The trial commenced regardless on January 14, 2019 at Code of Conduct Tribunal but Onnoghen was absent. A game of cat and mouse had begun. It was then adjourned to the following week because Onnoghen faulted the summons procedure. The next hearing was slated for January 22, 2019 but he failed to show up in court again. Following his absence again, President Muhammadu Buhari suspended him on 26 January and appointed Tanko Ibrahim as acting Chief Justice of Nigeria.
His office was thereafter sealed by the police even as members of the National Interest Defenders and Lawyers protested at the entrance of the National Secretariat of the Nigerian Bar Association. His suspension caused a lot of uproar from political stakeholders, lawyers and even gained international prominence from International bodies. Atiku Abubakar, a leading figure in the opposition PDP described his suspension as ‘Dictatorship Taken Too Far’.. There had been insinuations that Onnoghen was having a rough time with the Buhari government because he was a PDP supporter. His travails were made to look political.
On 28 January 2019, the Code of Conduct Tribunal adjourned his trial indefinitely. Meanwhile his case went to the National Judicial Council. The Council after deliberation recommended that he be compulsorily retired for misconduct. A day after that recommendation was made, the man threw in the towel.
It came as an anti-climax of what many saw as titanic legal battle royale. A brilliant legal career had just been brought down by a man who should have known better than made what by his self- admission was a ‘mistake’.
More fundamentally, the Onnoghen mess has cast a huge devastating stone on the glass house of the Judiciary. Ironically and sadly, the return of democracy which should have enhanced the image the judiciary has been its greatest undoing.
When in 1999, I spoke to Justice Muhammed Uwais, a very brilliant legal mind who had been one of the longest serving Chief Justice of Nigeria (1995-2006) spanning the years of military dictatorship and democracy in Nigeria, he spoke highly of the Nigeria Judiciary.
When I asked him of how the Nigerian judiciary was rated in international circles, he gave me this answer: “Oh they have a lot of respect for the Nigerian Judiciary. They rate our judges very high. Such bodies as the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, they respect our lawyers and our judgments are respected. They read our judgments, we read theirs. You can see the quality of judgment you are reading and apart from that we have Nigerian judges serving in other countries. We have had judges in the World Court. We had Nigerian judges in the Gambia and Southern Africa. In Gambia we have three judges serving there. If you think Nigerian judges are bad, will they be given such assignments?”
I have not spoken to the learned Chief Justice Muhammed Uwais since he left office in 2006. I doubt if he will still hold the same view. This is so because we have all seen the rapid decline in the quality of judgments in Nigeria especially over political matters since 1999. Justice Onnoghen himself has been associated with some of the rather grotesque judgments since we began our democratic journey in 1999. The mess he has plunged himself in today should force the judiciary to take a good look at itself.