Two weeks to expiration of the three months allowed to serve in acting capacity as Chief Justice of Nigeria, legal luminary, Wole Olanipekun, SAN, has condemned the non-transmission of the name of Justice Walter Onnoghen, 66, to the Senate for confirmation as substantive CJN.
President Muhammadu Buhari had on November 10 named Onnoghen, the most senior justice of the Supreme Court, as acting CJN, in line with recommendation of the NJC, following the retirement of Justice Mahmud Mohammed at the statutory age of 70.
Reacting yesterday, Olanipekun, a former president of the Nigeria Bar Association, warned the Buhari adminsitration against creating a hazardous uncertainty in the polity and setting a dangerous precedent.
In the statement titled, “The Imperative of Appointing and Swearing-in a Substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria,” Olanipeku referred to section 231 (1) and (4) to argue his point.
Subsection (1) states, “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.” Subsection (4) states, “If the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria is vacant or if the person holding the office is for any reason unable to perform the functions of the office, then until a person has been appointed to and has assumed the functions of that office, or until the person holding the office has resumed those functions, the President shall appoint the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court to perform those functions. “
Olanipekun said, “To my mind, immediately after this recommendation, NJC had completed its constitutionally vested duty, thus, becoming funtus officio. It can no longer revisit, review or re-examine the recommendation it has made. Section 158(1) of the Constitution guarantees not just the independence of the NJC, but also the sanctity of the decision it has arrived at. The NJC has no constitutional latitude to approbate and reprobate on the subject.
“Starting from that point, particularly, on receipt of the recommendation of the NJC by Mr. President, the ball shifted to the President’s court; but has to be passed to the Senate simply in accordance with the wordings and dictate of the Constitution. The law has well crystallised in the proposition that where the wordings of a statute, particularly the Constitution, are clear, they merely call for application, and not interpretation.
“In the face of a definitive recommendation by the NJC to Mr. President for the appointment of a particular Justice as the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mr. President cannot fall back on the provision of Section 231(4) to appoint that same Justice as the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria.
“With every sense of responsibility, Section 231(4) will come into play if, for example, after the receipt of the NJC’s recommendation, the President has forwarded the name of the Hon. Justice Onnoghen to the Senate, and as at November 10, 2016, when the last holder of the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria retired, the Senate had not reverted to the President, confirming the appointment or deciding otherwise. Then, there would have been an interregnum.
“With the situation of things whereby the NJC has made recommendation to Mr. President under Section 231(1), the said sub-section and sub-section (4) have become mutually exclusive. In its clear wordings, the Constitution does not expect that an interim appointment should be made in the circumstances. By its tenor and spirit, the Constitution does not contemplate it.”
Lamenting what he called a disruption of the succession tradition, Olanipekun said, “Right from the appointment of Sir. Adetokunbo Ademola as the first indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria in 1958, and through to 2014 when the Hon. Justice Mahmud Mohammed was appointed as the 14th indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria, change of baton at the Supreme Court had always been smooth and seamless.
“There had not been any interregnum; no appointment of acting Chief Justice, not even when the Hon. Justice S. M. A. Belgore was appointed as Chief Justice of Nigeria for about six months.”
He said, “Mr. President has not communicated with the NJC to give any scintilla of reason or excuse as to why the name of the person recommended by it under Section 231(1) of the Constitution has not been forwarded for confirmation. To the best of my knowledge as well, Mr. President has not expressed any reservation or communicated such to the NJC about the recommended candidate. Why then the suspense?”