months ago), the Onnoghen case set the polity on fire, literarily. The heat it generated understandably has little to do with the substance of the case: Onnoghen’s alleged failure to declare his assets, which includes ownership of Domiciliary accounts. The CJN is not above the law. He is not covered by immunity. No reasonable Nigerian is against accurate sanctions being meted out to him if he has fallen foul of the law.
The whole episode appear to be teleguided to achieve pre-planned objective. The Federal Government’s decision to drag him to the Code of Conduct Tribunal and the accompanying pressure on him to vacate his well respected seat even before being charged, begs equity. On the other hand, some people are angry because taking the case to the CCT without first letting the National Judicial Council, NJC, investigate and deal with it according to the law amounts to a grievous short-circuiting of the law. In the Nganjiwa vs F.R.N.2018 4NWLR part 1609, the Court of Appeal (Lagos Division) held that no serving judge can be investigated or tried in a court of law without first being removed from the Bench by the NJC. Because it is expected that allegations such as been levied against Onnoghen were committed in the course of carrying out his role as CJN.
While we do not mean to say that following due process means slow to act or not acting stupid at all, it is important we state that we support genuine fight against misbehaviour. And the fight cut across. Therefore, we call on the Federal Government to follow due process of the law in pursuing this matter. We wonder why these facts were not brought out when Justice Onnoghen was awaiting confirmation as CJN. Coming at this time with the elections just around the corner, the case has already become embroiled in partisan politics as the two major political parties have taken opposite stands. We once again, draw the attention of the Federal Government to the fact that we are in a democracy where the rule of law is supreme. Due process should be strictly followed in the anti-graft war. Putting the Head of the Judiciary in the dock in contravention of the law is an act of impunity. It is unacceptable.
So that we do not cut our nose to spite our faces, we maintain that the government must be sensitive to political realities therefore make haste in crossing all the ts and dotting all the is. It’s painful to see a good case lost on the altar of technicalities, when all that was required was to abide by process.