Re Walter Onnoghen: Poetic justice for Justice Tanko Muhammad

Ex CJNs Tanko Muhammad and Walter Onnoghen.


By Emmanuel Ogebe Esq. 

OUTGONE Chief Justice Tanko Muhammad left office more disgracefully than the man he schemed out. While popular opinion was that Justice Onnoghen CJN was framed and unfairly forced out, in his case public consensus is that Justice Tanko deserves to be outed and ousted.

It is therefore ironic that while Gen. Buhari showered encomiums and conferred a national honor on the disgraced outgone Chief Justice Tanko, Buhari had rained false accusations in a long tirade against Onnoghen to justify his ouster.

But the Nigerian people who heard Gen Buhari say recently that they were better off today than when he came into office seven years ago, know full well that he is mentally on vacation from objective reality. Only Buhari has fared better in seven years but certainly not the suffering people of Nigeria. Tragically that is painfully obviously to all except himself.

The very fact that all fourteen Supreme Court Justices signed a protest letter against the outgone Chief Justice alone should have foreclosed any question of a national award. Seven justices comprise a constitutional sitting panel of the court so 14 justices’ signatures amount to two constitutional panels of the court unanimously adopting the same position with no dissensions or exceptions. Buhari completely ignored the opinions and concerns of the entire Supreme Court to honor his dishonorable quisling.

In another ironic and karmic twist, Justice Tanko’s exit was on par with that of Justice Onnoghen’s – they’re both the only Chief Justices to resign prematurely or be pushed out of office.

A long-standing judicial convention is to hold a valedictory court session for retiring justices where tributes and speeches are presented on their legacy and in their honor.

In recent history, only three Chief Justices of Nigeria have retired without receiving this ultimate honor amongst peers and the profession.

The late Justice Katsina Alu CJN was the first not to have a valedictory session. His Lordship after a scandalous tenure and surreptitiously appointing SANs outside of due process, hurriedly fled from the country prior to his day of retirement when a valedictory session would have been due. A valedictory would have been suicidal given his tortured and notorious legacy of infamy.

Justice Onnoghen CJN had no opportunity to have a valedictory given the manner in which he was precipitately forced out of office. It is unfortunate because despite the controversy, His Lordship made some epic contributions to the legal system in terms of Technological innovations for the bar that could have been heralded in his legacy.

The third and final Chief Justice not to receive a valedictory session in their honor is Justice Tanko Muhammad.

Therefore ironically the very honour which he deprived his predecessor Onnoghen of, he deprived himself of.

Yet history will hold that Buhari gave him a valedictory tribute, albeit a false one but his peers amounting to two constitutional panels of the Supreme Court gave him a true and damning one in their leaked disenchantment memo. Indeed if one counts the damning valedictory speech of Hon. Justice Ejembi Eko, that amounts to 15 justices comprising three standard panels of the Supreme Court uniformly against Justice Tanko.

That the worst president in Nigeria celebrated the worst Chief Justice in Nigerian history should brook no surprise. If deep calls to deep, dust also calls to dust. It was nothing more than a mutual adoration felicitation of failures.

But Justice Tanko’s disastrous tenure didn’t need to be so. In the epilogue of Hon. Justice J.O. Ogebe JSC rtd’s “Justice Under The Shelter of the Almighty – autobiography of a distinguished jurist,” he recounted an encounter we had with Justice Tanko on the fateful day he displaced and replaced Justice Onnoghen. Below is the bombshell revelation: 

“I will conclude by sharing an incident which I think aptly illustrates the crossroads where we find ourselves. One day, last year, I felt an urge to visit the Chief Justice of Nigeria, the Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen.

The job of a judge is a friendless one; so, as one of the few retired jurists who remained in the capital city, I visit on occasions to encourage them.

 From the last CJN with whom I served to the present, every CJN in the last decade has been my classmate or junior except for the Hon. Justice Aloma Mukhtar, Nigeria’s first and only female CJN…

Justice Onnoghen had served under me when I was a Presiding Justice at the Court of Appeal, so he was one of several of my junior colleagues at the bench who became my senior at the Supreme Court—thanks to federal character.

That Friday he was the one who encouraged me saying that sometimes things meant for evil could turn around for good.

As my son and I went downstairs to depart, a vehicle pulled up to the judge’s entrance and Justice Tanko Muhammad excitedly emerged and greeted me:  “My leader, I was just in the house and I said let me come to the office and see what is going on.” As he clasped my hand, I said, “Don’t let anyone rubbish the judiciary.”

