Onnoghen is remarkably the first southerner to be CJN since 1987 when Ayo Irikefe retired.
Beyond the regional fact, however, TheCable presents interesting highlights of his career: ranging from his pronouncements on culture and tradition to politics.
TRAINED IN GHANA
Born on December 22, 1950 in Biase, Cross Rivers state, Onnoghen will be in office till December 2020, barring any circumstances beyond his control.
He attended the Presbyterian Primary School, Okurike, Biase, from 1959 to 1965 and proceeded to Ghana for his secondary education from 1967 to 1972. He did his A’Level at the Accra Academy in 1972 and studied law at the University of Ghana, Legon, from 1974 to 1977.
He returned to Lagos to attend the Nigerian Law School between 1977 and 1978, thereafter working as pupil state counsel, ministry of justice, in Ikeja, Lagos and Ogun states between 1978 and 1979.
FROM BAR TO BENCH
Between 1979 and 1988, he was a partner in the law firm of Effiom Ekong and Company, in Calabar, after which he became principal partner and head of chamber of Walter Onneghen and Associates, Calabar.
In 1989, he crossed from the bar to the bench as he was appointed a high court judge by the Cross Rivers state judiciary. He moved on in 1990 to become the chairman, Cross Rivers State Armed Robbery and Fire Arms Tribunal. He was there for three years.
Onnoghen was appointed chairman of the Failed Bank Tribunal, Ibadan zone, in 1998, from where he moved on to become a justice of the court of appeal. In 2005, he was elevated to the supreme court.
ANNULLED IGBO CULTURE
For gender rights activists, April 11, 2014 was not just another day in the history of Nigeria. That day the supreme court made a landmark pronouncement in the case of two Igbo women, Gladys Ada Ukeje and Maria Nweke, who argued that they should have equal access as men to the inheritance of their parents.
In Igbo culture, women had been disinherited for ages as a result of tradition.
The two women sued the men in their families – and finally got justice as the case moved from the lower to the highest courts in the land.
Delivering the unanimous judgment on behalf of Justices Onnoghen, Clara Bata Ogunbiyi, Kumai Bayang Aka’ahs and John Inyang Okoro, Bode Rhodes-Vivour declared: “No matter the circumstances of the birth of a female child, such a child is entitled to an inheritance from her father’s estate. Consequently, the Igbo customary law, which disentitles a female child from partaking in sharing of the deceased father’s estate, is in breach of section 42(1) and (2) of the constitution, a fundamental rights provision guaranteed to every Nigerian.”
Feminists and gender rights activists celebrated the historic moment. Now that they have a “friendly” judge as CJN, should they expect more justice for Nigerian women?
UPHELD REV. KING’S DEATH SENTENCE
Chukwuemeka Ezeugo, also known as “Rev. King”, the general overseer of Christian Praying Assembly, was accused of murdering a member of his church in 2006.
The Lagos state government prosecuted King and he was convicted to die by hanging.
King appealed his death sentence by the high court which was affirmed by the court of appeal.
At the supreme court, the panel of justices led by Onnoghen upheld the decision of the Lagos division of the court of appeal, which had affirmed the conviction and the sentence.
“The facts of the case could have been lifted from [the] horror film,” the panel led by Onnoghen held.
“This appeal has no merit. The judgement of the court of appeal is hereby affirmed. The prison sentence that was earlier handed to the appellant is no longer relevant in view of the death sentence passed on him.”
CANCELLED YAR’ADUA’S ELECTION
When Muhammadu Buhari, a retired major-general, lost to Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, governor of his home state, Katsina, in the 2007 presidential election, he headed for the tribunal.
Buhari argued, among other things, that the election was rigged and that it should be cancelled and a fresh election conducted.
Never in the history of Nigeria had a presidential election been cancelled, perhaps because of the complications of not having a substantive president holding fort during a rerun.
Some of these political considerations are believed to have discouraged the judiciary from ruling decisively on presidential election petitions. In the end, all who went to the tribunal did so more for the record than to get justice.
However, Onnoghen was not moved by such sentiments. Along with George Oguntade and Aloma Muktah (who later became CJN), Onnoghen annulled Yar’Adua’s election in December 2008 and called for a fresh one.
However, they were outnumbered by the other justices who agreed that even though the election was flawed, the irregularities were not “substantial enough” to lead to a nullification.
These were Justices Idris Kutigi (then CJN), Iyorgyer Katsina-Alu, Niki Tobi (late) and Dahiru Musdapher.
ONNOGHEN’S VERDICT ON BUHARI VS YAR’ADUA
I had already held that the burden of proving non-compliance and the substantiality of the non-compliance on the result of the election lie on the petitioner/appellant. Has he discharged that onus? I hold the view that he has. There are non-compliances that go straight to the fundamentals of an election thereby affecting condition precedents for the holding of an election while others may just affect the result of the election where one had been validly held. In other words, some non-compliance may render an ‘election’ void in which case there is no result of the election to be substantial affected by the non-compliance while others may substantially affect the result of an election validly conducted.
For instance, if the non-compliance with the provisions of the electoral act complained of have to do with the validity of the voters register used at an election which non-compliance is found proved, will that alone not be enough, to invalidate the election without the requirement of the further prove of how the non-compliance affected substantially the result of the election when in law there could not have been an election in the first place as no election can take place without a valid voters register.
In my view two things are crucial and fundamental to the holding of an election. These are voters register and ballot papers. It is common knowledge that he two are the targets of the election rigger, if not properly handled. Section 10 and 11 of the Electoral Act deal with National Register of Voters and Voters’ Registration while section 45 and 67 dead with the format of ballot papers.
It is failure to comply with subsection 2 of section 45 that the lower court found to constitute substantial non-compliance with the provisions of Electoral Act. There is no cross appeal on that crucial finding/holding. That being the case, the respondents are deemed to have accepted the said finding as valid and proper and it is settled law that under the circumstance the parties and this court are bound by the said finding and as such this court is without vires or jurisdiction to reverse or disagree with same not being a busy body.
I therefore agree with the lower court that the non-compliance with the provisions of section 45 (2) of the Electoral Act, 2006 constitute substantial non-compliance but i do not agree that the substantial non-compliance so found is not enough to affect the result of the election because in the first place, you cannot conduct an election properly so called without valid ballot papers. By holding that there was substantial non-compliance with section 45 (2) supra it tantamount to holding that the election that was conducted on the 21st day of April, 2007 was done without valid ballot papers which to me, with the greatest respect, amounts to a nullity.
The situation being as found by the lower court it follows that there was no election known to law the result of which could have been substantially affected by the non-compliance as the non-compliance in this case is of the nature that invalidated the election. To hold otherwise amounts to giving licence to those who conduct our elections to continue to do whatever they like including creating loopholes for the rigging of our elections thereby continuing to deny our electoral process the credibility it deserves in the comity of democratic nations. How is one to know which ballot papers were sent to Sokoto, Kastina, Ebonyi etc when the ballot papers were not in booklet form and numbered serially?
Even the within the particular state where the ballot papers are sent for election how do we know if ballot papers meant for one Local Government Area or ward are not diverted and used in another or even not used at all but stuffed into the ballot boxes and counted as votes. How can we determine a genuine ballot paper from a fake one when we agree that any paper can pass for a ballot paper and be used in an election and assumed that such an act of non-compliance does not affect the result of the ‘election’?”