Recall that the refusal of President Buhari to ensure that Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen was appointed the substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) generated negative reactions in the polity. Onnoghen was sworn in as Acting CJN on November 10, 2016 following the retirement of Justice Mahmud Mohammed, who attained the mandatory retirement age of 70.
Many political observers felt at the time that the president appointed the southerner in acting capacity to ease off pressure, dump him later and appoint a substantive CJN from the North.
Jurists argued that there was no constitutional basis for Onnoghen to be appointed in acting capacity when the coast was very clear for him to be appointed in full capacity, based on the recommendations of the National Judicial Council (NJC) and subject to confirmation by the Senate.
Section 231 (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) gives the president the power to appoint the CJN on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC) subject to confirmation by the Senate.
With the expiration of his tenure on November 10, 2016, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, the immediate past CJN and Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC), had supervised the replacement process as required by the constitution. He forwarded the NJC’s recommendation of Justice Onnoghen as the next CJN to President Buhari on October 14, 2016 but the president failed to transmit a letter to seek the approval of the Senate for that appointment.
Report had it that some members of the president’s kitchen cabinet were not favourably disposed to having a southerner as a CJN for a whopping four years, and the allegation that members of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in the South in collaboration with their northern counterparts wanted to have adequate control of the judiciary ahead of the 2019 elections.
Eminent jurists who flayed Onnoghen’s appointment as Acting CJN include former President of Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), Wole Olanipekun (SAN), Olu Daramola (SAN), Paul Ananaba (SAN), amongst others.
According to them, Justice Onnoghen ought to have been appointed in substantive capacity.
It would be interesting to see if the President would heed to the demands of the legal luminaries or act otherwise.
It would be recalled that in the thick of the agitation over the fate of Onnoghen when the three month acting period was expiring and his kinsmen were kicking, the CJN had pleaded with Nigerians to sheath their swords and allow the President a free hand to perform his constitutional duties as they affect his appointment in substantive capacity.
The fire was stoked by Onnoghen’s kinsmen in Cross River State who frowned at the development, threatening that they would resist any attempt not to confirm the acting CJN.
A number of critics also commented on the development, urging government to toe the honourable path to avoid plunging the country into unnecessary turmoil.
It was against this backdrop that the Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, decided to take the bull by the horns, by forwarding a letter to the Senate to confirm Onnoghen’s appointment as the substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN).
The Senate, which also read the mood of the country, did not waste time. By Tuesday, March 7, 2017, the Cross River State-born lawyer was sworn into office by Osinbajo inside the Presidential Villa. That ceremony brought to a permanent halt, the agitation and adrenaline rise over the alleged shenanigans surrounding the man’s 90 days in acting capacity.
In October 2016, the National Judicial Council (NJC) nominated Onnoghen, who was the most senior member of the Supreme Court bench, to head the nation’s judiciary.
Following the confirmation of his appointment after his screening by the Senate, he was subsequently sworn into office by the Acting President.
Speaking at the brief swearing-in a ceremony which took place at the Council Chamber of the Presidential Villa, Abuja, Osinbajo reminded the new CJN of the enormous task ahead of him, saying the fate of millions of Nigerians were now placed in his hands for justice.
Zebulon Agomuo and Owede Agbajileke