Opinion: Onnoghen’s Ghost – By Sam Omatseye
I wonder what Walter Onnoghen is thinking now. The former chief justice could not duck. He was docked and dumped. His charge was simple. Twice he fell foul of the law. The executive branch did not want him. They rustled a ruse within the rules to nail him. His guilt was in breach of not declaring his account. It was without excuse.
The government did not pursue the matter with sense of justice, but out of vendetta. A kangaroo affair to defeat a guilty man. They had justice in their hands, but chose the gangster path. A desperation of injustice. He was wrong, though he was wronged. Many believed he was a victim of a cabal. He created the excuse for the ruse, and they found a way within the rule of law to flush him out of the temple of justice.
How do you excuse a sinner even if he was sent to perdition the wrong way? That was the story of Onnoghen, the chief man of law who fell because the law bit him the wrong way.
Now we have a different story of the same skein. The new chief justice of Nigeria, Tanko Muhammad, who benefited from the intrigues to oust Onnoghen, is in the eye of a storm. He does not see it that way. But is he feeling more than a little aplomb? What is he relying on to be so smug?
Fourteen justices, men and women, who are supposed to be models of justice in the land, are accusing Muhammad of funny games with the pocketbook. They say Muhammad is living with two standards, one for himself, and the other with the other justices. He flies abroad, in luxury and retinue, for vacation. The others are supposed to abide here in obodo Naija, sulking and developing arthritic hands writing long, interminable judgments. He gives them Tokunbo cars while his own SUV purrs with new engines. They have to ration diesel for the big temple of justice to operate, or else there will be no hearing, or no work. The justices cannot go out for courses. They cannot enjoy diesel at home, et al. The justices have been turned into a new version of aluta, old men and women screaming their own versions of “we shall overcome” in the silence of their chambers.
Rather than allow the matter to simmer and die, it has become a public ridicule, a cause celebre. The CJN has no apology. Rather, he issued a warning. He was teaching his fellow men on the bench to maintain decorum, and not expose the squalor of the temple to the sunlight of ignominy. It is a serious matter. I have spoken with three senior advocates of Nigeria since last week over the matter, and two of them said they were part of the top lawyers seeking solutions to the quagmire. They described the scandal as a mess. They did not see an easy way out of the matter.
The chief justice was rationing material for the others and splurging on himself. It reminds one of what Greek playwright Sophocles wrote, “Thou shall not ration justice.”
When the CJN said the justices should not have made the matter public, he spoke ex cathedra. But the cathedral was already broken. It is a sort of murder in the cathedral.
Before the fourteen rose to a joint statement, all other avenues must have failed. The CJN must have acted with monarchical disdain to them. He must have treated them like serfs, like little boys and girls who ought to be happy with what they are getting.
In my interview with Professor Itse Sagay, (the fourth SAN I spoke with), for TVC breakfast show, a new dimension was unearthed. He saw the CJN’s sense of entitled contempt. He also saw that even the fourteen are not all that innocent. He noted that our house of justice has become filth central. He drew my attention to some of the stories making the rounds of justices on the take for judgment. He even noted, like a disappointed father, that some of the justices are his former students, and they had voted for corruption by not even picking his calls because his stance against the evil into which they have turned the temple of justice.
I also worry, as I indicated to Prof. Sagay, that the CJN may take advantage of this to expose his fellow benchers and blackmail may meet blackmail to unveil the rot of the system. Tanko may now be the cobra with the back on the wall and striking back with venoms of rage. The fourteen may find out they might have kept quiet and sulked in silence. But maybe this turn of events is the dialectical inevitability to bringing the house of justice to justice.
But what is intriguing is that we are not seeing any of the Onnoghen intrigue playing out from the executive branch. The Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami hinted that the can of worms awaited any audit of the NJC. For now, it is all empty rhetoric. As Prof Sagay noted, it is within his power as the chief law officer to overhaul the judiciary. Yet, a big mess has overtaken the hall of justice, and the man steeped in the filth is still a specimen of swagger. Blaise Paschal once wrote, “Justice without force is powerless; force without justice is tyrannical.” We saw the latter in the case of Onnoghen. We expect the former in the case of Tanko Muhammad.
Or else, we shall have a bipolar eye for justice in the land. So, what is bad for Onnoghen is not bad for Tanko. It will be a bad precedent. The offence of Onnoghen is that he did not declare his own money. The offence of Muhammad, as the fourteen justices are claiming, is that he has not declared the people’s money. One is personal fraud; the other is collective fraud. One wronged the country by wronging himself. The other is wronging the country by allegedly defrauding the court.
This issue has brought to the fore the need to separate the chief justice from the National Judicial Council (NJC). Justices should not be involved with finances. They should focus on judiciary, not fiduciary. Sagay asserted that English law that we imitate has such distinction.
The Supreme Court is the top tier of appeal. In one of Achebe’s novels, No Longer At Ease, a truck inscribed, “God’s case, no appeal.” The Supreme Court owns that here on earth. But if correction, to paraphrase Shakespeare, lies in the hand that committed wrong, to whom shall we complain?
Malami and his men played such a pivotal role in unseating Onnoghen. Is he going to look the other way as Tanko huffs and puffs? Is it one justice for Onnoghen and another justice to Tanko. It may not, in the end, just be a Tanko and Onnoghen issue, it is a cry for Nigerian justice.
– Omatseye is a respected columnist with The Nation