Mary Odili: Like a thief in the night (1)

Midnight of Friday, October 7, 2016, security agents, obviously acting on the authority of their Commander-in-Chief, President Muhammadu Buhari, invaded the official residence, in Abuja, of then second most senior judicial officer in the land, Walter Nkanu Onnoghen.

Days before, he had been nominated by the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) to succeed the outgoing Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed who was exiting the Bench on November 10, 2016.  Seated at the proceedings where the nomination was carried through was Buhari’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, a decorated Silk, as a prominent a member of the Commission.

The nomination, as per the constitution, must go through the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC), before the President as the appointing authority would make a Yes/No decision, and an agreement with the recommendation would mean a request to the Nigerian Senate for screening.

The recommendation procedure was then set for Tuesday October 11, 2016, by the NJC, headed by the CJN, just as, the FJSC.

Then, agents of the state, struck deep Friday night, stretching into the wee-hours of Saturday, October 8, 2016, raiding judges’ homes, and taking two justices of the Supreme Court, Inyang Okoro and Sylvester Ngwuta, (who eventually died on March 7, 2021), into custody. In the course of the raid, Onnoghen’s home was invaded. He was to be taken into custody on allegations of corrupt practices. In the course of the rampage, calls came to the invaders, who had to leave without him, due to unfavourable political and security climate.

The official excuse: wrong residence identification. His house, a stand-alone, for the number two judicial officer in the land and vice chairman of NJC, was reportedly mistaken for that of a junior at the apex court, who was wanted for some unstated crime. His peace was already violated.

The invaders left, but left behind a surveillance vehicle. All through the weekend of October 8, 2016, movements in and out of Onnoghen’s official residence were monitored bumper-to-bumper by agents of the state.

Then came the most humiliating of official explanation. DSS, in a statement, explaining the error of identification, called him, “one Justice Onnoghen”, giving reckless expression to the administration’s perception of the one to be CJN, in matter of days, after 29 years of North, pocketing the seat.

It took Mahmud’s threat of swearing in Onnoghen by himself as his successor in acting capacity to avoid an embarrassing vacuum when exiting and the reported plea by two Aso Rock-beloved former CJNs for President Buhari to grudgingly swear Onnoghen in, as acting CJN on November 9, 2016, after growing completely mute on the recommendation of the Cross-Riverian, by NJC, on October 11, 2016, which was sent to him, on October 12, 2016.

The story of his turbulent three-month acting phase is well documented by posterity and needs no re-telling. It took God taking President Buhari out on medical tourism, for acting President Yemi Osinbajo to forward his name to the Bukola Saraki-led Senate for confirmation as substantive CJN.

How he ended on the job also has its page in Nigeria’s political history with an ex parte from a quasi-judicial body sacking him from office as the CJN.

The global ire that trailed the infamous raid, exactly five years back, did little to factor the significance of the perceived botched raid on Onnoghen’s home, despite the jurist being the main target, with affected judges, just coming in as collateral damage, because he was strategically left out that night, by those seeking his scalp and what his coming to office, would represent.

The administration didn’t want him as CJN, simple. Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed at a session with media leaders, to seek for understanding in the reportage of the raid, which took a draining toll on the democratic credentials of the then-17-month old administration, expressly stated the administration was looking beyond Onnoghen, amid plans to disrupt the age-long succession-by-seniority culture, which gave North seven CJN in a row before the Onnoghen row. To his credit, Nduka Obaigbena (guess I can name names now), stood resolutely against Lai’s deliberate obfuscation of facts. They knocked heads. The minister was told in express terms to let his principal know his judicial reform would not start with seeking a replacement for a South-South indigene, possibly with another Northerner. Obaigbena stood for his own. The victory was, however, short-lived. What he feared most; a Northerner taking his people’s slot, eventually came upon him and his own.

 

History can really be cruel!

Friday, October 29, 2021, it was the turn of current second most senior judicial officer in the land, Mary Ukaego Odili. Only God knows why the marauding state agents usually choose Friday to desecrate and demean their targets, occupying this second-in-command thing in the judiciary. Same month. Like Onnoghen, Odili is from South-South. Like Onnoghen, she is in pole position to succeed the incumbent, Tanko Mohammed, if the seat suddenly becomes vacant. Like Onnoghen, Buhari doesn’t want her. When the C-in-C is mad with you, your portfolio of “good deeds” with him suddenly becomes empty. After joining Aloma and Justice George Oguntade to void Yar’Adua’s election in the 2007 presidential contest and awarded minority victory to Candidate Buhari, one would have thought Onnoghen would have a weight of gold with Buhari after he became president. But the president is who he is.

As the appointing authority for the FCT Judiciary, President Buhari has dealt Mary Odili a small blow, denying her daughter, Njideka Nwosu-Iheme, appointment as a judge of the FCT High Court, after full clearance by NJC. There were 21 other nominees on the listing who became collateral damage. They all had their burgeoning careers halted, maybe until 2023. But the Ukaego saga may just be unfolding, because the déjà vu looks too foreboding, except if it is just a mere terrifying coincidence?

(To be continued)

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