Sometimes when I think about the nation-state called Nigeria, I cant but see a people who have been chronically plagued by selective amnesia. This amnesia which is selective is one that is deliberate, because we sometimes chose what to ignore and forget, all in a bid to satisfy our political cleavages, based on religion, ethnicity or partisanship. This no doubt militates against our quest to fulfill our aspirations as a people. We condemn and scream to high heavens what ordinarily should not raise any fuss, just because ” a son-of-the-soil, or our personal person” is involved. We talk about respect for the rule of law, when the law itself has not been subject to morality, irrespective on who is involved; but is moral or otherwise based on individual whim.
For the past week the media space has been awash with news of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen. The Executive Director of Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative, Mr. Dennis Aghanya, petitioned the Code of Conduct Bureau, that the Chief Justice, a public officer, had not fully declared his assets, contrary to the provisions of the law. Public officers are supposed to declare their assets once every four years. The petitioner alleged that there is a material difference between what Onnoghen declared in 2005 when he was sworn in as a justice of the Supreme Court and 2016 when he became Chief Justice. He alleged that Onnoghen appeared “to have suppressed or otherwise concealed the existence of multiple domiciliary accounts owned by him as well as the substantial cash balances in them”, which in five Standard Chartered Bank accounts totalled $164,804.83; €55,254.56; £108,352.02; and in two Union Bank accounts came to N49.3 million. Onnoghen had allegedly declared only two of seven accounts in his first form. In a response attributed to him, Onnoghen allegedly said it was only in 2016, after he became Chief Justice that he realised that he had not updated his assets declaration form.
This petition, coming less than 30 days countdown to national election has given political watchers and citizens , reasons to question the motive of the Buhari led government, who in no small measure isn’t shy from courting controversy not minding whose axed is gored in its war against corruption. Recall that in 2016, the DSS carried out a sting operation in several parts of Nigeria in which incriminating evidences were found. But guess who screamed to the highest heavens? The common masses who got nothing, absolutely nothing to loose. They claimed it was an affront on the independence of the judiciary and that due process of referring disciplinary issues concerning judges to the National Judicial Council was the appropriate thing to do. In defence of its actions, the DSS showed series of letters which it had written to the NJC concerning these erring judges, yet it never saw the light of day. It was this perceived deliberate ploy to frustrate the DSS, that led to its barging in unannounced in the middle of the night, albeit, through lawful means. Despite all these explanations, it elicited uproar from major stakeholders whose interest was never borne out of patriotism but to wind up sentiments and pitch the people against the government, thus weakening its resolve to fight against corruption.
It is worthy of note that this Onnoghen’s issue has exposed how deep corruption has eaten into the fabric of the judiciary. Instead of asking pertinent questions of how and when the Chief Justice should be tried knowing fully well he allegedly admitted ‘forgetting’ on his part to declare some of his assets, what we now see is a record of over 150 exotic legal luminaries bracing for war with the executive to defend its ‘god’, thus beating the previous record of over 90 lawyers who voluntarily ran to defend the Senate President Saraki on similar issue on non-declaration of assets. How striking!!!
What’s more shocking is the way these ‘senior advocates’ who should know better to see the peculiarity and uniqueness of this case as one which would even go a long way to enrich its judicial history books, by putting to test the supremacy of the law, it has gone guns blazing that the Chief Justice should not even appear in a court of law in the first place, not to mention being tried. Even more disappointing is that they keep insisting he can only appear before the NJC; the same NJC who he appoints and call the shots; the same NJC who previously refused to try her own until the executive through the DSS gave them a kick up their arse before they sat up to their responsibility. How laughable is it that the Chief Judge would be a judge in his own trial. Come to think of it, these are same set of people who popularly make statements that ‘ignorance is not an excuse in the court of law’, so why are they calling for blood when it’s time to defend the ‘supremacy’ of the law?
For those playing the NJC card, they should know that the NJC is only empowered by the constitution to try judges who have erred in the course of their duty, bothering on ethics of its professional duties. The implication of this is that if for instance a Judge is caught stealing, or drives and go against traffic, the NJC is not empowered by law to try him or her. He can then be tried by a competent court of law because the NJC got its limits. Therefore on this case of non-declaration of assets, who is best suited than Code of Conduct Tribunal to try this case? After all, it is still the judiciary the executive referred the case to, so why the hullabaloo?
Interestingly, even the man in the storm once delivered a judgement on July 12, 2013(SC.279/2012) that the CCT had ‘exclusive jurisdiction to handle all violations of the provisions of the code of conduct bureau, which covers all false declaration of asset, for which he is now being tried! This is a clear case of bush meat caught the hunter.
But From a political standpoint, the PDP claims it’s a deliberate move by Buhari to not only humiliate the judiciary, it is also a plot in its grand plan to manipulate the 2019 election. While it has been a habit for PDP to cry foul even where there is none, the timing of this also calls to question the motive behind it. However, what we should take into cognisance is the facts before us-the Chief justice alleged admission he erred on his part, which is all that matters. Besides, during the travails of former minister of finance, Kemi Adeosun, on the controversial NYSC certificate forgery, the same opposition called for her head. The evidence against her was embarrassingly true and proven that Buhari had to let her go, going against his principles of never letting his foot soldiers bleed on the front. So why have the rules changed as soon as it applies to the Chief Justice?
If you want my take, it’s quite simple; if he shamefully admitted he erred, whether they call it witch hunting, humiliation of the judiciary, political undertone, or perhaps his village people are involved, I do not care to know; he should resign and face the law of the land. But in Nigeria, we do not love the simple things, we make the plain things complex, we create fiction from our fertile garden of imagination and before you know it, public perception becomes reality. Then when the trouble comes, we blame the innocent unknown. Welcome Naija!!!