Chief Justice of Nigeria Walter Onnoghen was suspended from office the other time. The Cross River State Government approached the Supreme Court over the matter. It wanted the court to say the suspension of Onnoghen, who is from the state, wasn’t proper. Last week, the Supreme Court said it had no jurisdiction over that kind of suit.
It added that Cross River State had no locus standi, in effect saying the government of the state was a busybody. I was alarmed from Day One, wondering what the Cross River State Government thought it was doing. If the government of my state, Oyo, took this unabashed step I would have informed everyone in the government that they were embarrassing me by playing sectionalism, exhibiting such lack of decency.
Now, the South-South area of Nigeria engaged in militant activities in the past, making the government pay it attention over environmental degradation caused by oil spills. Many Nigerians see the plight of the people of the area and are happy that the government is now making efforts to clean up. But a militant attitude isn’t applicable under all circumstances. Tact sometimes does a better job than strength. Militant comments from the South-South characterised the Onnoghen saga. Some may applaud the approach. It’s a put-off for me. For we aren’t talking about the chairman of some decrepit motor park association. It’s the Chief Justice of my country that’s at issue. I’m not looking at who’s right or wrong in how Onnoghen left office. I simply wish he left in a more dignified manner. If he was embarrassed out of office, I should be embarrassed as a Nigerian, as in fact I felt I was in due course. Onnoghen’s response to the suspension didn’t help. The response of some from the South-South didn’t make it possible for him to leave office in the manner I wished either. Now any opportunity for history to speak differently about Onnoghen is lost. It is because astute politicians who understand the time, elders with calm heads whom I thought would subtly play a role in this essentially political matter, chose to let militant, hot-headed approach prevail.
If elders in the South-West had allowed such a matter to go the same way regarding anyone from that part of the country, I would have made the same point here. Why? Some things require somberness in handling.
Here the entire career of a man accustomed to being treated with respect and dignity was at stake. The South-South people missed this point when they were sounding militant and I was appalled, making me feel really sorry for our outgone Chief Justice.
Politics was at the root of Onnoghen’s matter, and a political solution was what I expected elders from the South-South to seek. Of course, political power has always known about the case of Onnoghen’s undeclared bank accounts. It kept silent until political calculations indicated that the man would be a factor.
Then, it struck. It mustn’t be forgotten that politics is the frame within which everything else happens in any country. It’s why the standard lay definition of politics is the art of who gets what, when, how? The President plays a role in who becomes the head of the judiciary. That’s how pervasive politics is. Yes, Onnoghen has the right to want to challenge the legality of his suspension in court. But I think two issues should have persuaded him not to follow that course of action.
One was his undeclared bank accounts, which he admitted to having, and knew was punishable under the law. The other was the political climate. With the bank account issue, where’s his moral justification to confront the political power? What was left was for him to take a decent bow. The Presidency knows how to maintain a loud silence, and I’m certain it would like it did in the case of a past Minister of Finance.
These were the reasons I was surprised that state governors from the South-South, some of whom are lawyers, publicly announced that Onnoghen shouldn’t appear before a constitutionally appointed court. This is a call to disorderliness. Leaders from the North won’t do this. They would rather deploy tact, subtly work behind the scene to extricate their own from disgrace. They did it in the past.
We know it’s not everything that government does that’s fair. It’s the reality of politics. My observation of the political system in the US is that, if the political climate is against a person – court judge, government official, military general – he unobtrusively goes home and waits for a better political climate. Onnoghen assumed the law would do in a situation where the politics of the day was patently against his retaining his seat. It was a mistake. A past government demonstrated this in the case of retired Justice Ayo Salami, President of the Appeal Court. The law supported Salami, but the politics of the time didn’t. Incidentally, the President who showed that political power was superior to legal power that time was from the South-South. Now that South-South was on the receiving end elders from that area didn’t borrow from Salami’s example and help steer Onnoghen in a different direction. Salami’s hadn’t been the only case in our political history. How Onnoghen himself witnessed these things but still failed to swallow pride, especially with those undeclared bank accounts, and go home baffled me. How did the South-South governors forget that political might could be deployed to frustrate judicial might? In the end, Onnoghen said he resigned. But the damage to his image was done.
Let’s face it, the law, without political power backing it, is limited. Many international laws remain inside books because no nation exercises the political and military power to enforce them. The student of law rightly believes in the might of the law. But so does the student of politics. My background in Politics and International Relations provides me with enough empirical evidence that politics trumps law in the final analysis. Does anyone forget that the president of Nigeria can pardon and free any offender that the law confines to prison? Law can have its say. But politics has many political channels it can adopt to frustrate law and have its way. With the moral burden regarding bank accounts involved in Onnoghen’s matter, he played into the hands of those who wanted him out of his seat. For this reason, wise men from his part of the country should have counselled him to see the President and say he was going home to rest. He should have called it a day, hoping for a better political climate that might find him useful and re-accommodate him in other capacities. It has happened before.
But more serious than that is the issue of the injury to this country that some interventions by prominent people cause. Early comments from the South-South over Onnoghen’s case belong here. I suppose if northern governors said their sons shouldn’t appear in court, many southerners would insult them, arguing that we are all equal and everyone should respect the law. But governors from the South-South said the same thing and southerners didn’t see anything wrong in it. I recall also that when it took a while for the FG to send Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for screening as Chief Justice, loud threats to the unity of our nation came from the South-South. This is untidy, too street-level, especially when such comments were made by political leaders. Of course, the political power of the day could still have ignored such threats, selected another person as Chief Justice and nothing would have happened...Read More…