None of the fifteen former Chief Justices of Nigeria, beginning from Stafford Foster Sutton (1956 – 1958) to Mahmud Mohammed (2014 – 2016) came to office in the cloud of controversy that followed Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen.
A few years before his appointment, one of his predecessors, Aloysius Iyorgyer Katsina-Alu also assumed office under some controversial circumstances. Katsina Alu was recommended to President Musa Yar’adua by the National Judicial Council for appointment as Chief Justice of Nigeria and the President also wrote to the Senate for his confirmation. All this was in line with the stipulations of the Nigerian constitution.
Trouble started when President Yar’adua became sick, so sick he could not even transmit a letter to the National Assembly transferring power to his Vice, Goodluck Jonathan before he was flown abroad for treatment. When the Senate approved the appointment of Katsina Alu, and the days of Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi in office as Chief Justice expired, there was no President or acting President in place to swear him in. Nigeria had no driver on the political seat. To add a judicial seat without a driver meant Nigeria was running on auto drive politically and judiciary. This was a recipe for anarchy, total anarchy.
It took the ingenuity of Michael Kaase Aondokaa, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice to remind Nigerians that even though it had not happened before, the outgoing Chief Justice could also swear in his successor. Nigeria was saved from the precipice of running it’s affairs without a president and without a Chief Justice.
Looking back, it would appear as if Onnoghen’s days in office were jinxed. For inexplicable reasons, President Muhammed Buhari found it difficult to forward his name to the Senate for confirmation even after he was recommended by the National Judicial Council. Then the President fell sick and was taken abroad for treatment. As the days drew near and Nigeria again stood the risk of running without a Chief Justice, the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo who was then Acting President took the bull by the horn and forwarded his name to the Senate on 1 March 2017. The Senate approved speedily and he was sworn in on 7 March 2017. Just at the nick of time.
Again the Nigerian Judiciary was saved.
Onnoghen’s travails started when a petition was filed by a civil rights group at the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) alleging that he owns “sundry accounts primarily funded through cash deposits made by himself up to as recently as 10 August 2016, which appear to have been run in a manner inconsistent with financial transparency and the code of conduct for public officials.”
Evidently, these bank accounts were not declared by Onnoghen as required by the law. Onnoghen himself agreed that he did not declare the assets. Then came the frightening decision to dock the Chief Justice of Nigeria at the Code of Conduct of Tribunal. In the history of Nigeria, this had never happened.
The Nigerian Judiciary has over the years enjoyed a good standing in international circles because of strict adherence to the principles of appointment, discipline and removal of judicial officers from office. At no point in Nigeria’s history – not even under military dictatorship – was the Chief Justice put in a dock. When the temperamental General Murtala Mohammed as Head of State fired Taslim Elias as Chief Justice of Nigeria, the international community registered a powerful protest by making him a judge and President of International Court of Justice at the Hague.
The docking of Onnoghen also generated a lot of heat. Politicians from the South, South shouted that it was a plot to deny their son a chance to occupy the high office. Niger Delta Militants said they were going to resume bombing of oil installations if the trial did not stop.