SANs and Onnoghen circus
By Sam Omatseye
His eyeballs shone across as his fist thumps resounded from his oak desk. That afternoon, in his striped navy blue suit in his office at Anthony in Lagos, he was in a combative temper. “If there is a case between a rich man and a poor man,” roared the late Gani Fawehinmi to now Senator Babafemi Ojudu, Dele Momodu and myself, “I will find the law for the poor man.” This was in the late 1980’s when Gani was the people’s armoury against a state of army and anomie.
That was the Gani, who did not flaunt an elitist conscience as a lawyer. He bonded with hoi poloi. That Gani will be growling in his grave now. His younger colleagues are pitching their tents with an oppressor in a puerile defence of one of their own. That is what the Walter Onnoghen case has made of otherwise cerebral and intuitively intelligent lawyers today. Gani would have said it was right to prosecute Onnoghen. He would have said the NJC has nothing to do with this. He would have asked Onnoghen to explain how he was able to afford over 50 houses on his little salary. He would have wondered why his colleagues did not understand the difference between a public servant and judicial officer. He would have questioned his mnemonic faculties and asserted that a chief justice who can forget such a lump sum could forget crucial matters of law while dispensing justice. He could have asked Walter Onnoghen to resign and return to the arboreal tranquillity of his village.
But it astounds that our judiciary has fallen into such decay. But it should not. The judiciary is no high tower, or Noah’s ark. It is not immune from the maggoty rot, the prevalent purulence of the Nigerian society. Corruption is writ large even in the argument of lawyers who want to defend Onnoghen and claim that the CJN ought not be prosecuted at the Code of Conduct Bureau. In the first place, did Onnoghen fill the assets declaration as a judicial officer or as a public servant or a Nigerian citizen? He did it as a Nigerian citizen and public servant. If filling the form were exclusive to lawyers, then it would be a matter for the NJC. But as he filled it, so the soldier or doctor fills it for the public office. Does it mean that a journalist who fills an asset declaration form and lies or suffers memory loss, will have to go to the media council and not CCT? If a judge commits murder, is that a case before the wigged and hoary personages of the NJC?
Even at that, as I stated in my TVC show, The Platform, even the lawyers are not listening to themselves. Some of them claim the job of CJN is exclusive to a profession. But so is the office of the attorney general. Would they say the attorney general would go to the NJC? The lawyers, led again by Wole Olanipekun and the 88 other supine faithful, lined up as though they owned the constitution and the society. They remind me of the words of the playwright George Bernard Shaw: “the vocations are a conspiracy against the laity.”
Such attitudes led another playwright Shakespeare to proclaim. “The first thing we do, let’s kill the lawyers.” I have no such morbid imagination about lawyers. Thankfully, they are not wise enough to fool the rest of us or even other lawyers.
They are quick to turn on the big courts to defend the rich like them, especially the SANs. Yet, I have no record of an instance where this gang of knowledgeable men have felt a stir in their hearts for the poor. When did they go to court to defend a yam seller who was unfairly charged to court? We have so many people in jail because no one pled their cases, either for stealing N20 or for taking a bribe. They were easy on their own consciences to line up for the klieg lights of vanity to defend somebody who already said he did wrong.
The man said he forgot about $3 million. Even Bill Gates would not forget such a sum of money. The question is, if he could forget that amount, how much more has his lordship’s memory forgotten? If a man forgets N1, he must have so much that N1 is not worth the burden of his remembrance.
I still don’t understand why the man who says he is guilty wants Nigeria to do for him? To allow him continue as the preeminent judge in the land? Who can defend that? The lawyers argue that it is about process first, and substance later. The real substance is that the man is putting the nation through a meaningless circus and rigmarole by not resigning. Once he resigns, which he will eventually do, the case will go under the radar and we can go on as a nation.
The lawyers also wondered why it was so quick to take the matter to court between the submission of the petition and prosecution. These are the same lawyers that have perfected the art of turning a case that should take six days to six years. They are so used to dilly-dallying and shilly-shallying that they are dazed that a case could cruise in court.
The Onnoghen case is also an example of how the lawyer can be out of sync with the society. When the history of the judiciary is written, today will go on record as a watershed of an era when a section of our top lawyers burned the book of justice because one of them broke the law. They are acting in cahoots with a self-indulgent class. People sometimes forget that the SANs are not about justice, but about the law. “The law,” as Henry Thoreau noted, “has not made anyone a whit more just.” They want law for law’s sake.
Was it not Onnoghen, who presided over the case against the Senate president? His ruling was not only wrong but curious. Bukola ‘Eleyinmi’ Saraki had filled a form that he owned a property before he owned it. He became a prophet of his own prosperity. If Onnoghen forgot that he had the money, Eleyinmi remembered his own before he had the property. Perhaps Onnoghen exonerated him because of the solidarity of remembrance between them. They have written their own version of Milan Kundera classic titled: A Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
Except that no one is laughing, and laughing in the East European writer’s novel was also a mockery of the laugh. It is what Nobel laureate Samuel Becket called risus purus, a laugh laughing at itself. Onnoghen and Eleyinmi are kindred spirits in forgetting the present. Eleyinmi was a man of faith. He claimed a property before it came, and it came. Onnoghen endorsed Eleyinmi’s spirit that moved the cement and paints and blocks. His spirit moved mountains.
Laws are a product of society. The law was made for us and not the other way round. We cannot accept a cabal of lawyers who run away in a riot of tendentious opinions and want to impose them on us. They sometimes think the so-called laity is not literate. The best lawyers are not those who just stick to the letters but the spirit. As Paul says in the Bible, the letter of the law kills, but the spirit gives life. Thankfully we have others who stand firm. They are the avenging angels of technicality.
Some have asserted that the Buhari administration wanted to nail Onnoghen. Granted it is true, it was not Buhari, who tweaked Onnoghen’s memory, or imposed amnesia on the fellow. He should take responsibility and not pass it on to others. Others have argued about timing. I wonder myself and ask, when is the right time for justice? Is there a time for justice and another for injustice?
If the security agencies did not unveil this illegality during his screening, that is egregious folly. But that is also trying to excuse a man who has done wrong. If his screening was so contentious, that was a stronger reason why filling the form should have been conscientious.
I have often quoted Shakespeare here that if correction lies in the hand that committed wrong, to whom shall we complain? We cannot trust Onnoghen with the law and justice anymore. He is the last stop of justice. After his seat, it is God. We don’t run a theocracy. Even theocracies are run by men, in what is called the divine rights of kings. Since we don’t want to bring God into this, Onnoghen, now irretrievably tainted, should do the right thing. The SANs should stop grandstanding and return to their billion naira cases and leave the rest of us alone.
The man should resign and save the nation a circus.