By Rafiq Raji, PhD
In January, Walter Onnoghen, Nigeria’s chief justice, was served with charges for failing to declare certain domestic foreign currency accounts. Ordinarily, such matters would be handled by the National Judicial Council, the watchdog for judges, before further steps are taken, if at all. At least, so it was thought. Arguments have been raised since then suggesting that may not necessarily be the case when the allegations are criminal or in the judge’s personal capacity. In any case, that is a matter for the legal system to resolve.
Considering how crucial the upcoming elections are, and the important role the judiciary would likely play in them, many wonder if the beleaguered judge is not being hounded out of office to make way for someone more acceptable to the Muhammadu Buhari administration. Like the president, the next in line to the embattled chief justice is a Northern Muslim. Mr Onnoghen is a Christian southerner.
There is precedence for these concerns. The chiefs of the army, airforce, intelligence, police, customs, immigration, electoral commission, to mention a few, are Northern Muslims.
President Buhari was not quick to appoint Mr Onnoghen to the top of the judicial profession. He did so only after tremendous pressure. Recent events suggest the matter was likely never put to rest. That is even as Mr Buhari was reportedly caught unawares by the development.
To be clear, no one is above the law. The chief justice can be petitioned, charged and prosecuted. And there is an abundance of laws and process to ensure he faces the music should he be found culpable. But a development that could potentially lead to the resignation of the chief justice or his removal just a month to the polls is very suspicious indeed.
Still, it must be borne in mind that senior judges have been prosecuted in other jurisdictions. A more recent and perhaps most relevant example is the case of Philomena Mwilu, the deputy chief justice of Kenya, who is currently under prosecution for corruption. In her case, she appeared in court as scheduled in the full glare of cameras before later securing reprieve over the jurisdiction of the lower court which docked her.
Thus, there is nothing wrong with the chief justice appearing before the Code of Conduct Tribunal or any other legal venue. For the avoidance of doubt, the complications in respect of this matter relate to the timing and due-process of the law.
It is hard to justify any benefit to the polity from clearly attempting to remove the most senior judicial officer in the land, who would be a key adjudicator in election disputes, just a month to the polls. In fact, the action has the potential of heightening regional tensions.
Incidentally, the president might have been done a great disservice. The outcry by the main opposition party that he desires a dictatorship and a return of northern hegemony has been given greater credence by this recent event.
Now that the legal due-process has been put back on track, the advocacy now is that whatever action is to be taken be deferred till after the polls.