Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, born 22 December 1950, was appointed acting CJN on November 10, 2016, when Mahmud Mohammed, his predecessor, retired. A controversy had brewed over President Muhammadu Buhari’s delay in sending his name to the senate for confirmation as CJN.
Acting President Yemi Osinbajo eventually forwarded his name to the upper legislative chamber, but not until two days to the end of his tenure, which was renewed by the National Judicial Council (NJC).
Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen is remarkably the first southerner to be CJN since 1987 when Ayo Irikefe retired.
Beyond the regional fact, however, TheCable presents interesting highlights of his career: ranging from his pronouncements on culture and tradition to politics.
TRAINED IN GHANA
Born on December 22, 1950 in Biase, Cross Rivers state, Onnoghen will be in office till December 2020, barring any circumstances beyond his control.
He attended the Presbyterian Primary School, Okurike, Biase, from 1959 to 1965 and proceeded to Ghana for his secondary education from 1967 to 1972. He did his A’Level at the Accra Academy in 1972 and studied law at the University of Ghana, Legon, from 1974 to 1977.
He returned to Lagos to attend the Nigerian Law School between 1977 and 1978, thereafter working as pupil state counsel, ministry of justice, in Ikeja, Lagos and Ogun states between 1978 and 1979.
FROM BAR TO BENCH
Between 1979 and 1988, he was a partner in the law firm of Effiom Ekong and Company, in Calabar, after which he became principal partner and head of chamber of Walter Onneghen and Associates, Calabar.
In 1989, he crossed from the bar to the bench as he was appointed a high court judge by the Cross Rivers state judiciary. He moved on in 1990 to become the chairman, Cross Rivers State Armed Robbery and Fire Arms Tribunal. He was there for three years.
Onnoghen was appointed chairman of the Failed Bank Tribunal, Ibadan zone, in 1998, from where he moved on to become a justice of the court of appeal. In 2005, he was elevated to the supreme court.
ANNULLED IGBO CULTURE
For gender rights activists, April 11, 2014 was not just another day in the history of Nigeria. That day the supreme court made a landmark pronouncement in the case of two Igbo women, Gladys Ada Ukeje and Maria Nweke, who argued that they should have equal access as men to the inheritance of their parents.
In Igbo culture, women had been disinherited for ages as a result of tradition.
The two women sued the men in their families – and finally got justice as the case moved from the lower to the highest courts in the land.
UPDATE: January 2019: Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari Suspends Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari suspended the country’s most senior judge on Friday weeks ahead of a presidential election, in what his challenger called an act of dictatorship and the bar association called an “attempted coup”.
Buhari, who was a military ruler in the 1980s and was voted into office in 2015, is seeking a fresh term in an election scheduled to take place on Feb. 16.
The chief justice could preside over a dispute over the election result. Nigeria’s judiciary has helped resolve electoral disputes in past votes, some of which have been marred by violence and vote rigging.
Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen has been asked to appear before a tribunal over allegations of breaching asset-declaration rules. He has not responded to the charges and his lawyers say the tribunal does not have the authority to try him.
Under Nigerian law, state officials must declare their assets before taking office and after they leave.
“With the directive of the CCT (Code of Conduct Tribunal) in a letter dated 23rd January, 2019, accordingly, I hereby suspend Hon Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria until the final determination of the case against him,” Buhari said.
In a later tweet, the president said security agencies had traced “suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars to the CJN’s personal accounts, all undeclared or improperly declared as required by law”. He gave no further details. CJN refers to the chief justice of Nigeria.
A media aide to Onnoghen did not respond to phone calls and text messages seeking comment.
Tanko Mohammed, a judge from the northeastern state of Bauchi, was named as the chief justice’s acting replacement.
On Thursday, an appeals court had issued an interim order to halt charges being brought against the chief justice.
Buhari’s main challenger in the presidential vote, former vice president Atiku Abubakar, candidate for the main opposition People’s Democratic Party, issued a statement titled: “The purported suspension of CJN Onnoghen is an act of dictatorship taken too far.”
“(I) call on Justice Onnoghen and the judiciary to resist with every legal and constitutional means that they can muster,” he said. “This act of desperation is geared towards affecting the outcome of the 2019 Presidential elections,” said Atiku.
The Nigerian Bar Association, in a statement, said it “unequivocally rejects and condemns this attempted coup against the Nigerian judiciary and evident suspension of the Nigerian constitution”.
“The action of the executive portends a slide into anarchy and complete deconstruction of the Rule of Law and due process,” it said in the statement.
It urged a reversal of the suspension and called on parliament to assert its “constitutional authority” to intervene.
- Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen Biography and Profile (NAN / Reuters)