The most senior justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen may not succeed the outgoing Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mohammed Mahmud.
Taraba State-born Mahmud will clock the mandatory retirement age of 70 on November 10, 2016.
Cross River State-born Onnoghen, by tradition, should automatically succeed him in the preservation of the age-long succession-by-seniority arrangement.
He will be 70 on December 20, 2020.
Saturday Tribune is, however, privy to moves to stop the natural flow of succession, with two major political forces coordinating from two ends, targeted at achieving the same aim.
Onnoghen will be the first Southern Chief Justice of Nigeria in 28 years, if he makes it.
Justice Augustine Nnamani, who was the most senior justice of the apex court after former CJN Justice Mohammed Bello, could not make it. He died.
The incumbent is the seventh Northern CJN since Southern Nigeria lost its turn to Nnamani’s controversial death.
Government forces involved in the anti-Onnoghen project are said to have resolved on stopping him at all costs for fear that his tenure might be more devastating for the interest of certain political camps.
The forces, which are coalesced around a very senior administrative office currently occupied by a politician, a political office expected to be occupied by a professional and a political office, occupied by a politician, were said to have been shocked out of their wits, with the outcome of certain governorship appeals at the apex court, under the leadership of a Northerner who they thought would be sympathetic.
Moving against a Southerner successor, according to insider sources, was being “sensibly” proactive, to forestall a probable huge embarrassment for certain operators of the polity.
A particular innocuous running case in a federal high court, which is gradually assuming a life of its own and could be devastating if prayers therein are answered in the affirmative, is said to be the most singular reason why everything is being thrown into the project to stop a Southern CJN at all costs.
Onnoghen is from the same South-South as the defeated President Goodluck Jonathan.
By the time the said suit would be running its full course at the apex court, Mahmud, who is also not trusted by the anti-Onnoghen’s forces, would have stepped down as the CJN.
Three different issues are also being amassed as a legal weapon to end Onnoghen’s aspiration, Saturday Tribune was told by top judicial officers who vowed that the move would be an exercise in futility.
Reports of the Kayode Eso and Bola Babalakin panels are also said to be receiving the study attention of the forces.
As days roll by, the push for an outsider CJN would be more intense as hirelings are said to have been debriefed to make the suggestion the main issue in Mahmud’s successor’s saga.
Before now, there had been suggestions that a senior lawyer should be appointed straight unto the apex bench and made the CJN to shake things up within the system and shed its cloak of conservatism.
A couple of names had been flown in public space but it was gathered that the push would be more coordinated and robust in days ahead, with some voices being recruited to throw their weights behind the project.
A senior judicial source on Friday said that coming through such an end would be an exercise in futility because by the time the said lawyer, regardless of who he is, comes face to face with other nominated justices of the court, he would always fall short of the requirements.
“They are all jokers. Was it not the same thing that happened when senior lawyers were nominated by NBA (Nigerian Bar Association) as justices of the Supreme Court. By the time both the SANs (names withheld) and the nominated justices of the Court of Appeal appeared before the FJSC and NJC, while justices were producing 30, 35 judgements, lawyers were producing 5. All the lawyers were beaten on points.
“Maybe that is why they are holding on to the names sent to them for appointment to the court (Supreme Court). They refused to send the names of justices who trounced their lawyers to the senate for confirmation. Let them bring their nominee again, he would be roundly defeated except they are saying there would be no screening. That is when we would know that they really mean business.”
The third and possibly most potent weapon being packaged against Onnoghen is the appointing authority being persuaded to sideline him, because one of those likely to be nominated alongside him got to the Court of Appeal before him, just like it happened between Dahiru Musdapher and Mariam Aloma-Mukhtar.
Though Mukhtar got to the Court of Appeal ahead of Musdapher, the latter got to the apex court before her and became CJN before her.
Though the said targeted Northern justice of the apex court got to the Court of Appeal ahead of Onnoghen, the latter, however, got to the Supreme Court before him and he is senior to him in hierarchy.
As is the practice, the Federal Judicial Service Commission is expected to send Onnoghen’s name, alongside two others to the National Judicial Council,
for recommendation to the president as the appointing authority.
The CJN heads both bodies with Onnoghen being a statutory member of the NJC.
The president is at liberty to reject names sent to him or bypass the recommendation of the council.
There has been no precedent of any president so doing, though under Mukhtar, many state governors like Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers, Murtala Nyako of Adamawa, among others, rejected NJC’s nominations for Chief Judges of their states.