LAST Thursday, outgoing Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, doused a raging covert fire. Can a huge fire burn fiercely underneath? The Bible says it is practically impossible but in politics, nearly every conjecturable is possible.
The “peace” effort should ordinarily not be personalised as a tree doesn’t make a forest but the kamikaze move by Mahmud in the build-up to the resolution by the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) to nominate the most senior justice of the Supreme Court, 66-year-old Justice Walter NkanuOnnoghen as the CJN-designate, would single out the outgoing man for a telling mention, because his utterances and body language in the early days suggested a pandering not demulcent.
Incidentally, it was the same Mahmud who initially bent in a manner speaking to throwing his No 2 under the bus, that eventually straightened to sustain the succession-by-seniority arrangement which has supported the judicial myth surrounding the most single powerful office in the land.
If the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari had succeeded with the “power to decree” which it surreptitiously sought under the guise of emergency power to reflate the economy, one could predict with accuracy that the current top echelon of the judiciary would be the first irritant to be dispatched with. No president in history has so much openly disdained and disparaged the senior operators of the nation’s judiciary. Not even military juntas, including Buhari’s in 1984. Apparently, the judiciary was a non-issue to him then because of the available dictatorship instrument of coercion, themed “decrees”. But rule of law and constitutionality now makes a collabo compulsory and the Aso Rock most senior tenant isn’t finding it funny to swallow what he apparently considers a fever-ravaged phlegm. Everywhere he went, both home and abroad, judiciary as currently shaped, was made his fall guy for his administration’s failings. The ill-feeling campaign orchestra only subsided after torrential stunning judicial defeats for Mr President’s party in election matters at the Supreme Court. Talk of power of wig.
When Buhari was doing the Donald Trump’s doubling down style against the judiciary, he was said to be laying the right slaying mood for the main operators, with a pre-determined end to end the succession-by-seniority arrangement and get in, his own man, preferably a senior lawyer, as the next CJN, following an undisguised fall-out with his Fulani Taraba-born kinsman- Mahmud.
Then the game began with multi-faceted game plans. First, it was Mahmud and Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) collaboration, which saw the outgoing CJN saying at a global judicial function abroad that anyone, including a newcomer lawyer of 15 years at the Bar, could succeed him. He practically threw the race open, further feeding the rumour mill about his thoughts concerning Onnoghen. Then, a brief friendship stint with an unwelcoming Aso Rock.Then, a parting of ways on both sides and from both ends.
I am a firm believer of que sera sera, which means last Thursday would have been, even without Mahmud’s changing ways but his obvious desire to return “home” to his “own” was no doubt the game-changer in the poorly-disguised agenda to stop the No 2 from succeeding his boss.
The agenda first crystallised as anti-South, then anti-establishment, then anti-corruption, but none favoured the Thursday outcome. Mahmud and his team are firmly in charge of the game now with the National Judicial Council (NJC) which he heads, expected to recommend Onnoghen to Buhari for approval and onward transmission to the senate for confirmation. But Aso Rock isn’t out of the game yet. With Buhari as the approving authority, something unprecedented could still happen in a dispensation becoming notorious for unconstitutional surprises. Buhari’s Attorney General of the Federation, AbubakarMalami SAN is a member of the FJSC and obviously part of the decision to enthrone Onnoghen, but Buhari is just Buhari, a president with scant regard for rival opinions.
No president has ever rejected NJC’s nominee for CJN, but governors like Rotimi Amaechi had, though they ended up with a bloodied nose. With Amaechi now in Buhari’s corner, the temptation for a dare could be irresistible.
There have been arguments for and against sidelining seniority for what its antagonists described as merit. You can argue endlessly the merits in the “merit” push. Isn’t the adjective itself relative? For pro-seniority, Onnoghen’s nomination ticks all boxes in merit corner, because it speaks to fairness, stability and above all, the raging issue of ethnic justice.
Merit proponents, on the face value, should have a genuine push but the current deliberate construction of the polity to heavily favour the North, would always darken their bright arguments, considering that the proponents are also the architects of the lopsided appointment arrangements in the land.
Following the 1987 exit of Justice Ayo Gabriel Irikefe as CJN, the Southern part of Nigeria has had to wait for 29 years before a dawn which hasn’t even completely crystallised into a welcoming morning. Seven Northerners including the incumbent have explored the seniority arrangement to be CJN. A merit argument to deny South again for another Northerner in the person of Justice Tanko Mohammed, second most senior justice of the apex court, or anyone for that matter, would be a bunkum anywhere, any day. If any president would be given the benefit of the doubt that the push wasn’t a kind of sinister ethnic agenda, Buhari would not objectively qualify by any measure. Mr. President’s dark corners won’t also help other arguments from a section of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and other agendanists.
Shortening a long story, Onnoghen deserves his day in the sun, but nothing is currently sunny about the judiciary. If the polity had borne a semblance of equity, anti-seniority elements might have run away with a runaway victory, rallying the entire nation behind them.
(To be continued).