Gov. Wike
Gov. Wike

By DAN AMOR

The recent display of political infantilism by one of Nigeria’s most colourless political jobbers and butt lickers, Joe Igbokwe should be seen for what it is: a revelation of plot by his sponsors to once more intimidate the Nigerian judiciary as we prepare for the 2019 general elections. He recently posted a comment on his Facebook wall alleging that the Rivers State Governor Barrister Nyesom Wike goes to the Supreme Court to buy justice after several killings in his state. Igbokwe, a riotous personality who speaks before he thinks, posted on his Facebook wall: “Wike will not have the audacity and temerity to kill again and run to the Supreme Court to buy justice”, ostensibly referring to what would happen to the governor in 2019 when they would rob him of his victory. It is another invidious attempt by someone generally known to be a political rascal to blackmail the judiciary. What he implies is that the governor is a killer and the Supreme Court a place where justice is sold and bought. But it is yet another joke too expensive for them as the judiciary under the leadership of the current Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen can no longer be intimidated.

Like Barrister Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, one of Nigeria’s fire-brand activist lawyers and finest minds in the Bar has said, it is the height of indignity for Igbokwe who is still a public servant in Lagos State, the land of opportunities, to summarily deride the Nigerian legal system with such banal conclusion that one could buy judgment in the nation’s apex court. “Beyond that, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, should, as a matter of extreme urgency, demand official sanctions against Mr. Joe Igbokwe on this very grave allegation. We cannot continue in this culture of impunity, where everything goes and our value systems are being eroded by persons who hold out themselves as uncontrollable”, Adegboruwa laments . And he concludes: “If the All Progressives Congress, of which Mr. Joe Igbokwe prides himself as its spokesperson, cannot rein in him to contain his reckless outbursts, then it should be ready to contend with lawyers and judges at the appropriate time.” It is apparent that there is a deliberate attempt by politicians to misinform the Nigerian people on happenings in the judiciary in an attempt to incite the public against that very important arm of government in order to intimidate or cow it to submission. And since, as the saying goes, a snake is better killed by cutting off its head, this diabolic focus or spotlight is basically aimed at maligning the Supreme Court judges and by implication, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Onnoghen.

For those conversant with the politics, intrigues, subterfuge and roadblocks that characterized the emergence and final confirmation of His Lordship, Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen as substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), the current attempt by fifth columnists and political jobbers to blackmail or even cast a smear on his image cannot be surprising. Like never before in the history of the Nigerian Judiciary, the personality of the Chief Justice of the Federation is on the spotlight for the wrong reasons by irresponsible characters intent on destroying his hard earned reputation if they cannot bend him. Since his confirmation, the CJN has been deliberately unnecessarily misunderstood, invidiously misread and unjustly attacked in the media by people deliberately plotting to use him to score cheap political goals. It is now the fad that even unknown quantities in the society would with the slightest provocation not hesitate to launch a campaign of calumny to discredit the CJN. As always, the penchant for politicians to try to use the media to pull down our revered institutions not sympathetic to their narrow prejudices, is taking a monumentally destructive toll on the judiciary. If, indeed, it is not a virulent media blitz of his carefully taken steps to reposition the Judiciary, it would be a calculated lampoon on his reform agenda or a sweeping denunciation of his attempt to sanitize the much abused adjudicatory system or a violent muckraking of judicial officers under his watch. If you are familiar with happenings in the judiciary in recent times, you will agree with this writer that there is a deliberate attempt by a section of the press to help their sponsors or be allowed to be manipulated in using the judiciary as a canon fodder to make a mess of political opponents. Joe Igbokwe is not alone in this calculated attempt to make a mockery of the Supreme Court.

