Justice W. S. N. Onnoghen: South’s Chance of Producing Next CJN Still Unsure? | Independent Newspapers Limited
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Justice W. S. N. Onnoghen: South’s Chance of Producing Next CJN Still Unsure?

Posted: Sep 22, 2016 at 4:15 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

President Mohammadu Buhari has an antecedent of looking due north when shopping for candidates to appoint into offices under the executive arm of government. Would this penchant also affect the chances of the south producing the next Chief Justice of Nigeria? STEPHEN UBIMAGO tries to find answers to this troubling question in this piece….

By November 10, when the current Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmoud Mohammed, will clock 70 and mandatorily go into retirement, Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, who currently is the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, shall automatically step into his shoes to assume office as his successor.

That would however strictly dependent on whether President Muhammadu Buhari – who statutorily is the appointor of the CJN – decides to be guided by the time-honored Seniority Principle which hitherto has been the governing succession to the office of Chief Justice, although the rule has no basis in any extant statute.

So, if Buhari refuses to be guided by the Seniority Principle and by implication appoints someone other than Onnoghen, he has in principle offended no law; and if he chooses to be seniority-principle-compliant and favours the man, he hasn’t goofed either.

Perhaps this explains why in recommending for the president a candidate for the office of CJN, the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) had submitted the names of Justices Onnoghen and Tanko Mohammed for the president’s consideration.

The FJSC is said to have forwarded the name of Justice Mohammed of the Supreme Court as stand-by nominee should President Buhari reject Onnoghen.

It may thus be said that it is not exactly foolproof or indeed a signed-sealed-and-delivered matter that under the Buhari presidency, Justice Onnoghen will become the CJN come November 10, considering that the president has proven over and again that he is far more inclined to looking due north when shopping for candidates to fill sensitive positions in the government.

Therefore, barring the Seniority Principle and if Buhari’s antecedents are anything to go by, the odds that the man would choose Mohammed over Onnoghen could be as high as 95 percent, some observers have argued.

The judiciary is however a different arm of government, distinct from the executive and the legislature in light of which the president would be hard pressed to tamper with an established convention that the judiciary had evolved to guide succession to the office of CJN in an unbroken fashion.

It has also been argued that by evolving the said rule, the Judiciary was asserting its independence as guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution. Hence any attempt by the president to adopt his infamous “95-5” parameters for appointments into the executive, and side-step the Seniority Principle in appointing the next CJN, he would be liable for acting ultra vires or beyond his powers.

The point to be underscored is that although the Seniority Principle does not take its rise from any known statute; it has however by repeated conduct assumed the force of law.

Indeed past presidents have been guided by the rule in their appointment of past CJNs, hence President Buhari is in principle estopped from deviating from the settled rule.

The only instances where CJNs were appointed outside the guide of the said rule and even picked from outside the Supreme Court itself were on two occasions, in the 1950s and 1960s, when Justices Adetokunbo Ademola and Teslim Elias were appointed by the colonial and military governments.

Be that as it may, it has been argued that in providing for the procedure respecting the appointment of the CJN as follows: FJSC recommends a candidate to the president who appoints him subject to the confirmation of the National Assembly, the 1999 Constitution was merely reaffirming the doctrine of separation of powers in which all the arms of government are involved in the appointment process.

Hence the president has not power to unilaterally adopt an “alien” parameter like the one he is said to use in filling offices within the executive arm of government.

According to section 231 (1) of the 1999 Constitution, “The appointment of a person to the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.”

However, if the President approves Onnoghen who hails from Cross-River State as the 17th CJN, he will become the first Southern jurist to head the judiciary in about 29 years.

Interestingly, Justice Ayo Gabriel Irikefe who retired in 1987 was the last Southern CJN. He would also be one of the longest serving CJNs, for he would have spent five clear years stirring the ship of the Third Estate when in December 20, 2020 he would be clocking the retirement age of 70.

Fears that Buhari may contemplate evading the Seniority rule is coming on the heels of reports that certain elements in the north are averse to having a rule that would bind or limit the president.

According to the said reports, the forces are plotting to alter the seniority rule, which would see Onnoghen necessarily take over from Justice Mohammed come November 10.

It is on record that the outgoing CJN had even called for the alteration of the principle to allow for a candidate to be appointed even outside the judicial hierarchy.

The idea to bring someone from outside the apex court was allegedly mooted by the current CJN, who while speaking at the Commonwealth Chief Justices meeting in Wellington, New Zealand, said: “My lords, the need for a change in the criteria for the appointment of Judicial Officers in Nigeria prompted me to direct the National Judicial Council (NJC) to implement the new revised NJC Guidelines and Procedural Rules for the Appointment of Judicial Officers of all Superior Courts of Record in Nigeria 2014.

“It was clear that the old Guidelines and Rules had become unworkable as it saw anachronisms such as the limitation that saw only Justices of the Court of Appeal, as of right, making it to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

“Under the new, more rigorous and transparent rules, any qualified legal practitioner with the requisite intellect has the opportunity of making it to any Court in the land and even to the posts of Heads of Federal and States Superior Courts, including the Chief Justice of Nigeria.

“As chairman of the National Judicial Council, I have had to take up the responsibility of ensuring that the overall appointments procedure maintains the institutional integrity of the judicial appointment process while ensuring that only the most competent persons are elevated.”

Apart from the CJN, even the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) had advocated for the elevation of senior legal practitioners into the apex court bench.

If these ideas win the ears of the president, it just might scuttle Onnoghen’s chance of clinching the judiciary top-job.

Hon. Justice W.S. Nkanu Onnoghen CFR, was born on December 22, 1950 at Okurike Town, Biase Local Government Area of Cross Rivers State.

He had his Primary Education at the Presbyterian Primary School, Okurike Town between 1959 and 1965.

He then proceeded to Accra, Ghana, to attend Odorgorno Secondary School, Adabraka, Accra, Ghana between 1967 and 1972 for his Secondary School Education where he obtained his West African Examination Council, WAEC, Certificate.

He was at Accra Academy, Accra, Ghana, between 1972 and 1974 for his WAEC (A-Levels) before proceeding to the University of Ghana, Legon, Ghana, between 1974 and 1977 to obtain his Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) with honours and graduated in the Second Class Upper Division.

He came down to Nigeria and attended the Nigerian Law School, Victoria Island, Lagos between 1977 and 1978 and was, thereafter, called to the Nigerian Bar.

Prior to becoming a Justice of the Supreme Court, Onnoghen was Pupil State Counsel, at the Lagos State Ministry of Justice, Ikeja, Lagos, from 1978 to 1979; Partner in the Law Firm of Effiom Ekong & Company, Calabar, from 1979 to 1988; Principal Partner/Head of Chamber of Walter Onneghen & Associates, Calabar, from 1988 to 1989; High Court Judge, Cross Rivers State Judiciary, from 1989 to 1998.

He was also Chairman, Cross Rivers State Armed Robbery and Fire Arms Tribunal from 1990 to 1993; Chairman, Judicial Enquiry into the Crisis between Student of the University of Calabar and Obufa Esuk Orok Community, Calabar, in 1996; Chairman, Failed Bank Tribunal, Ibadan Zone in 1998; Judge, High Court of Rivers State from 1992 to 2004; Justice of the Court of Appeal from 1998 to 2005.

Onnoghen is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and has attended several conferences and seminars around the world. He is a member of the Body of Benchers and a Life Bencher. The CJN-designate was appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, JSC, in 2005.


‘The FJSC is said to have forwarded the name of Justice Mohammed of the Supreme Court as stand-by nominee should President Buhari reject Onnoghen’