By Emmanuel Aziken.

The importance of the office of the CJN is underlined by the fact that he sits at the head of the Judicial branch of government, which interprets the laws of the land and has the power to reverse decisions made by other arms of the government, notably the Executive and Legislature.


Among the most important decisions of the Supreme Court in recent times were the decisions to sack Andy Uba from office as governor of Anambra State barely after 14 days in office in 2007, the revocation of the Revenue Allocation Formula in 2002 and most recently, the decision to uphold the election of the PDP governors in Rivers and Akwa Ibom states after the 2015 election. The fact that Justice Onnoghen participated in those judgments that upended the permutations of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, to ascendancy in Rivers and Akwa Ibom states is one of the issues fingered by some critics as being at the base of the problems he is having with the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration. While the development has dramatically exposed the significant role of the CJN in the country’s political process, especially provoking is the role of the office holder in the election process. Not surprisingly, Onnoghen’s suspension has divided the polity with the opposition and the ruling party, the APC, at war over the issue. The PDP in its reaction to the suspension suspended its presidential campaigns as a form of protest. The PDP’s action was announced by its spokesman, Mr. Kola Ologbondinyan. The Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, at a press conference taunted the PDP over its decision, saying that the party was betraying the claim that the CJN may be inclined towards the opposition party. The Chief Justice of Nigeria is the head of one of the three arms of government, the judiciary. The other arms of government are the executive and the legislature respectively headed by the president and Senate President. The CJN’s exposure to political influence starts from his appointment. Under the current dispensation, the CJN is appointed upon the recommendation of the National Judicial Council, NJC, a body established by the 1999 Constitution.
THE CJN’s EXPOSURE TO POLITICS – Appointment The president appoints the CJN upon the recommendation of the NJC. It has been the practice of the NJC to recommend the most senior Supreme Court jurist to the president for appointment to the Senate as the CJN. Following the attainment of the age of 70 by Justice Mahmud Mohammed, the last substantive CJN (2014 -2016), the NJC had recommended Justice Onnoghen to President Buhari for appointment as CJN. However, President Buhari did not immediately forward his name to the Senate raising issues with some within the polity. It was especially so given the fact that no Southerner had held the position of CJN in the last 30 years. The controversy surrounding the appointments of President Buhari with insinuations that he was not disposed towards appointing those from outside the core Muslim North into crucial positions in the country further exacerbated tensions. Vanguard learnt of emissaries including a delegation led by a Northwest governor who met the president over the issue to impress it on him on the need to play down tension in the country by immediately forwarding Onnoghen’s name to the Senate. A source privy to the development disclosed that the president was at that time also considering the prospect of appointing someone from outside the Supreme Court to be CJN. However, it could not be considered who the prospective nominee was. It would not be the first time that someone from outside the Supreme Court would be appointed as CJN. Justice Teslim Elias was appointed as CJN as a professor of law and as the attorney general of the country in 1972. However, if President Buhari was bent on that mission, he was arm-twisted by the fact that the NJC by virtual of the 1999 Constitution had limited his hands. However, just before the three month limit for the president to make the nomination ended, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo who was acting as president in the face of the president’s medical vacation forwarded Onnoghen’s name in March 2017. Senate Confirmation The Senate is constitutionally mandated to screen nominees for the position of CJN. Unlike the United States where the appointment is for life, the compulsory retirement age of 70 and the relatively young age of the country’s democracy has made it that Supreme Court nominations have yet to become cantankerous. Public hearings are still not held on nominations. However, nominees face Senate screening during which the politicians in the Senate quiz the nominee. No CJN nominee since the advent of the Fourth Republic has ever been rejected. ELECTION TRIBUNAL The CJN has the statutory responsibility of constituting the panels that hear election cases. He also could sit at the head of the panel that hears the cases involving governors and the president which end at the Supreme Court. Besides, his position as head of the NJC gives him administrative responsibilities over judges involved in election disputations. Much hue was made over the alleged directives given to Justice Ayo Salami, a former President of the Court of Appeal by Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu over the governorship election case in a state in the North-West. The dispute led to the recommendation by the NJC for Justice Salami’s retirement, though the issue was later resolved. Prof. Yemi Osinbajo’s Cross Prof. Osinbajo’s exposure in the unfolding development draws from at least three prisms, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, a law professor and also a pastor. He was especially put on the spot by his friend, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN who in a statement berated the about eight lawyers in the Muhammadu Buhari administration for their seeming docility in the face of what he described as the desecration of the judiciary. In a statement he issued weekend, Falana said: “It is intriguing that the 12 lawyers including three Senior Advocates of Nigeria in the federal cabinet did not deem it fit to dissuade President Buhari from carrying out the illegal suspension of the Chief Justice on the basis of an ex parte order issued by the Code of Conduct Tribunal. ”In particular, they ought to have reminded the President of the compulsory retirement of Justice Stanley Nnaji and Justice Wilson Egbo-Egbo for issuing illegal ex parte orders for the removal of Dr. Chris Ngige as Governor of Anambra State.” Besides Osinbajo, the other SANs in the federal cabinet are Mr. Babatunde Fashola, minister of Power, Works and Housing, and the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami.

Vanguard news.

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