Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen, Col. Abubakar Umar and the prospects of a Southern Chief Justice of the Federation

By Femi Fani-Kayode

To enhance the confirmation or ensure the non-confirmation of the Acting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, as the substantive Chief Justice of the Federation is probably the most important decision that President Muhammadu Buhari has to make since he came to power almost two years ago.

If he gets it wrong and refuses to send the Acting Chief Judges name to the Senate for confirmation there will be long-term and far-reaching consequences, the first of which will be a weakening of what is already a fast-eroding spirit and ethos of national unity.

If he gets it right and sends the name to the Senate for confirmation it will go a long way to ease the palpable and existing tension in the land and it will be a good first step towards restoring and enhancing national unity.

Simply put Buhari cannot afford to get this one wrong if he is serious about keeping Nigeria one and if he has ANY respect left for the people of the south.

Let us consider the facts. The first southern lawyer (and indeed indigenous Nigerian) to be called to the English bar was Christopher Sapara Williams in 1879.

By way of contrast the first northern lawyer to be called to the English bar was almost 80 years later.

He is still alive today, he is a respected elderstatesman and his name is Alhaji Abdul Ganiyu Abdulrasaq SAN. He is from Ilorin and he was called to the English bar in 1955.

Again the first southerner (and indeed indigenous Nigerian) to be appointed a judge was Justice (Sir) Adetokunboh Ademola in 1937. He later went on to become the first indigenous Nigerian Chief Justice of the Federation.

By way of contrast the first northerner to be appointed a judge came 30 years later. His name was Justice Mohammed Bello and he was appointed as a judge in 1967. He also later went on to become Chief Justice of the Federation.

Despite this massive disparity in terms of education and the overwhelming seniority at the bar and the bench of the southern lawyers and judges, the north has used the “federal character” formula and the massive political power and executive fiat that it has wielded over the last 56 years of our existence as an independent sovereign nation to highjack the Judiciary.

This has been executed with such cold and clinical precision and to such a point that no southerner has been appointed Chief Justice of the Federation for 30 years!

The last one that we had that came from the south was Justice Ayo Irikefe who was Chief Justice from 1985 till 1987.

And now that we have Justice Onnogehn, an eminently qualified southerner that is not only eligible for the job but that has also been recommended by the National Judicial Council for the position, our northern President has refused to transmit his name to the Senate for confirmation as he is required to do by the constitution.

If Onnoghen is not confirmed by the 10th of February his nomination lapses, he will cease to be Acting Chief Judge and he will retire from the Bench.

The next in line for the position of Chief Justice of the Federation after him is yet another northerner and once he is nominated by the National Judicial Council his name is likely to be transmitted to the Senate for confirmation by our President.

In the event of President Buhari failing to do so the next person in line for the job in terms of seniority is again yet another northerner.

It is therefore very clear that once Justice Onnoghen’s nomination lapses it is fair to say that the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the Federation will once again return to the north.

And that is precisely the problem because, given the fact that no southerner has held that position for 30 years, this can hardly be described as being reasonable or fair.

It is also pertinent to note that in the entire history of our country the distinguished individual that the Supreme Court itself presents and that is nominated as Chief Justice of the Federation by the National Judicial Council has NEVER been rejected by the President or Head of State.

If President Buhari fails to transmit Justice Onneghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation it will be the FIRST time that this has EVER happened in our entire history.

This should be a matter of grave concern for lawyers and judges from both north and south because it represents an attempt by the executive arm of government to interfere in the workings, machinery and decision-making processes of the third arm of governmrnt which is the judiciary.

It represents a clear violation of the principle of separation of powers and I am glad that Mr. Ebun Adegboruwa SAN is testing the matter in court and attempting to compel President Buhari to do the right and proper thing and forward the Acting Chief Justice’s name to the Senate for confirmation.

Yet at the end of the day I doubt that Buhari will listen and neither will he do anything of the sort. This is because he understands the weakness and inability of most Nigerians to successfully fight and insist on their rights.

He knows that most of our people are not only weak, easily manipulated and easily intimidated but that they are also very gullible.

The government will find some nonsensical, absurd and indefensible rationalisation for its refusal to do the right thing and support Onnoghen’s nomination and that will be the end of the matter. Few will protest and even fewer will demand for a reasonable explanation.

Sadly the following question must be put: who really cares and who is prepared to confront the government and raise any dust about this issue? The people are too weak and hungry to say one word.

Their spiritual foundation and ability to say “enough is enough” has been broken.

They have turned their backs on the Living God and the power of His might and instead opted to bow before the demonic gods and Luciferian deities of “broomsticks” and “chanji”.

Southern Nigerians particularly have been mesmerised and intimidated into accepting anything from their government, no matter how belittling, demeaning, unreasonable or unjust that thing may be.

