By Lawrence Njoku, Bertram Nwannekanma and Yetunde Ayobami Ojo, Rotimi Agboluaje,
Reactions have continued to trail the purported resignation of the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, on Thursday night, to stave off his possible retirement by President Muhammadu Buhari, following a recommendation to that effect by the National Judicial Council (NJC).
An online news platform broke the news of his resignation with immediate effect yesterday, saying he turned in his resignation letter to President Muhammadu Buhari on Thursday evening, a day after the NJC recommended that he be compulsorily retired for misconduct.
By virtue of section 306 of the 1999 Constitution, his resignation takes immediate effect. The Section 306 says: “(1) Save as otherwise provided in this section, any person who is appointed, elected or otherwise selected to any office established by this Constitution may resign from that office by writing under his hand addressed to the authority or person by whom he was appointed, elected or selected.
Subsection 2 says: “The resignation of any person from any office established by this Constitution shall take effect when the writing signifying the resignation is received by the authority or person to whom it is addressed or by any person authorised by that authority or person to receive it.”
Onnoghen’s voluntary resignation would save the President from having to get two-thirds majority of the senate to confirm his retirement, as stipulated in Section 292 (1) of the 1999 constitution, which says a “judicial officer shall not be removed from his office or appointment before his age of retirement except in the following circumstances – (a) in the case of- (i) Chief Justice of Nigeria… by the President acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate.”
Getting a two-thirds majority from the current senate would be near impossible by Buhari, considering the frosty relationship between the executive and legislature; hence he could as well accept the resignation.
The platform had earlier reported that the retirement would cost the country about N2.5 billion in benefits.
Though a senior lawyer in Onnoghen’s legal team was said to have confirmed his resignation, but his spokesperson, Awassam Bassey, was yet to make any official statement on the matter as at press time.
A lawyer, Chief Goddy Uwazuruike, described Onnoghen’s resignation as the worst way any Judge could be treated in Nigeria.
Uwazuruike, who was president general of Aka Ikenga, said in a statement, yesterday, that a new precedent has been set to deal with courageous Judges, stressing that the judiciary might not recover from it.
He said: “This resignation was like a thunderbolt! This man has been humiliated in the worst way possible for a Judge to be treated in this country since 1984, which was the year CJN, Justice Sowemimo, was removed from office by the then military head of state, Maj-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. Ever since, the dignity of the judiciary was never trampled upon by any government, military or civilian.
“As a lawyer, I weep for the other members of the judiciary, who did not understand that a new benchmark has been set for whipping any independent and courageous judge into line. Truly, the fulcrum of democracy has been damaged. Whether the third arm of the government, the judiciary, shall recover is a matter of conjecture. But one thing is certain, our judiciary will not be respected all over the world and in Nigeria.”
On his part, Lagos-based human rights lawyer, Femi Aborisade, said the NJC’s recommendation has not been acted upon by the President, adding: “By Section 306 of the Constitution, as amended, the suspended CJN has the right to resign and the resignation would take effect the moment the letter of resignation is received by Mr. President.
“The alleged recommendation by the NJC that Justice Onnoghen be retired remains what it is; a recommendation, which has not been acted upon by the President. Therefore, on the basis of the constitution, the suspended CJN can still exercise the option of resignation.
“But my concerns remain: If it is true that Justice Onnoghen has resigned, the executive arm of government has achieved the goal of subjecting the judiciary to a culture of fear and intimidation, in that any judicial officer would draw the conclusion that tenure of office of a judicial officer is at the mercy of the executive.
“If the suspension of CJN Onnoghen were about a fight against corruption, the constitutional due process would have been followed, which unfortunately, was not the case.
“Again, it is a sad commentary that everything on Justice Onnoghen is in the realm of suspicion. The alleged recommendation by the NJC that Justice Onnoghen be retired is not formally in the public domain. NJC is known for publishing its findings and recommendations. This has not happened in this instance.
“The alleged resignation of Justice Onnoghen is not formally in the public domain. Everything emanates from scoops received by certain media friendly with the executive arm of government. These are no good signs for an open and democratic society.”
Also, Babatunde Fashanu (SAN) said he ought to have resigned long ago, adding: “Yes, he can. He should have done that immediately he admitted he did not make a full declaration of his assets to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).
“That would have avoided all the embarrassing prosecution at the CCT and the NJC. Retirement can be voluntary or compulsory. The NJC’s recommendation to the President, if accepted, would have led to the CJN’s compulsory retirement.”
Fashanu further stated: “I believe his decision to throw in the towel is a deft pre-emptive move to avoid his being compulsorily retired by the President. The judicial community can now breath a sigh of relief for good riddance to the embarrassing saga.”
But Oluwole Kehinde, a lawyer, said Buhari has succeeded in giving him (Onnoghen) a bad name in order to hang him by charging him before CCT.
He said: “It’s a complex issue, but I believe he knows best, why he chose to resign. He may have been overwhelmed by the evidence against him, which convinced the NJC to recommend him for retirement.
“But that is the point many fair-minded people made, that the President ought to await the recommendations of the NJC before proceeding against him. Invariably, the President succeeded in giving the man a bad name in order to hang him by charging him before CCT and suspending him, illegally.
“Remember, the so-called EFCC evidence was not in view when the CCT and suspension came up. Unfortunately, the NJC didn’t have any input to the determination of allegations on which the CCT proceedings and suspension were founded.
“At any rate, the CCT and suspension preceded the NJC panel that heard EFCC petition. Something fundamentally went wrong. I am talking about procedure, not substance of allegations,” Kehinde said.
For Chuks Adiukwu, recommendation for compulsory retirement by the NJC can only take effect when the President has presented it to the senate, adding: “The CJN can resign, because the President can remove the CJN on the recommendation of the NJC supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate, as stipulated in Section 291 (1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
“The recommendation for compulsory retirement can only take effect when the President has presented it to the senate. As of now, he has not, so the CJN can voluntarily resign from his office.”
An Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Ilorin, Dr. Gbade Ojo, said the resignation was long-awaited.
Ojo, who is the immediate past Chief of Staff to Oyo State Governor Abiola Ajimobi, said the chief judicial officer of any country must live above board, adding: “The resignation is long awaited in the sense that he who calls for justice must come with clean hands.
“The moment he was accused, he ought to have stepped aside, whether the allegation is true or not. The chief judicial officer of a country must live above board. The judiciary can now have a new lease of life. It was confusion in the judiciary to have two Chief Justices of Nigeria. The President has done the right thing by not sacking him.
“I advise the new one to avoid what led to the fall of the resigned CJN. Let him go to the CCB to declare his assets.”
Chief Mike Ahamba (SAN) said it is an episode he wished should not have happened in the country’s judiciary, saying the entire episode is most unfortunate.
Constitutional lawyer, James Ezike, suspected that the CJN must have been blackmailed to take the action, as he has a good defence.
Ezike, however, blamed the episode on the absence of attorney general in the country with the requisite powers, adding: “As long as we don’t have an attorney general, and we never had, all these talks are a waste of time.
“The corruption in the judiciary is terrible and how to tackle it is to first get attorney general and give him the powers to work with.”
On his part, Executive Director of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Adetokunbo Mumuni, said Onnoghen’s resignation is a welcome development, rather than pushing the whole system to standstill.
The decision, he added, is morally okay, but not its legality.