1-Point Agenda for New CJN

By Emmanuel Onwubiko

Today, being March 7th, 2017, the Nigerian judiciary has received the fresh head in the person of Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen who was sworn in by the acting president and ironically a professor of law, Mr. Yemi Osinbajo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

He (Justice Walter Onoghen) was also conferred with the highest national honour as the grand commander of the order of the Niger.

This multidimensional decoration with the highest judicial office and one of the highest national honours is symbolically impactful and goes to demonstrate the essence of the exemplary leadership qualities and attributes that the CITIZENS expect their new head of the nation's court system to have in abundance in both his private and public life.

What this solemn inauguration which took place within the precinct of the Abuja seat of executive power means is that after months of suspense and doubts, the judiciary now has a substantive leader who should steer it away from the mountain of credibility crises that are both self-inflicted and externally induced. The job of the new helmsman in the judiciary is therefore clearly cut out for him but could be summed up in what i have called a single point agenda.

Before unfolding the 1-point agenda may i state that Justice Onnoghen with his swearing-in has broken a jinx as the first person from southern Nigeria in over three decades to assume the exalted mantle of the chief justice of Nigeria after what became the northern Nigerian dominance. Others before him are:” Hon. Justice Stafford Foster Sutton;Hon. Justice Adetokunbo Ademola KBE, GCON;Hon. Justice Taslim Olawale Elias CFR, GCON;Hon. Justice Darnley Arthur Alexander CBE,KCMG,CFR,GCON;Hon. Justice Atanda Fatai-Williams CON,GCON;Hon. Justice George Sodeinde Sowemimo CON,GCON;Hon. Justice Ayo Gabriel lrikefe OFR,CON,GCON;Hon. Justice Muhammed Bello CON,GCON.

The remaining past CJN's are: Hon. Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais CON,GCON;Hon. Justice Salisu Modibo Alfa Belgore CON,GCON ;Hon. Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi CON, GCON;Hon. Justice Aloysius Iyorgyer Katsina-Alu CON, GCON ;Hon. Justice Dahiru Musdapher CON, CFR, FNIALS, GCON ;Hon. Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar JSC, CON, CFR, FNIALS, GCON and Hon. Justice Mahmud Mohammed GCON.

Before Onnoghen was finally recommended for confirmation, President Muhammadu Buhari came under intense criticism for his deliberate prevarication to name him (onnoghen) the successor of the immediate past chief justice of Nigeria who is from Taraba State, North East of Nigeria.

There were speculations and allegations that president Buhari planned to substitute the now substantive chief justice with another judicial officer from Northern Nigeria. But that is a story for another day.

The focus of this piece is not to play up the political undercurrents that characterized the selection of the substantive CJN of the judiciary but we are here to list out what I consider as the most strategic agendum of the head of the Nigerian court system.

This is because if any interested researcher should carry out dispassionate opinion poll on how most Nigerians see the justice sector and by inference the Judiciary the most likely outcome would be that the judiciary has lost credibility.

The snail speed that matters take before decisions are reached is a matter of considerable worry for millions of Nigerians.

Although the factors militating against speedy and efficient dispensation of justice includes certain external matters like the issues of lack of professionalism and non-adherence to ethical standards by prosecutors and investigators, the bulk of the factors that weighs down the integrity of the judiciary lies within the courts.

So what this new head of the Nigerian court system should focus his attention to achieve is to repair the credibility damage inflicted on the body of the judiciary by a combination of centripetal and centrifugal forces.

He has already stated his readiness to confront this hydraheaded monster frontally but if our recent history is anything to go by we can safely say to him that 'SEEING IS BELIEVING'.

The abovementioned cynicism is informed by the rich facts that past Chief Justices made similar pledges but found it impossible to overcome the human factors that usually oppose radical transformation from a decadent system to that of efficiency and effectiveness.

It is true that people resists changes but Justice Onnoghen from his tension-soaked long wait for the President to forward his name for confirmation by the Senate must have thought himself the lesson that it is no longer business-as-usual.

If he has been subjected to these topsy turvy pre-confirmation experiences, it is expected that the restoration of integrity in the judicial process should be the categorical imperative for Mr. Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen (GCON).

