Attempting to make sense of President Buhari’s government’s decision to prosecute the Chief Justice of the Federation (CJN),Walter Onnoghen for failure to declare his assets at this moment is very difficult. So far, the administration’s champions appear too confounded to rush to the defence of a move that appears to have taken everyone unawares by its speed and its political import. The opposition to the arraignment, on the other hand, is predictably fierce, intense and overwhelming. There will be little room for neutrals on this matter. The Buhari administration has stirred more than a hornet’s nest. Its friends would hope that there is some solid thinking behind this risky gamble that has all the makings of a reckless attempt to court massive suspicion and hostility which will cast shadows over the general elections to be held in the next few weeks. It is difficult to see how Buhari will emerge from this smelling better. Whichever way it ends, this development will represent a major dent in the trajectory of the growth of Nigeria’s democratic growth.
It is important to lay down some basics on this issue, before the cacophony of reasons and unreason drown out our sanity. Chief Justice Onnogen is not above the law. If indeed he had breached the requirements of his office which include the legal obligation to declare all his assets and liabilities within a certain period of his appointment, and information to that effect is made available to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), the latter is free to investigate and recommend him for trial by the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT). Neither the manner in which the information got to the CCB nor its speed of response should be sources of dispute in a context where the rule of law is real and visible.
Nor should the nation ordinarily question the independence and integrity of the CCB and the CCT if they investigate and try any citizen, even the head of the apex court. President Buhari’s administration had claimed all along that it is committed to fighting corruption, and had docked the number three citizen and head of the second arm of government and one of its own, Senate President Abubakar Bukola Saraki, before the CCT, until the apex court Onnoghen heads said he was innocent. All these and other issues can be debated in the courts by the cream of the judicial process. If the judicial process works, there will be only one of two outcomes: Onnoghen is indicted for failure to declare assets, or he is set free, and Buhari’s administration walks away to lick its wounds, or shrugs off another failed attempt to nail a big name in its anti-corruption crusade.
What reasons could therefore explain the fury of the response to the prosecution of the Chief Justice of Nigeria? Well, actually, quite a few, most of them having little to do with the substance of the case on both sides, and plenty to do with politics. First, take the case of the status and stature of Onnoghen. He may not be above the law, but the administration’s record of applying political or partisan colours to its decisions to dock or ignore docking prominent Nigerians will not withstand even casual scrutiny. It has not tried heavyweights suspected of corruption or other crimes that had intimate relations with it. It has raised the act of absorbing persons with bulging files containing corruption charges to its political fold into an art. The administration’s campaign against corruption has lost so much credibility to political and partisan drivers that only bandits and kidnappers these days not shouting at being hounded over partisan considerations.
Then the timing. Not the three days it took to process the arraignment processes of a CJN, but the fact that there are only a few weeks to landmark elections, the results from which could quite possibly end up for adjudication before the CJN and his colleagues. The mind goes wild here, thinking up all sorts of motives behind this seeming provocation. Is it an attempt to get the CJN to recuse himself in the event that the dispute over the elections ends up in the Supreme Court. Is an attempt to get a judge who had shown” hostility” to the Buhari administration by acquitting Saraki out of the way in the event that the Supreme Court has to decide the winner of the elections? Is it a bold move against a judiciary with a store of misdeeds and registered grievances against the administration and get it to toe a more pliable posture as it is called to decide who wins elections from March this year? Is it an audacious gamble to stir some dormant sentiments in favour of a tough, corruption-fighting Buhari administration and boost sagging morale among core supporters?
It is very likely that CJN Onnoghen will be CJN all through the elections. The case against him will be tied up in every manner of knot such that Buhari could start his second term prosecuting him, or he will leave it to his successor to decide what to do with an inherited boiling potato. What will not be postponed are the repercussions of this decision. Already, the matter has assumed the full hue of ethno-regional politics which identifies our democracy. Buhari will lose support in areas where he is already very weak, those areas where touching Onnoghen or any one from the region is a declaration of war. Political opposition is already making hay from what appears to be a monumental blunder. Civil society and the global community will raise their voices against suspected tampering with the basic framework of the democratic and electoral process. The acclaim that should accompany the retirement of IGP Ibrahim Idris will be dulled by the indignation at a needless provocation.
With just a few weeks before he submits himself to the judgement of Nigerians over his leadership abilities, history will record President Buhari as the President who spent most of his time alienating the two other arms of government he should religiously cultivate and work with. Most of the conflicts he has been involved with in his relations with the legislature were avoidable. At this eleventh hour, he is now pushing away a judicial arm of government in a manner that could also hurt him personally. His best friends will hope that he knows what he is doing.
Jamila Abubakar wrote this piece from Abuja