President Mohammadu Buhari’s suspension of the head of the judiciary in Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnonghen has opened flurry of opinions on the true independence of the nation’s judiciary. In the words of the newly appointed acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Tanko Mohammed, this is indeed a trying period for the Nigerian judiciary.
Like all democracies, the true test of good governance and stability of a nation lies in the reciprocal respects which each arm of government accords other.
With the action of President Buhari ordering the suspension of the CJN and swearing in of an acting Chief Justice in purported obedience to an order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, a window of crises seemed to have emerged to the effect that our democratic system may indeed be in jeopardy as leaders wanting to satisfy some parochial interests end up creating constitutional conundrum in the polity.
The Nigerian constitution is no doubt the grun norm upon which every actions and rights draw strength and all actors in the political system are expected to abide by its tenets and provisions.
The provisions of the 1999 constitution as amended put each of the three arms of government on equal pedestal, complementing one another in the process of governance, which is a cherished ideal of separation of power in which all concentrate on their specific functional roles while at the same time ensuring checks and balances towards avoidances of arbitrariness of each arm.
It in this arbitrariness and possible infringement that the framers of our constitution tried to avoid by enshrining the provisions and procedures which must be followed in ousting leaders and members of one arm of government or the other.
The question on the minds of many Nigerians irrespective of party affiliations from which provision of the nation’s constitution did the president draw the power to suspend the Chief Justice of Nigerians (CJN) without recourse to constitutional provisions; as section 292 of the 1999 constitution makes the process of removing a Judiciary officers from his positions clear and unobvious, even to the layman on the streets.
It’s only the approval of the NJC and possibly the votes of at least 2/3 members of the Senate that can oust a federal judicial officer, including the person of the CJN out of office.
The issue now is not whether the CJN is guilty or not but that the president and commander in-chief of the nation should be one with a mindset of due process and rule of law. It has been asserted and clearly too, that elevating national interest above the rule of law is a platform for anarchy. This is obvious because while national interest is subjective and rational according to a leader’s perception, rule of law remains the sacrosanct guide to individual and collective stability.
President Buhari’s reason for his decisions is unfolding and will get clearer with time. This scenario has also been so because the Nigerian judiciary has remained the silent weeping child who lacks the instrument of coercion like the executive.
The executive arm with all its paraphernalia of Army and other security agencies inspire fear and intimidate all others, including defying judicial orders while the legislature can check the executive through budget approvals and oversights, and possible impeachment where necessary.
The national judiciary arm lacks such threatening, independent powers, and has to depend on the other arms to implement its orders.
President Buhari’s assault on the hallowed temple of justice must be seen for what it is; as an abuse of power and indeed a desecration of justice. Justice Walter Ononghen may be the victim today, who knows where the wheel of lawlessness will swing to tomorrow.
Except patriots in concert with men of good will begin to chart the way forward towards full independence for the judiciary as a co-equal arm of government in the light of the recent development, the temple of justice in Nigeria, may become just an annexure to the executive.