CJN Tanko exit: The “aeroplane driver” crashes. Mercifully
There is a popular story about Muhammadu Buhari from his prior iteration as military Head of State. The year was 1985 and the OAU needed to elect a new substantive Secretary-General. In place since 1983 was acting SG Paul Onu, a highly cerebral Nigerian who was heavily favoured to remain in the position by some of Africa’s leading lights at the time including Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. Onu’s principal stumbling block did not come from powerful African opposition. It came from home.
Muhammadu Buhari, you see, could not abide the thought of supporting any kind of human being from the Igbo ethnic group occupying a powerful position if there was anything he could do about it. Especially when one of the other contestants – a Nigerién fellow called Oumarou Ide – happened to come from Buhari’s own Fulani ethnicity. Born across the border less than 100km from Buhari’s native Daura, Ide was Buhari’s ideal candidate, never mind the small fact of his Nigerién nationality. At the 1985 OAU Summit in Addis Ababa, Buhari thus became the first and only African head of state to vote against his own country in favour of his ethnicity.
At the 1985 OAU Summit in Addis Ababa, Buhari thus became the first and only African head of state to vote against his own country in favour of his ethnicity
In his memoirs, Nyerere would later recollect with a certain amount of disgust that following Ide’s win over Onu, Buhari could not physically hide his malicious delight and juvenile glee at the victory of his kinsman over his compatriot. This was Buhari at his honest, base worst – an ethnoreligious demagogue with neither the desire nor the ability to pretend to be anything better.
Tanko Muhammad – Buhari’s ode to 1985
Since a couple of bright sparks somehow managed to get the same man to pose in a tuxedo and an “Ishi Agu” in 2015, and Buhari found himself forced to pretend to be the statesman he is physiologically incapable of being, his display of tribalism and ethnocentrism has been less visually obvious, but no less scandalous. Few episodes illustrate the unique type of darkness that inhabit the recesses of Buhari’s soul like the ouster of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen in favour of Tanko Muhammad.
There is little doubt that Acting CJN Onnoghen was the rightful occupant of the seat following the exit of Justice Mahmud Mohammed. So little doubt in fact, that he was sworn in by Buhari’s own vice president during one of his principal’s numerous trips abroad to treat one of his many mystery ailments. Buhari of course, was having none of this. Imagine having the ability to control appointment into a powerful seat and leaving it up to unimportant things like merit, competence and precedent!
In the Buhari world, the whole of humanity is a big Excel spreadsheet divided into two giant columns labelled “Fulani” and “Not Fulani.” For the egregious offense of belonging to the latter column, Onnoghen had his house invaded multiple times by armed government spooks wearing black ski masks, and had his front door blown off its hinges with a roll of C4 explosive. He had his reputation completely rubbished with shouty newspaper headlines accusing him of things that as yet remain mostly unproven and unsubstantiated.
Finally in May 2019, he voluntarily resigned and Buhari wasted no time swearing in his 21st Century Oumarou Ide – a Sharia court Justice with a visibly poor grasp of basic language, communication and professional manner. His confirmation hearing by the Senate where he made reference to a judge being unable to effectively “drive an aeroplane” provided a clear insight about the mental capacity and basic competence of this fellow. Truly, a man after Buhari’s own heart.
A poetic ouster – But Buhari has his say
I was going to write a few words about the poetic justice inherent in Tanko’s enforced removal which he unsuccessfully tried to play off as a voluntary resignation on health grounds. Right around when I started drafting this column, however, I received an email from Emmanuel Ogebe, Esq, an international human rights lawyer and Nigerian judiciary expert based in Washington DC. It expressed my thoughts so extensively and eloquently that I think I will let him do the talking:
“Outgone Chief Justice Tanko Muhammad left office more disgracefully than the man he schemed out. While popular opinion was that Justice Onnoghen CJN was framed and unfairly forced out, in his case public consensus is that Justice Tanko deserves to be outed and ousted.
It is therefore ironic that while Gen. Buhari showered encomiums and conferred a national honor on the disgraced outgone Chief Justice Tanko, Buhari had rained false accusations in a long tirade against Onnoghen to justify his ouster.
But the Nigerian people who heard Gen Buhari say recently that they were better off today than when he came into office seven years ago, know full well that he is mentally on vacation from objective reality. Only Buhari has fared better in seven years but certainly not the suffering people of Nigeria. Tragically that is painfully obviously to all except himself.
The very fact that all fourteen Supreme Court Justices signed a protest letter against the outgone Chief Justice alone should have foreclosed any question of a national award. Seven justices comprise a constitutional sitting panel of the court so 14 justices’ signatures amount to two constitutional panels of the court unanimously adopting the same position with no dissensions or exceptions. Buhari completely ignored the opinions and concerns of the entire Supreme Court to honor his dishonourable quisling.
In another ironic and karmic twist, Justice Tanko’s exit was on par with that of Justice Onnoghen’s – they’re both the only Chief Justices to resign prematurely or be pushed out of office.
A long-standing judicial convention is to hold a valedictory court session for retiring justices where tributes and speeches are presented on their legacy and in their honour.
In recent history, only three Chief Justices of Nigeria have retired without receiving this ultimate honour among peers and the profession.
The late Justice Katsina Alu CJN was the first not to have a valedictory session. His Lordship after a scandalous tenure and surreptitiously appointing SANs outside of due process, hurriedly fled from the country prior to his day of retirement when a valedictory session would have been due. A valedictory would have been suicidal given his tortured and notorious legacy of infamy.
Justice Onnoghen CJN had no opportunity to have a valedictory given the manner in which he was precipitately forced out of office. It is unfortunate because despite the controversy, His Lordship made some epic contributions to the legal system in terms of Technological innovations for the bar that could have been heralded in his legacy.
The third and final Chief Justice not to receive a valedictory session in their honour is Justice Tanko Muhammad.
Therefore, ironically the very honour which he deprived his predecessor Onnoghen of, he deprived himself of.
Yet history will hold that Buhari gave him a valedictory tribute, albeit a false one but his peers amounting to two constitutional panels of the Supreme Court gave him a true and damning one in their leaked disenchantment memo. Indeed if one counts the damning valedictory speech of Hon. Justice Ejembi Eko, that amounts to 15 justices comprising three standard panels of the Supreme Court uniformly against Justice Tanko.
That the worst president in Nigeria celebrated the worst Chief Justice in Nigerian history should brook no surprise. If deep calls to deep, dust also calls to dust. It was nothing more than a mutual adoration felicitation of failures.”
Enough said, I think.