Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe, was one of the very colourful politicians of the First Republic who can never be easily forgotten. Their memories always come to the fore when sensational events occur and the search begins for how to most appropriately capture the situation. Like the latest development in the controversy over ex-Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, still on suspension over allegations of acquiring unexplained wealth and assets.
Onnoghen must have embarrassed even his most dogged sympathisers by suddenly retiring from service despite the fact that his trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal was yet to give a ruling. When the row broke out over two months ago, it was obvious that Justice Onnoghen was gone forever from the bench and the question of when was a matter of time. Noticeably, even in self-checking out, Justice Onnoghen still created controversy. It is not clear even now whether he resigned or voluntarily retired. A section of the media, quoting the Internet, reported that Justice Onnoghen (had) resigned and was so confirmed by one of the lawyers who stood by him throughout his ordeal. Probably, in view of potential material losses, the purported resignation overnight changed to voluntary retirement. Resigning might imply no benefits while retiring was sure to attract some entitlement.
Nobody ever insisted on the very existence of Justice Onnoghen. The only demand, on moral grounds, was separation of his services with the Nigerian state, to establish equality for all Nigerians before the law. More significantly, this is not a moment for gloating. At the same time, the situation cannot be as if nothing happened. It was, therefore, necessary to do the right thing at the right time. Even then, there is always the risk of forcing public officers out of place on mere allegations. Otherwise, nobody might be safe in any public position as the easiest thing in Nigeria is to discredit, defame or scandalise.
However, in the matter of Justice Onnoghen, could the magnitude of the series of breaches of Nigerian laws, especially guiding the conduct of public office holders, be described as mere allegations? Even the man himself, in all his desperation, never sought that refuge. Indeed, Onnoghen never denied the allegations beyond claiming he forgot to obey the laws. A more demanding poser was on how he acquired the financial and property assets. Such credibility gap from someone who, either in the past, had condemned (convicted?) or would in the future convict them, certainly was worrying and would not stand in any court of law anywhere in the world.
Worrying? That should be an understatement, compared to the reaction of South-South governors, and supposed professional colleagues of the former Chief Justice. Looking back now, the state governors and Nigerian lawyers must feel stupid in their desperation of portraying Justice Onnoghen as a victim of ethnic hostility, usually a cheap resort for preserving ethnic/political interest. Otherwise, why of all people should South-South state governors have suddenly discovered Justice Onnoghen as their son being persecuted? Meanwhile, none of them ever denied the authenticity of the allegations, indeed, the various allegations of unexplained wealth made against Onnoghen.
By the way, the National Judicial Council, in withholding full details of their decision, woefully failed in their task. Was it true or not that over $1 million was in the disgraced judge’s account and which he failed to declare to the Code of Conduct Bureau? Nigerians are entitled to know on what ground National Judicial Council recommended Justice Onnoghen for compulsory retirement immediately. Whatever his present discomfort, Justice Onnoghen brought the negative publicity on himself. If he now hurriedly offers to retire voluntary (merely to pre-empt compulsory retirement or even dismissal), why did he not take that option immediately the row broke out? The matter could have been forgotten by now. Instead, he chose a futile confrontation.
Neither must Nigerians suffer the illusion that Justice Onnoghen’s misfortune a la NJC would deter other judges in the future. National Judicial Council is not a court of law and its verdict is not in any way punitive. Justice Onnoghen can decide to contest for Nigerian presidency in the future. According to one of Justice Onnoghen’s very distinguished predecessors, Justice Fatayi Williams, in a ruling at the Supreme Court, no matter by whatever name a panel is called, it remains only so and never a court of law, which has the exclusive power to convict. NJC cannot convict. This is by the way.
What now is the reaction of South-South governor on their beloved son who has been exposed as a law-breaker with millions of naira, dollars and pound sterling in unexplained wealth? What can we say of the Senior Advocates of Nigeria, leading other members of the Nigerian Bar Association, flaunting and intimidating Nigerians with their professional status known by Nigerians to be attainable in some cases partly by quota system, or partly as agents/conduit pipes through which graft passes to the bench? Where are those who formed battalion of guard round the former Chief Justice, despite the overwhelming incriminating evidence since confirmed by the NJC?