Nothing reflects this perverse disposition and this inherent inability to stand up for truth and to fight against injustice than the conspiratorial silence that most southerners indulge in when they are confronted with news of the wholesale slaughter of young Igbos who are agitating for the creation of Biafra under the banner of IPOB by our security forces and the genocide being committed against northern Christians by the Islamist Janjaweed Fulani militias of the core north.

I guess in their usual way, as with virtually all other cases of injustice meted against the people of the south, the southern elites, intelligensia and media will be too self-centered, intellectually lazy, shortsighted and cowardly to speak out and insist on a modicum of fairness in this matter and to insist on the confirmation of Justice Onnoghen.

It is when they eventually understand and come to appreciate the implications and consequences of their gutlessness, indifference and stoicism that they will not only feel sorry for themselves but they will also shed bitter tears of regret in the privacy of their own bedrooms. And of course by that time it will be too late.

Sadly the truth is that the majority of southern leaders and politicians in Nigeria have already been enslaved by the north in body, mind, spirit and soul. It is a tragedy of monumental proportions.

Yet there is still hope. When core northerners like the irrepresable Col. Abubakar “Dangiwa” Umar express their concerns about the non-confirmation of Justice Onnoghen it puts a lie to the suggestion that every Fulani man or indeed core northern Muslim is an ethnic supremacist, a racist and a religious bigot who is part and parcel of a sinister conspiracy to keep the south out of power.

A few days ago he said the following:

“In a few days, the tenure of acting appointment of Justice Onnoghen will expire. Going by our extant Constitution, the Acting CJN will be disqualified from appointment as the substantive CJN unless the NJC resubmits his nomination to the President.

Without providing any cogent and plausible or believable reason for its failure to forward the name of Justice Onnoghen to the Senate for confirmation, the Presidency leaves Nigerians guessing and speculating about the reasons. Already, many analysts view this action as a ploy to deny a Southerner his right to succession based on his seniority in keeping with the appointment protocol observed by the NJC in making the appointment.”

He went on to say,

“In the event of this occurrence, the NJC must not forward any other name nor should the Senate confirm any other nominee. This will serve to check the excesses of this administration and reinforce the unity of the nation which has already been pushed to the precipice by the recruitment and appointment policies of a government which tends to favour the north in violation of the Federal Character provision of the Constitution.”

This is wise and appropiate counsel from a Fulani prince of the Royal House of Gwandu for whom I have immense respect. I sincerely hope that both the NJC and the Senate are listening.

This is all the more so because Umar has taken a considerable risk to his life and liberty by speaking truth to power and speaking out against a government that is inherently weak and nervous and that does not take any form of dissent or criticism lightly.

Yet “Dangiwa”, as Umar is popularly known, is up to the task. I know him well. He was my Polo Captain at Lagos Polo Club in the 1980’s and he was not only a fearless and charissmatic leader then but he was also one tough cookie both on the polo field and off it. We have had our differences in the past, particularly over the Obasanjo government which I proudly served, but despite that I have no hesitation in saying that he is a profoundly good man

He is also a deeply courageous military officer who has risked his life on numerous occassions by standing up and speaking out against injustice.

For example it was he that arrested General Muhammadu Buhari, the then military Head of State, in the 1985 military coup that brought General Ibrahim Babangida to power. After that he was appointed Military Governor of Kaduna state.

He proved to be a forthright, honest, consistent and righteous leader firstly when he was Governor of Kaduna and secondly a few years later during his role in the June 12th struggle when a southerner by the name of Chief MKO Abiola won a free and fair presidential election in 1993 and was denied his mandate.

Dangiwa was one of the few voices in the core north that not only opposed that outrage but he also paid a heavy price for it: he lost his commission as an officer of the Nigerian Armed Forces and his military career was utterly destroyed.

Despite being a core northerner and a member of the Fulani ruling class he, together with a few others like Sambo Dasuki, Sule Lamido, Kabiru Turaki SAN, Kashim Ibrahim Imam, Hadi Sirika, Ahmed Makarfi and a few others, all of whom I have known for many years, will forever remain friends of the oppressed northern minorities, the people of the Middle Belt and the people of the south.

Thankfully it is not every core northerner or Fulani man that shares the narrow world-view of men like President Buhari who apparatly believes that the south is inferior to the north and that she is not deserving or qualified to produce a Chief Justice of the Federation.

This is undoubtedly the President’s mindset despite the fact that a respected, formidable and brilliant jurist in the person of Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen has been nominated by the NJC for that position.

Some are of the view that President Buhari is simply biding his time and at the last minute he will submit Onneghen’s name.

That remains to be seen and if it happens I will not only be pleasantly surprised but I will be the first to congratulate the President for displaying such wisdom and sagacity and for doing the right and proper thing. Let us hope that he sees the light and that it happens that way.

Anything less than that will divide us even further and, unless we restructure, take us one step closer to the eventual disintegration of our country.

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