Mr Walter Onnoghen’s resignation as Chief Justice of Nigeria on Friday was greeted with mixed reactions from senior lawyers, Peoples Democratic Party and ruling All Progressives Congress.
Onnoghen, who was suspended from office on January 25 by Federal Government for failing to declare part of his assets, tendered his resignation letter to President Muhammadu Buhari late on Thursday, it was learnt.
Surprisingly, the letter was sent to Buhari barely 24 hours after National Judicial Council reportedly recommended Onnoghen’s compulsory retirement from service after investigating allegations of misconduct levelled against him.
Although the former CJN’s spokesman, Mr Awassam Bassey, has yet to officially confirm his resignation, two Senior Advocates of Nigeria defending him at Code of Conduct Tribunal confirmed to one of our correspondents on Friday that Onnoghen had reisgned.
Bassey did not answer calls to his phone by one of our correspondents. He did not also respond to text messages sent to him.
But Mr Adegboyega Awomolo, Onnoghen’s lead defence counsel at CCT, where he is being prosecuted for false and non-declaration of assets, said, “I have just spoken with him. He confirmed to me that he resigned voluntarily yesterday (Thursday). He told me he resigned in the interest of the judiciary.”
According to Awomolo, Onnoghen must have taken the decision following the recommendations of NJC, which have yet to be made public.
“He took a decision after NJC which has the power under the Constitution to take a decision, has taken a decision.”
Mr Rafiu Lawal-Rabana, who led Onnoghen’s defence at NJC, said although he had yet to speak with his client, he had confirmed that he had voluntarily resigned from office.
“The man has voluntarily retired. Although I have not seen him or spoken with him, it is confirmed that he has voluntarily resigned,” Lawal-Rabana said late Friday.
Asked if Onnoghen’s resignation had to do with NJC’s recommendations, he said, “No, It does not have to do with it.”
But he said he had “not seen the report by NJC”.
Lawal-Rabana added, “Up till now we don’t have the report.”
It was learnt that Federal Government would require two-thirds majority of Senate to remove Onnoghen from office, according to the Constitution.
However, a Lagos lawyer, Mr Jiti Ogunye, described Onnoghen’s resignation as “appearing to be an afterthought and escapism”.
Federal Government on January 11, 2019 filed against Onnoghen six counts, including failure to declare his assets between June 2005 and December 14, 2016.
The rest of the five counts bordered on allegations that the suspended CJN made false declaration of his assets on December 14, 2016 by allegedly omitting to declare his domiciliary dollar, euro and pound sterling accounts as well as his two naira accounts, all maintained with Standard Chatered Bank (Nig.) Ltd.
Onnoghen had pleaded not guilty to the six counts.
SANs express divergent views
Reacting to Onnoghen’s resignation
A former President of Nigerian Bar Association, Mr Olisa Agbakoba said Onnoghen could have decided to call it quits in the interest of the judiciary.
He said, “Without judging whether CJN was right or wrong, because I cannot speak on that, I think it has come to a point where he would have decided that in the interest of the judiciary as an institution, it was better that he removed himself.
“I see the resignation as a no-liability resignation, which means without accepting that he had done wrong. I haven’t read the (resignation) letter but that is my thought. The issue had become messy and so a time would come you would say to yourself that if I’m the problem in the way of the judiciary, I would step down and deal with the issues I’m facing as a person, so as not to allow this to disrupt the judiciary. If that is what he has done, I applaud and salute him.”
Agbakoba said even though some people would suggest that he should have resigned earlier.
He added, “People who say he could have done that earlier could have a point, but it is never too late. The important thing is that he has done it. I think I would have done it earlier. But he may have decided to ride it out but he has now seen that he could not resist the forces against him, because clearly, as far as I’m concerned, even if he has done something wrong, the entire process has been politically motivated, without question. That cannot be denied. So, I applaud and salute him for taking himself out of the process.”
While expressing sadness over the matter, another SAN, Mr Awa Kalu, said he had no doubts that Onnoghen’s resignation was inevitable.
Kalu said, “I have to say that I am extremely sad because a good career has come to an end in a way that not all will acclaim. I don’t think that the majority of people who have watched the travails of the chief justice will come to an inevitable conclusion, that is to say that justice has been served.”
Mr Mike Ozekhome said, “Onnoghen was virtually hounded out of the judiciary and of the seat of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, not because of any offence that has been proved but, I genuinely believe, because of one, where he comes from, his ethnic group; two, his religion; three, the fact that he was too unbending to accommodate the excesses of the executive arm of government; and four, because he was not even considered to have been fit to occupy the position in the first instance. That was why the President never agreed to confirm his appointment many months after Senate had okayed him until the President travelled and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo had to do the unthinkable. And I also think that the cabal never forgave Osinbajo for that.”
But Chairman of Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Mr Itse Sagay, described Onnoghen’s resignation as “embarrassing and shameful”, saying he ought to have left as soon as the allegations were raised against him.
Sagay said, “It’s disappointing because he should have done this thing (resign) since January when the news came out that he failed to declare some of his assets. He should have done it instead of going to court and embarrassing himself and the whole country.”
However, another SAN, Mr Babatunde Ajibade, said it would be premature to comment on Onnoghen’s resignation without knowing what NJC recommended after probing corruption allegations against him.
FG frustrated Onnoghen – PDP
PDP claimed Onnoghen decided to resign because FG was frustrating him.
PDP Deputy National Publicity Secretary, Mr Diran Odeyemi, also said the development had created bad image for Nigeria.
Odeyemi said, “It is a pity that FG has frustrated Onnoghen out of office therefore achieving a premeditated plan against the topmost hierarchy of the judiciary. Nigerians obviously have not heard the whole story of why Onnoghen is being persecuted. But we are sure that very soon the fear of APC government and the reasons behind the orchestrated plan will be revealed.
“The whole world is watching and it is unfortunate the negative message we are passing with the treatment meted out to officials of the judiciary being third arm of government will definitely affect our rating in the comity of nations.
“We wish Onnoghen happy retirement.”
However, APC said Onnoghen’s resignation had vindicated Buhari and the party.
The party’s National Publicity Secretary, Mr Lanre Issa-Onilu, in an interview with journalists in Abuja recalled that the party rose in defence of the President when he suspended Onnoghen.
According to him, the party knew from the beginning that the allegations against Onnoghen were too serious and that the President does not act on frivolities.