What can be said of foreign countries, especially Britain and United States, the very ones which arrogantly and, as it now emerges, hypocritically lead the hostility of branding Nigeria as a corrupt nation? It was to be expected that with the clearly documented evidence of the allegations levelled against Justice Onnoghen, Britain and United States would support Nigerian government’s action or, at least, would not be part of the mischief of blackmailing and frustration against corruption. Who is that Chief Justice in Britain or United States to acquire, while in office, unexplained wealth and assets without being called to question by the respective country’s law enforcement agents? Why therefore should Nigeria be different? To worsen matters, both countries (Britain and United States) allowed their Nigerian staff with obvious ethnic/political interests to misinform the world about purported timing and the purpose of the crackdown on a judge’s corrupt tendencies. It will, therefore, be interesting to know the stand of both Britain and United States on the findings of National Judicial Council, which recommended the compulsory retirement of Justice Onnoghen and, at the risk of seeming to insist on a pound of flesh, Nigerian government must be firm and ensure equity under the law in handling recommendations of NJC on Justice Onnoghen. Why should government allow Justice Onnoghen to retire voluntarily or even be compulsorily retired? Nothing makes Onnoghen superior to any other Nigerian citizen caught with unexplained wealth and assets. Would Justice Onnoghen in his days on the bench have allowed anybody found wanting on the same ground and with the same evidence, to retire with full benefits?
Judges especially must not only be subject to, but also particularly subjected to the same law as ordinary citizens. There should be no special treatment for judges. Since Onnoghen would not be the first judge to be so leniently treated, the worry is that those on the bench are being gradually forced on us as some kind of “special ones” for lenient punishment, if at all, on matters of corruption. This pampering must not only be challenged but halted. In any case, Justice Onnoghen had all the chance to merit that leniency but forfeited it when he dragged the government through the of being falsely accused of intimidating the bench or victimising particular judges.
Currently, two former governors of Plateau and Taraba states are serving prison sentences with the forfeiture (or what remains) of their loot. Therefore, how fair is Nigeria to these fellows if judges are allowed to get away not only with their loot but also to collect their retirement benefits?
Since it was obvious from the start that ex-chief Justice Onnoghen could never survive the allegations against him and it took him over two months to face that reality, K.O. Mbadiwe, one of the colourful politicians of the first republic would have humorously summed up the situation as when “… the come eventually came to become.”
Let Saudi Arabia be
One Nigerian female drug convict was hanged and 23 more are due to be hanged for the same offence. For that mere enforcement of law, Nigerians are groaning. Why? Saudis should feel free to enforce their existing law on drug peddling/business. Saudi law was not specially made against Nigerians. Indeed, the law is against all foreigners. Therefore, Nigerias could not be specially treated on a law, which also applies to Saudi drug barons, if any.
Far too long, Nigeria battled criminality unsuccessfully because we have an ineffective law enforcement system and corrupt elements on the bench. That indulgence encouraged Nigerian drug criminals to extend their indiscipline to foreign countries like United States, Saudi Arabia and Far East nations like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. The latest Saudi cases are, therefore, deliberate crimes. Fittingly, these foreign countries are tackling drug crimes ruthlessly, with the punishment of death for anybody involved, even foreigners. Last time, when Indonesia was to execute a drug dealer, the convenient blackmail was that Nigerian government was barely concerned because the condemned convict was from Eastern Nigeria. That, of course, was outrageous blackmail.
Those to be executed for drug offences either at that time or now committed their offences as Nigerians. Now, as if to balance the equation, the latest one hanged and the 23 others awaiting execution, all in Saudi Arabia, are only South-Westerners and Northerners. Nigerian government, as in the past, must allow the law to take its course in Saudi Arabia. If Nigeria did not intervene in Indonesia last time, why must the same Nigeria intervene in Saudi Arabia this time?
Nigerians need to know that, if we are not serious in combating drug barons, other nations will do the job by executing those caught in their net. Aso Rock must realise that any mistake of intervening to save any Nigerian from execution abroad for drug offences will encourage others to follow the same route.
Still on the question of blackmail, there is the latest allegation that the drug convict in Saudi Arabia was hanged because Ministry of External Affairs in Abuja was late in responding to the issues. Was the ministry also late in responding when Nigerians were executed in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia?
Nigerian Senate is on record, and rightly too, that Nigerian drug peddlers abroad caught in countries operating death penalty for the offence are on their own if convicted. That is the stern warning for other potential drug barons and baronesses. For its international image, Nigeria must not pressurise any country to commute death sentence for any Nigerian drug dealer. That should be the firm stand.