“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.”
The above quote from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet was the so called “nunnery” or “monastery” scene soliloquy (Act III scene 1), engaged in by Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark. Hamlet had erroneously thought he was alone, but other dramatis personae like Ophelia, Claudius and Polonius, loomed around him. Hamlet, who was bemoaning his woes, pains and unfairness of life, had contemplated suicide and death. But, he acknowledged that the latter was a worse alternative.
Walter Onnoghen: Any replication?
This appears to be the unfortunate scenario playing out in the appointment of Justice Walter Onnoghen as Chief Justice of Nigeria, which has unnecessarily been mired in needless controversy. Never since the first indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Adetokunbo Ademola, (1958 - 1972), or the English Chief Justice before him, Justice Stafford Forster Sutton(1955-1958), has such appointment assumed this dizzying height of cacophony and uproarous babel.
For historical contextualization, the following were Chief Justices of Nigeria after Ademola, with their years of appointment:
Justices Teslim Elias (1972 - 1975); Darnley Alexander (1975 - 1979); Atanda Fatai – Williams (1979 - 1983); George Sodeinde Sowemimo (1983 - 1985); Ayo Gabriel Irikefe (1985 - 1987); Mohammed Bello (1987 - 1995); Muhammed Lawal Uwais (1995 - 2006); Salihi Modibo Alfa Belgore (2006 - 2007); Idris Legbo Kutigi (2007 - 2010); Aloysius Iyorgyer Katsina – Aliu (2010 - 2011); Dahiru Musdapher (2011 - 2012); Aloma Mariam Mukhtar (first female Justice of the Supreme Court and first female Chief Justice of Nigeria) (2012 – 2014); Mahmud Mohammed (2014 - 2016).
From the above chronological graph, it is easy to observe that since the last 30 years when Justice Mohammed Bello became the CJN, and up till 11th of November, 2016, when Justice Mahmud retired, all the Chief Justices of Nigeria hailed from the northern part of beleaguered Nigeria. The last time a South-South person smelt the exalted seat was between 1985 – 1987, over 30 years ago, through Justice Ayo Gabriel Irikefe. The last time I checked, this country belongs to us all.
It was therefore with bated animation and curious anxiety, that the country waited for the appointment of Walter Onnoghen, the University of Ghana, Legon-trained, 2nd Class Upper graduate, 1978 called – to – the – Bar lawyer, born on 22nd December, 1950, in Okurike, Biase LGA of Cross River State. He is expected to be the 15th indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria, since her 1960 independence, after the National Judicial Council (NJC), the authority legally empowered to nominate him to the President for onward transmission to the Senate, had done so promptly on 10th October, 2016.
It would be observed that the framers of the 1999 Constitution (as altered), appreciated the importance and pre-eminent position of the Head of the 3rd arm of Government when it involved all the three arms of Government in his nomination, screening and appointment. This is in keeping with the hallowed doctrine of separation of powers (with checks and balances), as famously espoused by the great French philosopher, Baron de Montesquieu in 1748.
Thus, the NJC by virtue of section 21 (1) of the third schedule to the 1999 Constitution, reserves the sole right to recommend a Justice of the Supreme Court to Mr. President for appointment to the office of CJN. The section provides: “The NJC shall have power to recommend to the President from among the list of persons submitted to it by the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), persons for appointment to the offices of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, The Justices of the Supreme Court and the President and Justices of the Court of Appeal, the Chief Justice and Judges of the Federal High Court….”
The FJSC consequently forwarded Justice Walter Onnoghen’s name to NJC as its sole candidate for this lofty office, having been found fit and proper for same. The NJC in turn, at an emergency meeting, promptly recommended Onnoghen’s name to the President on the 11th of October, 2016, for him to forward same to the Senate for confirmation in accordance with section 231 (1) of the 1999 Constitution. The section provides laconically,“the appointment of a person to the office of CJN shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the NJC subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.”
It was thus expected that President Buhari would quickly follow laid down convention and tradition from the time of Lugard, who, as Governor General of Nigeria, on the 1st of January, 1914, on the occasion of the amalgamation of Northern, and Southern Nigeria and the Lagos Colony, appointed Sir Edwin Speed, in place of Mr. Willoughby Osborne, as the first Chief Justice of an amalgamated Nigeria.
Neither the Clifford Constitution of 1922, nor the Arthur Richards Constitution of 1946, made specific provisions for a Chief Justice. It was only the 1960 Independence Constitution (section 105 (1) – (5)) and 1963 Republican Constitution (section 211) that did. Then, the present 1999 Constitution which also provides for the office of CJN as quoted above, followed.