The new chief justice of Nigeria has the next four years to put transparent mechanisms in place quickly to tackle the hydra headed monster of corruption and bribery weighing down significantly on the judiciary.

He needs to advocate for constitutional amendments too, that would empower the judiciary in the states and the federal capital to stop going cap in hand to the executive branch of government to engage in incessant begging for cash to operate.

The constitution must have a clear provision stipulating punishment for the breach of the financial and operational independence of the judiciary.

The new head of the court system in Nigeria should work out feasible frameworks to democratize the working of the national judicial council so Nigerians can easily forward and follow up on petitions against members of the bench just as the Nigeria Bar Association must be tasked to weed out evil members who are deployed by politicians as bribe givers that conveys bribe money to judges.

Justice Onnoghen must ensure that an in-house rule that precludes the media from observing the processes of the investigative functions of the National judicial council (NJC) are quickly amended to encourage openness and transparency.

The constitution has in the Third Schedule section 21 conferred on the NJC the powers to quickly removed corrupt judges from the bench. Let the new CJN encourage whistleblowers to watch over judges so the Temple of justice is sanitized of all ethical faults such as bribery and corruption.

In the aforementioned constitutional provisions the NJC is to “(b) Recommend to the President the removal from office of the judicial officers specified in sub-paragraph (a) of this paragraph and to exercise disciplinary control over such officers; and (d) Recommend to the Governors the removal from the office of the judicial officers in sub-paragraph (c) of this paragraph, and to exercise disciplinary control over such officers.”

Also the process of selecting judicial officers must also be made transparent so Nigerians can observe and send in their comments on the integrity or otherwise of prospective judges.

Another disturbing phenomenon is the issue of disrespect to court orders by government.

This pattern that has emerged since the coming of the current government must be tackled because the persistent disobedience of binding orders of competent courts of law undermines the integrity of the judiciary.

Let the CJN take drastic measures including calling out judges on strike to protest the unpardonable disobedience of court orders by the executive branch of government.

Disobedience of the binding orders of the court also offends the constitutional provisions that speaks to the issue of separation of powers and threatens the independence of the Nigerian judiciary.

If the government officials continues to disobey the court orders without any penalty enforced against the said official including the justice minister, the implication over time is that the ordinary Nigerians will no longer trust the judiciary but would opt for self-help measures such as jungle justice if government makes it a habit to pick and choose which court orders to obey as we are currently witnessing.

The current President has in the matters involving the former National Security Adviser Colonel Sambo Dasuki, Mr Nnamdi Kanu of the Indigenous peoples of Biafra and Sheikh ElZaczakky of the Shiites Islamic Movement disobeyed court orders granting these litigants bail.

Let the CJN roll out measures to compel government to obey court orders.

Dahiru Mustapher, a one – time chief justice of Nigeria has once raised alarm that disrespect to court orders undermines judicial independence.

Hear him: “judicial independence is essentially composed of two foundations (i.e. individual and institutional) that cumulatively ensure the independence of the judiciary".

"Independence of the judiciary means that every judge is free to decide matters before him in accordance with his assessment of the facts and his understanding of the law. Without any improper influences, inducements, or pressures, direct or indirect, in any quarter or for any reasons; and that the judiciary is independent from the executive and legislature, and has jurisdiction directly or indirectly or by way of review, over all issues of a judicial nature”

Justice Mustapher also reminds us that: “impartiality is essential to the proper discharge of judicial office. It applies not only to the decision itself but to the process by which decisions are made. Judges must perform their duties without favour, bias or prejudice and ensures that their conduct both in and out of court maintains and enhances the confidence of the public, the legal profession and the litigants in the impartiality of the judicial system”.

“Impartiality means that the judge treats the parties before him as equals and providing them with an equal opportunity to make their respective cases. It also means that the judge has no personal interest in the outcome of the suit, with impartiality, comes objectivity”.

The nation now awaits the pragmatic steps Justice Walter Onoghen will adopt to bring about fundamental revolution in the nation's court system.

*Emmanuel Onwubiko is Head of HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA (HURIWA) and blogs @ www.emmanuelonwubiko.com ; [email protected] .

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