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In a fusillade of venomous attacks laced with plain lies, sarcasm and dry humour, these people are unrelenting in their plan to instigate the removal from office of the Chairman, National Judicial Council and Chief Justice of Nigeria. Like a scripted drama, one of them, Livingstone Wechie, had appeared on the Africa Independent Television, AIT Focus Nigeria programme on Tuesday August 29, 2017, to drive home their nefarious agenda. Mr. Wechie who claimed to have represented a body that goes by the name, “The Integrity Group”, openly called for the resignation of the CJN. His grouse was that the CJN had honoured the invitation of the Rivers State Governor His Excellency Barrister Nyesom E. Wike to flag off the construction of judges quarters in the state. Wechie, while admitting that ” the provision of residential accommodation for justices to retire with is a very welcome development and every government in Nigeria is encouraged to do the same as it will discourage mendacity in the judiciary”, at the same time quipped that the said project which the CJN did flag off “was not captured in any accessible or available budget of Rivers State”. Is it all that is required for the Chief Justice of Nigeria to resign? This was taking activism to not just a sheer pedestrian rabble but to a ridiculous and questionable dimension.

For instance, every well informed Nigerian knows that the Cross River State governor His Excellency Prof. Ben Ayade is the first governor in the current Buhari administration to have attracted President Muhammadu Buhari to a state to flag off the governor’s two signature projects, the 260 kilometre Calabar/Kafanchan digital highway and the new Calabar Port channelization project in 2016. These laudable projects were not actually captured by the Cross River State government budget as at the time the President performed the ground-breaking ceremony. Does this mean that any sane Nigerian activist from Cross River State would suddenly go on air to call for the President’s resignation or his impeachment by the National Assembly because the projects construction he commissioned were not captured in the state budget? President Buhari had honoured the invitation of Governor Ayade and consequently performed the groundbreaking ceremonies with so much fanfare only to discover later that there was no approved Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) nor a budget for the project which the governor had designated as one of his signature projects. I cannot recall anyone asking the president to resign on account of his not investigating the circumstances surrounding the superhighway before giving it a presidential stamp of approval through the groundbreaking ceremony.

It may therefore be necessary to remind Igbokwe and those beating the drum and wafting odium for him that Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen has an agenda which is already in the public domain, to reform the nation’s judiciary which was assumed to have stood still for decades even as other arms of government progressed. Though unnamed entrenched interests delayed his confirmation despite his qualifications and sterling leadership qualities, he should now be left alone to do his work. Using the Joe Igbokwes of this world to blackmail the occupant of the exalted office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria will further open the country to ridicule among the comity of democratic nations of the world. The Supreme Court is undoubtedly and indubitably the nation’s most powerful legal arena, the court in which the meaning of the laws of the land is finally decided. It is indeed apposite to warn that we should not play politics with our Judiciary, for therein lies our only redemption.

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By virtue of his position as the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Onnoghen, arguably, sits as first amongst equals in the intricate power calculus in the nation’s adjudicatory system, and, indeed, one of the five most important personalities in government. He is the Chairman of the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) as well as Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC). Yet, for many discerning Nigerians, the current crusade against Justice Onnoghen and his attendant media trials cannot be divorced from several invisible factors which have been working against him even before he got the plump job. Before the then Acting President Prof. Yemi Osinbajo forwarded his name to the Senate for confirmation in March 2017, there were pressures reportedly from some powerful Northen elite in collaboration with some stalwarts of the ruling All Progressives Congress for President Muhammadu Buhari not to send his name to Senate for confirmation. Both the mainstream and social media were inundated with feelers of plots by the powers-that-be to politicize the succession process of the apex Court much against its cherished tradition. Some of those powerful forces are still not comfortable with the emergence of Justice Onnoghen as substantive CJN.

Even before his appointment and confirmation, especially in the wake of the invasion of homes of some judges by the Department of State Services (DSS), Onnoghen was rigorously investigated while he was in acting capacity. This much the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has revealed recently. Despite this, those who still do not want him to function as the CJN would stop at nothing to assassinate his character and hard-earned reputation by throwing spanners in the works of the CJN. Some analysts also observed that Onnoghen may have been singled out to be used as scape goat for the perceived sins of his former colleagues and what they represented. According to them, what drove the wedge in the relationship between the Judiciary and the Executive arm of government that culminated in the resolve of the APC-led federal government to deal with the the Judiciary was allegedly the Supreme Court’s judgment on the 2015 governorship elections which favoured the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the South South states. That was the driving force that worked against his appointment and confirmation following the exit of Justice Mahmud Mohammed from the Bench upon his retirement on November 10, 2016.

