With an executive hammer fashioned by legalistic manipulation, President Muhammadu Buhari has forced his will on Nigeria’s Judiciary.
On Friday evening, Buhari announced the suspension of Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, immediately swearing-in the next highest-ranking Justice of the Supreme Court. An order obtained from the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) made this possible, per the president’s statement.
This move comes too close to the elections not to have been blatantly politically motivated, regardless of Buhari’s reference to an avowed respect for the rule of law. A casual examination of the facts of the matter makes this pretty clear.
A Contrived Emergency
Let’s not grumble about this case’s hyperloop acceleration. It is desirable that justice be not delayed if it can be delivered in good time. What is apparent in Onnoghen’s case, however, is a desperation within the presidential kitchen cabinet to not have him be in charge of the apex court in the period before and after the 2019 elections.
How else should the haste to have him tried by the Tribunal be interpreted, when the law of the land today (as imperfect as it may be) is that the National Judicial Council (NJC) recommends the punishment for an erring judicial officer? The excuse is that Onnoghen, being head of the NJC, would not recuse himself, seating as Judge on his case.
But that is rushing to a conclusion before actually giving the situation a chance to play out. Why the rush to the CCT? What could go so horribly wrong for the country necessitating that due process be interrupted by legal gymnastics?
Justice Onnoghen probably should have resigned earlier in the month. As soon as it became clear this assets declaration case was not frivolous, he should have followed his admission of forgetfulness with an unreserved resignation. That singular act would have saved the country all of the present embarrassment.
For some reason, he chose not to. It is possible that, owing to his partisan allegiance in the coming polls (he is free to have one), he felt played by the close relationship between the author of the petition against him and president Buhari. Digging his heels and choosing to fight on may have been a politically motivated decision. If so, he is more a scheming politician than an honorable Justice.
But it was a move within his rights to make. His accusers bore the inconvenient burden to prove guilt and crime beyond reasonable doubt. What they have chosen to do shows this was less about bringing the man to justice.
The Back Door
Buhari is desperate to embellish his anti-corruption credentials just in time for February 16. After four years, his Mr Integrity shtick has borne scant fruit (he blames Onnoghen for that). Without a glittering record on the economy or security, he has been in the market for a magisterial political point.
Had Onnoghen resigned when this petition first appeared, a campaign narrative would have been built around Buhari’s cleansing of the Judiciary – beginning with the midnight DSS raids against Judges – finally yielding result. There aren’t many anti-corruption victories bigger than the Chief Justice of the Federation stepping down for financial malfeasance under your watch.
But that Onnoghen would dare lawfully fight back is a frustration for the president’s men.
Buhari duly acknowledges the validity of court orders stopping the CCT from trying Onnoghen. But he casts aspersions on them. To ‘save’ the Judiciary, Buhari not only flips the Constitution on its head but impugns a great number of the nation’s lawyers and courts. He “suspends” Onnoghen so as not to appear in direct contravention of the Constitution’s mandate on removing senior officers like the Chief Justice.
Buhari, who did not know what “livestock” and “Disability Bill” were, is suddenly a master at playing with words.
Reformed Democrat At Dawn, Benevolent Dictator By Sunset
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has termed this a “coup”, rejecting it unequivocally. But another audience led by Kaduna Governor Nasir El Rufai see this as a strong reason to increase their support for Buhari. What Buhari has done is pose this to his would-be voters:
Would you give me four more years to produce this kind of semi-dictatorial decisions? I understand we are in a democracy and I am sure you appreciate how I have managed these four years to adjust to it. With four more years guaranteed, I will have nothing to lose.
What I have shown by this my Onnoghen move is decisiveness, a willingness to step outside the bounds to show you what I have always been made of.
Don’t you like it? I mean, your family member or friend could be affected someday, but don’t you like it?
And to have them rest assured, he adds:
Remember I still have Osinbajo with me: Senior Advocate, Professor of Law and Clergyman. Surely you can see I am on the right side: Our ambition suffereth violence; we have only, as the violent, adjusted the bench by force.