After months of acting as the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, which culminated in palpable anxiety and suspense, Justice Walter Onnoghen of the Supreme Court on Tuesday took his oath of office and allegiance before Acting President Yemi Osinbajo to become the substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria. Onnoghen was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari on November 10, 2016 as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria following the retirement of Justice Mahmood Muhammed.
In spite of some dispute in certain quarters over the acting label attached to his office especially so when some argued that such was not contemplated by the country’s grundnorm, Onnoghen’s name was sent to the Senate on February 7, 2017 by Acting President Osinbajo for confirmation. The senate on Wednesday last week screened and confirmed his nomination. By his confirmation, Onnoghen, who hails from Cross River State has become the 17th Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN. Speaking at the brief swearing-in ceremony which took place at the Council Chamber of the Presidential Villa, Abuja, Osinbajo reminded the new CJN of the enormous task ahead of him, saying the fate of millions of Nigerians were now placed in his hands for justice.
Similarly, the new CJN pledged to uphold the rule of law and ensure the independence of the judiciary. Onnoghen will be the 20th person to occupy the position since 1914, according to judiciary records. Sixty-six year-old Walter Samuel Onnoghen has been a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria since 2005. He was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari to succeed, albeit in acting capacity in November last year. He graduated from the University of Ghana at Legon, Ghana in 1977 and from the Nigerian Law School in Lagos in 1978. Before joining the Supreme Court, he was a judge in Cross River State and a justice of the Court of Appeal. Onnoghen was born on the 22 December 1950 at Okurike Town, Biase Local Government Area of Cross Rivers State.
The significance of his appointment must not be lost in the euphoria of the pomp and pageantry of his inauguration being the first CJN from the southern part of Nigeria for about thirty years. Justice Ayo Iriekefe was the last such personage to emerge from the south. Of course, the reality of this should not be far fetched. It was not until recently did lawyers from the south begin to take seriously sitting on the bench. Hitherto, they were more interested in practice than as judges. This is partly the reason it seemed like an anathema for the appointment in acting capacity and of course, the delayed transmission of the good justice’s name to the confirming authority.
Be that as it may beyond verbalising the operation of the rule of law or independence of the judiciary, Justice Onnoghen must also be humble enough to admit and work towards sanitising the judiciary, including the bench, bar and other judicial officers. We can no longer hide the preponderance of judicial corruption in our country. it has reached abhorrent levels. Onnoghen must take charge and go ahead to device strategies to tame the monster from within. There is no way the system should protect its own. Part of solving the problem is by owning up to its existence. Onnoghen must not carry on as if all is well, all is not.
Then the issue of the administration of Justice act, 2015, which to all intents and purposes has been observed more in its breach. That should worry the new head of the third arm of government. Clear and concise directive must go out to every stakeholder to strictly obey, observe that piece of legislature. It is our law as of now and must be obeyed to the latter. If we want the rule of law then every one must do his or her part. Beyond that the CJN must work hard to introduce other reforms. The recent nomination of some senior lawyers to serve in the Supreme Court must be pursued vigorously until it becomes a reality. Our Supreme Court must not continue to be lethargic. It can and should take on the toga of a crusading or activists court. Let it be the court for the people. Let the time Onnoghen will stay there lead to quick dispensation of justice. Let the Nigerian people feel the importance of the judiciary and particularly the scholarship of senior judicial officers. So that in the end the tenure of Onnoghen will not just be a flash in the pan. It must be epochal in ramifications.