The recent negative crusade to discredit Onnoghen, analysts believe, may also not be too far from the recent landmark ruling of the apex Court which put paid to the leadership crisis that rocked the former ruling party, the PDP after it lost power to the APC in the March 28, 2015 presidential election. This ruling which declared Senator Ahmed Makarfi as authentic national chairman of the party, and not Senator Ali Modu Sheriff, did not go down well with hawks in the APC who allegedly stoked the fire of the PDP crisis in order for the ruling party to consolidate its hold on power. A united PDP would definitely spell doom for APC in 2019, especially given the magnitude of policy somersault of the ruling party and the level of killings, poverty, apathy and indifference among Nigerians since the past three years. It was not for nothing that a questionable UNODC report on Corruption Index suddenly emerged from nowhere listing the judiciary as the second most corrupt public institution after the police in Nigeria. This unbridled attack is not just on Onnoghen but the entire judiciary with an eye for 2019. Nothing can be more derogatory and proof of a concerted plan to rubbish and intimidate Onnoghen and the judiciary than the way and manner the CJN was treated at the opening ceremony of the recent national conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) held in Lagos. Those who watched the live coverage of the programme on AIT would be appalled at the levity with which the head of the third arm of government was treated and how he was even relegated to the background in the order of protocol when dignitaries were introduced. One of them, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, even went as far as addressing Onnoghen as the “Chief Justice of the Supreme Court”. It was indeed nauseating how lawyers degrade their own profession just for political opportunism.

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This was followed in succession by another media hype, this time by the EFCC, that the CJN was among one hundred Nigerians who were being investigated for corruption. Following Onnoghen’s swift reaction to the story announcing his readiness to be probed, the anti-graft agency and the Presidency were soon to refute the story insisting that the CJN was not being investigated. Amidst the ensuing confusion, a certain sensational presidential aide who relishes in the klieg-light threw a brickbat at the judiciary in Nigeria and rammed into conclusion that Kenya had better lawyers than Nigeria. He was trying to use the recent ruling of the Kenyan Supreme Court which nullified President Uhuru Kenyatta’s re-election victory as a justification to attack the Nigerian judiciary. He also forgot that politicians and other public officials in Kenya respect the judiciary and subject themselves to the instrumentality of the law to settle disputes in their country whereas in Nigeria the executive and the security agencies choose which court ruling or order to obey. The judiciary in Nigeria and that of Kenya are not operating on the same terrain. For instance, in adjudication over election petitions, the Supreme Court of Nigeria is not the court of first instance but the Elections Petition Tribunals. In Kenya, the Supreme is the court of first instance in election matters. The judiciary did not make the rules contained in the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended 2014) which prescribes the provisions of election petitions. At the risk of sounding immodest, it was the same Onnoghen they are maligning who, with two judges of the Supreme Court, took a dissenting position and insisted that the massively flawed 2007 presidential election which brought Umaru Musa Yar’Adua to power be nullified in favour of General Buhari.

If only Nigerian politicians can adhere to the tenets of the rule of law and separation of powers; if only they can play the game of politics according to the rules, the judiciary would be less corrupt. But since politics remains the only business venture with the highest return on investment, the desperation on the part of politicians to manipulate the system to suit their narrow interests is overwhelming. Since assumption of office and eventual confirmation as substantive CJN, Justice Onnoghen has had to severally warn against attempts by politicians to undermine the judiciary. Given his background as a honed legal scholar and judicial activist, he should be given the freedom to drive his reform agenda of a judiciary which was hobbled by corruption, ethnic and other primordial prejudices for almost thirty years to its logical conclusion. While recognizing the verities of the role of the Supreme Court as a policymaker, of its tripartite role as a legal, a governmental, and, yes, an organic political institution, we should be wary of the over-politicization of the apex Court vis-a-vis the judiciary. It remains the altar ego of our democracy.