Tanko Muhammad, like Onnoghen, had also served under me when I was a Presiding Justice at the Court of Appeal. Incidentally, the two of them were my only colleagues at the Supreme Court who were still in school when I was already a high court judge. They were literally of another generation of judges who succeeded fellow Nigerian judges and not those of us who succeeded the British.

He said nothing as we departed the Supreme Court premises. A short while later, I was watching the news and saw him being sworn in as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria by Major General Buhari at the Presidential Villa—while Justice Onnoghen was still at the Supreme Court working his heart away.

We have received the torch and passed it on to another generation, which can either fan the flame of liberty and justice to burn brighter or extinguish it—returning us to darkness and gloom.”

Apparently, neither this early warning and sage counsel nor the imprecations of his brother justices or seniors persuaded Justice Tanko to do well. Indeed I specifically called judicial welfare prioritization at a valedictory last year for late Justice Onu

Incidentally, today is the 54th anniversary of the Class of 1968 of Nigerian Law School which to date is the greatest in the history of the  nation’s judiciary.

As narrated in the autobiography referenced above:

“The 1968 Set of the Nigerian Law School was comprised of 126 aspiring lawyers…

Eight of them were elevated to the court of appeal: Justices Umaru Abdulahi and Salami who became Presidents of the Court of Appeal (PCA) and Sulu Gambari (current Emir of Ilorin) and Justice Rowland.

Moreover, myself and Justice Adekeye (a female)became Justices of the Supreme Court (JSC) while Justices Katsina Alu and Dahiru Musdapher became Chief Justices of Nigeria (CJN) – the pinnacle of the judicial hierarchy of the land. So out of these eight, four rose to the Supreme Court:  Justices Alu, Musdapher, Ogebe, and Adekeye…

More than half of the ‘68 Set have preceded us to the great beyond including both CJNs.

The set has contributed brilliantly to the development of Nigeria in all sectors especially the judiciary… It’s the only set that has produced two CJNs and two PCAs—both concurrently.

The only dent on their performance is the disagreement between Alu CJN and Salami PCA over a governorship appeal in Sokoto state which landed in court and escalated into a national issue. They sued each other in court and appeared before investigation panels headed by another ‘68 Set member wherein another ‘68 Set member testified as a witness…

All the ‘68 Set have now exited the bench…They were arguably the most impactful class of the NLS on our judicial system and the country at large by their 50 years post-call.

While appreciating them for their positive contributions to Nigeria, we pray that new generations will arise to achieve even greater heights for the cause of justice and the rule of law in the land and for humanity.”

Unfortunately this was not to be as Hon. Justice Abba Aji who was in the same class as Justice Tanko (she was also the best law student) had the misfortune of being a victim of his mismanagement when she was eminently qualified to do a better job as CJN. So in addition to personal legacy, he betrayed corporate legacy and his history as the first sharia judge to occupy that position. But for primordial interests, a brilliant jurist like Hon Justice Abba Ajji should not be under the likes of a Justice Tanko but sadly this is the story of Nigeria at all levels where mediocrity reigns over meritocracy.

Justice Tanko Muhammad has now become another glaring example of Buhari’s mega failed administration. He promoted a man beyond his physical and intellectual capacity to perform with disastrous consequences for the nation just like the service chiefs and numerous other square pegs in round holes, presently and impending.

As I stated in my sworn petition to the National Judicial Council against Buhari’s judicial coup:

“ The Buhari administration perpetrated a hoax on the nation and our democracy and profession by executing a fake judgment to wit:

– The president executed the judgment of a court that did not sit; 

– enforcing a prayer on a motion never moved; 

– implementing a relief of suspension that was never ordered 

– on a party who was never served said order…

Nothing can be based on such an obvious fraud and everyone involved by commission or omission, complicity or complacency, aiding and abetting, before and after the fact must be held to account.” The NJC did not address my petition and I call upon them once again to inquire into this monumentally disastrous fraud against our collective intelligence.

In the US, citizens are protesting against the decision of the Supreme Court justices but in Nigeria, Supreme Court Justices were protesting against the indecision of the Chief Justice. Every single objection was an indictment and testament to Buhari’s failure. Tanko’s failure fairly and squarely belongs to his overlord Buhari. 

But although Justice Tanko was uncouth and barbaric to call the highest body of jurists naked dancers in the market square, he at least had the residual decency to resign after he was shown the writing on the wall. This is a minimal level of dignity and decency his imposer does not possess.

Some are born great, some become great and some have greatness forced upon them. Justice Tanko forced greatness upon himself and disgrace upon himself and therein lies the karmic limit to unjust justices.

Emmanuel Ogebe, Esq who is an international human rights lawyer and Nigerian judiciary expert, writes from Washington, USA.


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