As a man who for his father’s influence had refused an elevation to the bench and assuming the office of the CJN at a very turbulent time in the history of the country’s judiciary, it seems the incoming Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen has been destined for paths where even angels fear to tread.
From surviving a fatal gun attack as a lawyer, serving on a dreadful state Armed Robbery and Firearms Tribunal to reading the lead judgement directing the President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki, to face trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, he has carved a niche for himself as a courageous judge.
As an enthusiastic young man, all Justice Onnoghen wanted was to become a successful lawyer. Attaining the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria would be the icing on the cake. But fate had different plans for him.
He believed then that becoming a SAN will put him on the same path like his principal, Effiom Ekong, the second SAN from the then South Eastern State, whose elevation followed that of Okoi Arikpo, who was one-time Minister for Finance under the Yakubu Gowon administration. But all that changed after his chat with his father, Nkanu Onnoghen, that fateful day in 1988.
Day Justice Onnoghen cheated death
His tutelage was cut short in 1981 when their party, travelling to Ogoja, Cross River State on a case involving then Mercantile Bank, was blocked by some gunmen, who immediately opened fire on them. By an act of divine protection, he was seriously wounded on the shoulder after being tangled under his gown. But his principal, Effiom Ekong (SAN) was not as lucky; he was mortally wounded and gave up before help could come. The killers were not found. He was forced by the incident to start out on his own.
“There were few reputable chambers then in Cross River State especially in Calabar. They include: Okoi Arikpo and Co; Effiom Ekong and Co; Richard Effa and Co; Kanu Agabi and Co; and Akpan Ekong Bassey and Co. Subsequently, other law firms followed which included: Ndoma Egba and Richard Ebri; Nsefik and Co; and Walter Onnoghen and Co,” recalls Victor Ndoma (SAN).
Thus, the young lawyer established a good law office well stocked with law books along Edibe Edibe Street in Calabar. However he donated the chambers to his friend, Francis Esu, now deceased, when he had to go to the bench.
A reluctant judge
In 1988, the then Chief Justice of Cross River State, Justice Edem Kufre requested the best lawyers from the state to be elevated to the bench. Onnoghen, who was among the lawyers recommended to be moved from private practice, rejected the offer.
After a long and heated conversation, his father wondered why he could turn down the opportunity to serve the people. In the end, the inspirational senior Onnoghen succeeded to persuade his son.
“So he obeyed his father and went to the bench just about ten years into private practice having been called to the Bar in 1978,” said Paul Erokoro (SAN), who knew him in Calabar.
“He was posted to Cross River State High Court No 7 at Moore Road in Calabar, which building is now a Magistrate Court in 1989,” recalled Barrister Abang Odok Ogar, a former registrar in his court.
On the bench
Once at the bench, Justice Onnoghen is credited with showing the stuff of courage, precision and hard work with his pronouncements. This fetched him several tasking positions. From 1990 to 1993, he was chairman of the Cross River State Armed Robbery and Firearms Tribunal.
In 1996, he headed the Judicial Inquiry into the University of Calabar students’ crisis with the host community of Obufa Esuk Orok.
Further in 1998 he was chairman Failed Banks Tribunal in Ibadan, Oyo State; and between 1992 and 2004 he was a judge of the Rivers State High Court.
Justice Onnoghen’s journey to the federal level began in 1998 when he became a Justice of the Appeal Court serving in Ilorin and Lagos. In 2005, he was elevated to the Supreme Court.
On February 5, 2016, Justice Onnoghen read the lead judgement, alongside a panel of seven Justices, which dismissed Senator Bukola Saraki’s interlocutory application challenging the jurisdiction of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) to hear his false asset declaration allegation for not being properly constituted.
The pronouncement is hailed on one hand as having strengthened the value of the new Administration of Criminal Justice Administration (ACJA, 2015), by accepting with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) that the charges against Saraki are covered by the Act. And on the other hand as encouraging the executive in some of the wrong positions it has taken in the anti-graft fight.
“I do not agree with the conclusions reached by the Supreme Court in that judgement,” said Erokoro, who is one of the lead counsels to Saraki. ”The court held that even though the Constitution said the Code of Conduct Tribunal must have three members to sit, if only the chairman and one member sits, it is properly constituted.”
“What the Supreme Court did was to rely on the Interpretation Act that two is a quorum when it is not the constitution. I don’t agree with them. But they are the highest court so we can only accept the verdict.
“In his lead judgment, Justice Onnoghen also held that the CCT is a court with criminal jurisdiction. How? We argued that Saraki was not charged for that. The maximum punishment of the CCT is to bar the convict from holding public office,” he added.
Where it all began
The side tracks of the undulating road to Okurike in Biase Local Government Area of Cross River State, where Onnoghen was born on December 22, 1950, have a humid whiff formed by the area’s rich vegetation. The town lies approximately 731 meters west of the Cross River. The 640 meters wide river flows from the Benue and the Camerouns.
As a result, fishing is a major occupation in the community. Approximately 16 kilometres by road further west is Biakpan, which harbours some of the rich palm and plantain plantations that contributed to the economic glory of the old Eastern Region.
Besides, the community also thrives in education which is why the Okurike-Agwaguna axis of Biase Local Government of the state has produced many dignitaries. Some of them include: the current deputy governor of Cross River State and former VC of University of Calabar, Prof Evara Esu and his predecessor Prof Solomon Uno.
A father’s influence
From the late 1950s to early 60s, sources recall that the starry-eyed boy would sit in the clan Customary Court-the Egup-Ipa proceedings with his father presiding. The senior Onnoghen, who was a successful merchant on the West African coast having planted a strong base in Ghana, was also serving his people in customary dispute resolution.
It was in those sessions that the impressionable young Onnoghen learnt about advocacy and adjudication. By the time he joined his father in Ghana in 1965, he had his mind made up: he was going to be a lawyer.
Having completed primary school at the Presbyterian Primary School, Okurike Town from 1959 to 1965, he went to Odorgono Secondary School, Adabraka, Accra between 1967 and 1972. After his West African School Certificate Examination (WASC), he was at the Accra Academy, Accra, for his A-Levels from 1972 to 1974. His result was considered outstanding, which entitled him to enjoy bursary from the Government of Ghana while he studied at the University of Ghana in Legon where he obtained his Bachelor of Law Degree (LL.B). He attended the Nigerian Law School at Victoria Island, Lagos between 1977 and 1978. On July 8, 1978 he was called to the bar.
Onnoghen’s social life
Though a devout Presbyterian Christian, Justice Onnoghen is also well attuned to the rich Akpaa-Ekoi-Ejagham culture of his people. For instance, the age grade system and the new yam festival are some of the traditions he relishes a lot.
When not writing judgements or presiding over marathon proceedings at the court, Justice Onnoghen spends his time in the farm. He believes that food cultivation is one of the ways of sustaining a country’s socio-economic well-being. His wife, Nkoyo, a former matron and four children have come to appreciate this virtue.
Challenges before incoming CJN
The need for judicial reforms has always been the focus of past CJNs, but what was discussed in hushes about judicial corruption was blown in the open when the Department of State Services (DSS) on October 8 raided the homes of judges accused of corruption and official misconduct.
Following the raids, seven senior judges were arrested and are about to be tried. Also the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court and other senior administrative officers of the apex court have been charged with alleged N2.2 billion fraud.
Analysts are of the view that the main task before are looking Justice Onnoghen are in the areas of reforms in appointment and discipline, independence of the judiciary, reform of the NJC, and restoring public confidence in the judiciary.
Many believe Justice Onnoghen has what it takes to deliver.
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