Justice Walter Onnoghen – No one can pocket judiciary on my watch, says Onnoghen
• Senate confirms new CJN
• Flays disregard for court verdicts
• Explains why corruption trials are delayed
Justice Walter Onnoghen was yesterday confirmed by the Senate as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), and so became the 15th person to occupy the exalted seat after Nigeria’s independence in 1960.
Onnoghen, who has headed the judicial arm of government in acting capacity since November last year, was full of assurances that the independence of the judiciary would record a boost during his reign.
The confirmation puts to rest the allegation of discrimination against him by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration for hailing from the southern part of the country. And with his confirmation, the judiciary is primed for an effective dispensation of justice.
At a confirmation hearing which lasted an hour and 16 minutes, Onnoghen also took a swipe at the culture of utter disregard for the judiciary through blunt refusal to execute court rulings.
The new CJN declared that the judiciary would not bow to external influence during his reign. “I remain who I am. It will be very impossible to pocket the judiciary on my watch; I don’t think it will ever happen,” he declared.
Onnoghen who said the judiciary was not opposed to setting up special courts for corruption, noted that the delay in concluding trials on graft- related cases was due to poor investigation and lack of diligent prosecution.
“I believe it takes three to have an effective and efficient judiciary. In criminal prosecution, for instance, you need to have an effective and efficient investigator who will investigate first before charging to court based on his evidence; a lead prosecutor who will go through this when the investigator brings this report to him and decide whether it has any weight. You have the judge who is the final arbiter. If matters that get to court are properly ready for trial, actually you will normally see them moving from day to day and expeditiously.
“Actually it is the government, and if the government wants to establish any court, the judiciary wouldn’t say no but, I believe if we can do the right thing and carry out proper investigation before charging the man to court, and when you get there be ready to prosecute your case, judges are always there,” the CJN said.
When asked to explain what measures he would take to lift the judiciary to the level of those in countries like the United Kingdom and United States, Onnoghen was very categorical in stating that the system in Nigeria is not the same with what operates in those two countries.
“Our system is quite different from those of the UK and the U.S. In those countries, immediately a judgement is given, the president obeys and if he does not like it, he seeks constitutional means of avoiding it. Is that what operates here? Are you ready to adopt that system here?” Onnoghen queried.
He disagreed with comments contained in a question asked by a senator that the delay by the executive arm of government in nominating him might affect his handling of issues as they related to ensuring the independence of the judiciary. Onnoghen said he would sustain the reputation he had built over the years.
“I assure you that the independence of the judiciary would be improved upon on my watch. That one cannot be compromised because the judiciary is the last hope of not just the common man but indeed the hope of everybody.”
He was opposed to suggestions that the appointment of CJN be thrown open so that even the most junior justice of the Supreme Court can be appointed if he merits it.
According to Onnoghen, if such an appointment is thrown open, the game of lobbying will take precedence over the traditional practice of nominating the most senior person.
Onnoghen’s appointment followed a series of protests and media interventions occasioned by President Buhari’s delay in sending his name to the Senate for confirmation.
The protests against Buhari’s reluctance in nominating Onnoghen stemmed from the fact that the last CJN from the southern part of the country, Ayo Gabriel Irikefe, left office in 1987 (30 years ago).
Onnoghen, who was appointed and sworn in as acting CJN on November 9, 2016 by President Buhari, succeeded Justice Mahmud Mohammed who retired after attaining the mandatory age of 70.
In appointing Justice Onnoghen as acting CJN, President Buhari relied on Section 230 (4) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which states: “If the office of the 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.”
Justice Onnoghen, who was appointed to the apex court in 2005 was recommended by the National Judicial Council (NJC) on October 11, 2016 to be appointed as the CJN. The NJC followed the tradition, wherein the most senior justice of the Supreme Court assumes the office of CJN, when the sitting one retires.
Former heads of the judicial arm of government in Nigeria particularly since independence are Adetokunbo Ademola (1958–1972); Taslim Olawale Elias (1972–1975); Darnley Arthur Alexander (1975–1979); Atanda Fatai Williams (1979–1983); George Sodeinde Sowemimo (1983–1985); Ayo Gabriel Irikefe (1985–1987); Mohammed Bello (1987–1995); Muhammad Lawal Uwais (1995–2006); Salihu Moddibo Alfa Belgore (2006–2007); Idris Legbo Kutigi (2007–2009); Aloysius Iyorgyer Katsina-Alu (2009–2011); Dahiru Musdapher (2011–2012); Aloma Mariam Mukhtar (2012–2014); and Mahmud Mohammed (2014–2016).
Justice Onnoghen took time to explain to the Senate how he had tried to boost the workings of the judiciary since he became acting CJN.
“You look back, there has been tremendous improvement in that respect. Today, for instance, every Wednesday is set aside for a special panel of the Supreme Court to deal with pre-election matters and there will still be a regular panel.
“Then on Wednesday, another panel that has sat earlier would sit to handle this matter and the intention is to obviously try as much as possible to finish with them so as to give the politician the opportunity to carry out their duty of governing the state or whatever office they are aspiring to without always having this kind of distraction because the normal cases are there. So far, they have enjoyed tremendous cooperation.
“Already, as I came on board, for instance, I have tried to really understand. I have passed different circulars to all the heads of the Nigerian judiciary in the country to send me details of pending matters on corruption.”
In his remarks after the lawmakers confirmed Onnoghen’s nomination, Senate President, Bukola Saraki, noted that the new CJN appreciated the enormity of the challenges and responsibilities ahead of him more than anybody else.