Justice Walter Onnoghen is the first judge from the Southern part of the country to qualify to be Nigeria’s chief justice in 30 years. Since Justice Ayo Irikefe held that position from 1985 to 1987, all subsequent chief justices have hailed from the North.
That isn’t a big deal, really. The fact is that in all these years, whenever an old chief judge is retiring, the next most senior judge so happens to hail from the North as well. From Mohammed Bello in 1987 to Muhammadu Uwais in 1995 to Alfa Belgore in 2006 to Idris Kutigi in 2007 to Aloysius Katsina-Alu in 2009 to Aloma Mukhtar in 2012 and Mahmud Mohammed who served from 2014 till November 10, 2016.
And then suddenly, after seven successive Northern chief justices, the next in line was Onnoghen, a jurist from Cross River in the South-South of Nigeria. Ordinarily, the system shouldn’t miss a beat. As per convention, the president would simply forward the name of the jurist submitted by the National Judicial Council (NJC) to the national assembly for confirmation as substantive CJN.
But what does Pres. Muhammadu Buhari do? He names Onnoghen as the acting chief justice. That’s also not a problem. However chief justices usually act for the few days it takes from when their names are submitted to the senate to when their nominations are confirmed (none has been rejected so far.) The problem this time is that Buhari hasn’t deemed it fit to forward Onnoghen’s name to the senate, two months after the judge started acting on November 10, 2016.
Why? Nobody but Buhari knows. Both the president and the vice president, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), have been silent on the matter. Is there a report indicting Onnoghen? Nobody but Buhari knows. Is there any reason to believe that he is unfit for the office despite being recommended by the NJC? Nobody but Buhari knows. Is it because he is a Southern jurist? Nobody but Buhari knows.
The bigger challenge is that the office of the chief justice of the federation is not like that of chairman of an agency like the EFCC, where a person can serve in acting capacity for as long as the president sees fit. Section 231(5) of the 1999 Constitution, stipulates that except on the recommendation of the NJC, the appointment of acting chief judge “shall cease to have effect after the expiration of three months from the date of such appointment, and the President shall not re-appoint a person whose appointment has lapsed.”
In other words, Onnoghen has just 30 days during which the president must forward his name to the senate and for him to be confirmed or else, it’s over.
While making his 2017 predictions (which he calls prophesies), the governor of Ekiti, Ayo Fayose, said “efforts will be made to prevent Hon. Justice Wlter Onnoghen from being made the substantive chief justice of Nigeria (CJN).”
It appears that prophecy is about to come through.
To be clear, President Buhari is not obliged to accept Onnoghen’s nomination at all. But by leaving this much uncertainty and showing this much indecisiveness, he is leaving room to speculations, disrupting reform process in the judiciary and interfering in the smooth operation of that independent arm of government. If there are real causes or impediments which make Onnoghen’s appointment impossible, then Buhari needs to say it. This slow motion looks bad on his government.