NJC seeks extension of acting Chief Justice Onnoghen’s tenure
The Senate yesterday said it would not convene an emergency session to screen and confirm the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen whose name has been forwarded to the upper legislative chamber by the Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo.
But an emergency meeting will no longer be necessary as the National Judicial Council (NJC), the body empowered to recommend judicial officers for appointment has transmitted a letter to the presidency, seeking the extension of Onnoghen’s period as the acting CJN, for another three months.
The extension of Onnoghen’s name for continuation as the acting CJN may douse the tension in the judiciary and the country. It may stop the suspicion that the president did not want to confirm Onnoghen because he is from the southern part of the country.
The decision to extend Onnoghen’s tenure was reached at the emergency meeting held yesterday by the NJC. The meeting, according to a source, was chaired by the second in command in NJC, Tanko Mohammed and the only agenda was the issue of the acting CJN.
Sources confirmed that Senate President Bukola Saraki received the letter recommending Onnoghen on Wednesday, but that the Senate president would not read the said letter until February 21, when the lawmakers would resume plenary session.
The upper chamber had suspended plenary since January 26, 2017 to enable the standing committees to pay priority attention to the consideration of the 2017 budget. The 90-day period that was given by the constitution as the deadline for an acting CJN expires tomorrow.
NJC sources told The Guardian that the extension, if granted, would ensure that there is no lacuna in the nation’s judiciary, in a situation where the Senate (as has been confirmed now) is unable to meet up with the time for the screening and confirmation of Onnoghen before the February 10 date, when his original acting period will elapse.
As a matter of procedure, the Senate can refer the nomination to its relevant committee, in this case, the Committee on Judiciary, for screening and await its report before doing the confirmation in plenary. It can also decide to subject the screening and confirmation to the committee of the whole Senate and plenary.
It could not be immediately confirmed if the President of the Senate would refer Onnoghen’s nomination to the Committee on Judiciary before the resumption of plenary or keep the confirmation for the main plenary.
“The Senate would decide what procedure to take in the confirmation hearing but there is no pressure whatsoever since the NJC had approved the extension of the period Onnoghen could stay in office in acting capacity.”
Onnoghen, the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court took over as acting CJN following the retirement of the immediate past CJN, Mahmud Muhammed who left office on November 10, 2016.
The judiciary had been gripped by tension following possible threats to its age-old succession tradition following President Muhammadu Buhari’s failure to appoint Onnoghen as substantive CJN since November 2016.
Citing section 231 (5) of the constitution, another lawmaker explained that it had made provision that allowed Onnoghen to continue to act as CJN pending his confirmation, since the NJC had re-recommended him.
Commenting on the issue, Prof. Epiphany Azinge (SAN) said for the fact that his name had been submitted to the Senate, there should have been no need for his name to be resubmitted by the NJC in fulfilment of the provisions of section 231(5) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
“As his name was forwarded, it is assumed that, that aspect of the President acting on the recommendation of the NJC has been taken care of. So what is outstanding now is senatorial confirmation, which can come at anytime, but they do not need to resubmit his name again to the
President for onward transmission to the Senate.
“What this means is that his acting capacity will subsist until either there is a confirmation or not, as the case may be. So he continues in acting capacity,”he stated, adding that the presidency must have acted on ‘wise counsel’ in submitting his name to the Senate.
Chief Emeka Ngige (SAN) thinks in the same direction. He was of the opinion that the NJC could have appointed the next in rank as acting CJN. “When Onnoghen’s name is confirmed by the Senate, he would go and be sworn in immediately, notwithstanding that somebody is still acting. The NJC cannot reappoint him as acting CJN. The constitution says the appointment of acting CJN cannot be renewed. That is why in Abia State, we had a situation where almost all the judges became acting chief judge because when each person finishes three months, the next judge will move in,”he argued.
Also, Lagos lawyer and human rights activists, Wahab Shittu said Onnoghen was entitled to continue to act by virtue of section 11 of Interpretation Act without further resubmission of his name.
He pointed out that “it is possible the presidency wanted to be sure of the character, competence and capacity of Onnoghen before forwarding his name to the Senate.”
A professor of jurisprudence, Allswell Osini Muzan also said the NJC had the option of bringing the next in rank to Onnoghen to act until a decision is made about who should be a substantive CJN, when the Senate reconvenes February 21.