Obviously, the atmosphere is tense in Nigeria. The report that the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, is being goaded to quit office is unsettling the polity few weeks to a crucial general election. Amidst the confusion the unfolding development is generating, I took a pause to understand the motivations for such awry experience in our fragile democracy and concluded that, this is the consequence of silence.
As I give the issue more thoughts, the word of Martin Niemöller, a pastor during the Second World War, and an unapologetic public adversary of Adolf Hitler, readily flows through my mind and reinforced my conclusion on the unpleasant situation that is confronting our country. His word goes thus; "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."
This aptly answers agitated minds on the confounding fate that stares the nation's Judiciary. But just like most issues, it didn't just start now. Politicians have always used fear as a tactic, and that tactic is mostly targeted at a group of people to whip them in line or coerce supports. But somehow, we pretend not to realise the injustices those crude tactics bears until we become the victim of these injustices.
That is the unfortunate reality that has characterised our democracy for some time. Like a recurring decimal, cruel tactics are easily deployed at a group or individual with different views or political considerations, putting our democracy at an awkward evolution stage. There are instances of groups or individuals who are believed to be victims of crude tactics.
Take a look at the National Assembly, it has battled two criminal charges under the Muhammadu Buhari-led government. First, it was an alleged false asset declaration charge against the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, and the other, an alleged tampering with the Senate Rules.
Look back and think– were we there to stand with the legislative arm of government and insist that the reputation of the institution should be spared from ridicule? Did we speak up against the perceived damage it would bear on our democracy? While both charges ran through Courts, there were clear warnings about how easily we could slide into a distasteful situation, but as usual, sentiments swayed us away from taking note.
Justice Onnoghen is caught up in the absolute misapplication of power. Otherwise, it beat any reasonable explanation on the rush to throw him out of the seat. Aside that the approach is utterly wrong, it's unexpected that anyone would contemplate a move to oust the head of the nation's judiciary at this dying moment into the general elections.
But this is not the first time the judiciary is being dragged to the spotlight, however, that of Justice Onnoghen seem to be too weighty and consequential that it has attracted debate from Nigeria. For example, homes of Judges were raided in late 2016 by security agents on perceived corruption, perhaps, the silence that trailed that incident may have emboldened the deliberate disregard for the provision of extant laws and established judicial precedent when the charges of alleged false asset declaration were made against Justice Onnoghen at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).
Undoubtedly, for most people, it is hard to imagine that legal precedent was ignored before filing charges against Justice Onnoghen at the CCT. As a judicial officer, and infact, the head of the nation's judiciary, Justice Onnoghen ought to be referred to the National Judicial Council (NJC) if he is found to have breached any rules or committed crimes, or worse, the National Assembly, who must play a role in his removal as CJN.
Since that is not the case, there is no justifiable reason for Justice Onnoghen to step down as CJN as he is being goaded, except he is surrendering to blackmail, which unfortunately, the unfolding scenario suggested. For the avoidance of doubt, below is the stipulation of the Constitution on processes involved in the removal of a judicial officer, including the CJN.
The 1999 Constitution (as amended), provided that:
292. (1) A judicial officer shall not be removed from his office or appointment before his age of retirement except in the following circumstances –
(a) in the case of –
(i) Chief Justice of Nigeria, President of the Court of Appeal, Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Chief Judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Grand Kadi of the Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja and President, Customary Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, by the President acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate.
(ii) Chief Judge of a State, Grand Kadi of a Sharia Court of Appeal or President of a Customary Court of Appeal of a State, by the Governor acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the House of Assembly of the State,
Praying that he be so removed for his inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment (whether arising from infirmity of mind or of body) or for misconduct or contravention of the Code of Conduct;
(b) in any case, other than those to which paragraph (a) of this subsection applies, by the President or, as the case may be, the Governor acting on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council that the judicial officer be so removed for his inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment (whether arising from infirmity of mind or of body) or for misconduct or contravention of the Code of Conduct.
This was strengthened by a Court of Appeal, sitting in Lagos, which held in a December 2017 judgement that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) lacks the statutory powers to investigate or prosecute a serving judicial officer except such has been stripped of his/her office by the NJC, mandated by the law to discipline erring judges. Justice Obaseki Adejumo, who read the lead judgement for the appellate court, held that before a judicial officer can be prosecuted, he/she must have lost his/her judicial standing through the NJC, otherwise, any charges against a judicial officer still on the bench will be an exercise in futility.
From the foregoing, it is clear that the call for Justice Onnoghen to step down as CJN is ill conceived and clever tactics to push him out of office. It refreshed our memories of the unpleasant experience that our politicians’ lust for control has bear on our democratical institutions. As we educate ourselves on situations such as this one, which are not as critics and defendants as we like to believe, we must think about consequence of our silences. It may not be you now, but imagine if it were.
Oke Umurhohwo is a Political Analyst and Strategist as well as a member of the PDP. He tweets from @stalyf