Former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen (SAN), Friday in Abuja, opened up for the first time on the reason President Muhammadu Buhari unceremoniously removed him from office in 2019.
Onnoghen spoke at the unveiling of a book titled ‘Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 2009, Practice, Procedure, Forms and Precedents’, authored by Chief Ogwu James Onoja (SAN).
He disclosed that prior to his removal, there had been rumour from the executive arm of government that he held a meeting with former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, preparatory to the 2019 general elections.
The former CJN stated further that the rumour was thick and spread fast but that he decided not to react to it because he never travelled to Dubai or held any meeting with anybody, including Atiku. He, however, stressed that he was surprised that despite the fact that the Federal Government had all the types of machinery to investigate the allegation of the rumoured meeting with Atiku, it never did so. Rather, it opted to unlawfully go after him and his office.
Onnoghen held that the situation got to the peak when all of a sudden, his trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal was arranged, even when he had not been invited or accused of any wrongdoing.
According to him, the government’s action against him further got to the peak when in the course of the trial and when parties had joined issues, an ex-parte application was suddenly brought in, and what followed was his illegal and unlawful suspension as the CJN.
He said: “Prior to my suspension, I was confronted with no allegation. There were rumours that I met with Atiku in Dubai. As I am talking here today, I have never met Atiku one on one in my life. “As if that was not enough, I was also accused of setting free high-profile criminals, whereas I ceased to be a High Court Judge as far back as 1978. In Supreme Court, I did not sit alone. We sat in panel. In all these rumours and outright accusations, I was not given opportunity to defend myself. Let me make it clear that the office of the CJN was not for Onnoghen but for all Nigerians who had sworn to guide and protect the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. To say the least, the period of my ordeal was the darkest era in the history of the Nigerian judiciary.”
Onnoghen however urged all serving judicial officers not to be discouraged by what happened to him. “Emerging Nigerian judges should not go the direction of injustice because, without courageous judges and justice, Nigeria is doomed. Here, let me sound this note of warning that the appointment of judicial officers must never be allowed to be politicized, otherwise, democracy and democratic governance will be dead. During my tenure, the problem of Nigeria was not the Nigerian judiciary, but those who had no regard for the rule of law. We must therefore be committed to the rule of law and dispense justice without fear or favour.”
He stated that his ordeal in 2019 was not the first, adding that at a point during former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime, a Commission was set up and that he was indicted of wrongdoing, even when he was not invited or appeared before the Commission to defend himself.
Onnoghen, however, said because former President Obasanjo was a leader who listened to advice, the matter was referred to the National Judicial Council NJC for review at the end of which truth surfaced and it was upheld to resolve uncleared issues.