The Justice Walter Onnoghen conundrum

The Justice Walter Onnoghen conundrum

“I am being witch-hunted.”

This sentence is one of the most recurring line when a politician faces prosecution and has become the central theme of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) trial of the Chief Justice of the Federation (CJN), Walter Onnoghen, even as analysts, legal minds and politicians have continued to discuss the timing of the trial.

The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in a press statement described the arraignment of Justice Onnoghen as persecution, while the All Progressives Congress (APC) applauded the prosecution.

A prominent lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mike Ozekhome has also described the allegations levelled against Justice Onnoghen as “political witch-hunting” while the Speaker of the House, Yakubu Dogara warned that the country is not a “banana republic.”

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Also adding his voice to the condemnation of the trial is the Senate President, Bukola Saraki.

Indeed, the trial has created a division along party lines, with the ruling APC and President Muhammadu Buhari’s supporters praising the move, while the PDP and other opposition members have given the CJN some sort of a shield.

Itse Sagay, who is the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption and ally of the President slammed the judiciary for attempting to buy immunity for the judiciary through the back door.

“It is an illicit attempt by some Justices of the Court of Appeal to grant themselves immunity contrary to the provisions of the Constitution.

“The Constitution has named those entitled to immunity – the President, Vice President, Governors and Deputy Governors.”

But beyond the noise, what are the issues and the pending implications?

What is without ambiguity is that the Chief Justice of the Federation has been accused of not declaring some assets and even falsifying his asset declaration.

The second issue is the question of jurisdiction, as those supporting the CJN argued that the Code of Conduct Tribunal has no jurisdiction over the matter, rather the case should be looked into by the National Judicial Council (NJC).

One thing is clear, lawyers in the most glaring circumstance are not going to agree on anything, and issues easily get buried under a technicality, however, the issue is easily turning to partisan politics, as the South-South governors already called on the government to withdraw the charges.

Now that it is getting political, what are the issues?

The case has been adjourned by the CCT tribunal, and a high court has already ruled that the CCT should have no jurisdiction, but that the NJC should investigate and decide.

The problem, however, lies in the fact that the CJN is the head of the NJC, hence if the judicial body should make a decision that favours Onnoghen, it will further fuel insinuations in some quarters that the judiciary is corrupt.

Also, every case assigned, tried and ruled upon in courts will be linked back to the Onnoghen saga, further casting a long shadow on the judiciary.

As Prof Sagay argued, the tradition of referring corrupt judges to the NJC is an attempt by the judiciary to bring immunity “through the back door.” The whole saga will be tagged a mission accomplished if indeed the aim is to bring down the CJN.

Whatever the outcome, the CJN is already in a compromised situation.

This editorial was composed by Bakare Majeed, an Abuja-based journalist.

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