JUSTICE Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, was last week inaugurated as acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) by President Muhammadu Buhari. His appointment is subject to the confirmation of the Senate. Justice Onnoghen’s appointment is in accordance with Section 230 (iv) and Section 231 (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). It follows the retirement of the immediate past CJN, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, who clocked 70 years on November 10.
At the brief inauguration of the new Chief Justice at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, President Buhari reminded him of the enormous responsibility before him. The President, therefore, urged him to use his position to assist the government in tackling the problems of corruption and insecurity in the country. He also noted that Justice Onnoghen’s ascent to the pinnacle of the nation’s judiciary at this peculiar time requires exemplary leadership and the cooperation of the judiciary.
Undoubtedly, Onnoghen, from Cross River State, is assuming office at an extraordinarily challenging time, both for the country and the judiciary that is currently on the vortex of a storm following allegations of corruption against judicial officers, including justices of both the High Courts and the Supreme Court.
Although appointed in acting capacity for the next three months before his appointment is confirmed by the Senate, restoring public confidence in the judiciary is one of the daunting tasks the new CJN must tackle head-on. By every measure, public perception of the judiciary, and judicial officers, has reached its nadir. Undeniably, the sobriety and impartiality of many judges have become questionable. Many of them who were recently arrested on allegations of corruption have been forced to step aside, pending the conclusion of their trial.
Therefore, Onnoghen must brace up to the challenge of changing this poor public perception of the judiciary, which is the last baston of the common man and democracy. It is in respect of the corruption allegations against some judicial officers that we urge the National Assembly to look at paragraph 21 (b) of the Third Schedule of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). This section merely says that erring judges should be recommended by the National Judicial Council (NJC) to the President, for removal. This is not enough. Our position is that such erring judges, after removal, should be prosecuted. We urge the Chief Justice of Nigeria to support this position as a positive step towards sanitising the rot in the judiciary. Anything short of this will be a cosmetic exercise.
Related to this is the need for the new CJN to ensure that judges that make questionable judgements are punished. This will serve as a deterrent to others who may wish to follow the same embarrassing path that has caused a lot of confusion in the country in recent times.
In the same way, the CJN must discipline judges who give injunctive reliefs or judgments that unnecessarily prolong cases in courts. This is in addition to making sure that judges deliver judgment on cases before them on or before 90 days, as stipulated by the rules of the court.
All of these are part of the measures that can restore the much-needed confidence in our judiciary and the credibility of officers of the bench. For this to work, there is need to closely monitor adherence to the Code of Conduct for judicial officers throughout the country.
Beyond this, and perhaps an even more crucial task for Chief Justice Onnoghen, is to ensure improvement in the welfare of judicial officers. An enhanced welfare package will likely reduce the predilection of some judicial officers for corruption.
We know that these tasks will not be achieved overnight. But, they are necessary matters that Justice Onnoghen must prioritise. We, therefore, urge the Senate to quickly confirm his appointment so that he can settle down to the tasks ahead. We wish Justice Onnoghen a successful tenure.