Cheta Nwanze: Between the bar and the bench

This story on Twitter has a lot of truths in it, and bears a tale to support. So I want to add to it, just to point out how strategic the North has been in terms of positioning its children to become Chief Justice of Nigeria…

If you look at a list of CJNs from 1987, you’d find the following: Mohammed Bello served eight years. Muhammad Uwais, his successor, served 11 years. Since Uwais was replaced by Belgore, no one has served more than two years, but the key to this strategy is in their age on appointment to the Supreme Court: Bello got in at the age of 45 in 1975. Uwais got in at 45. Belgore got in at 49, Kutigi got in at 53…

Most Southern justices would have hit 60 before getting on the Supreme Court, which means that for the most part, they never get a chance to be the Chief Justice, and this almost played out in the story I want to tell.

Back in 2002, the illustrious Justice Adolphus Karibi-Whyte reached the retirement age of 70. In Nigeria, we tend to appoint to the Supreme Court not by political leaning unlike America, but by tribe or region. Karibi-Whyte was from the South, so his replacement had to be from the South.

The CJN at the time, Muhammad Uwais, nominated two judges, Niki Tobi, and Francis Tabai, and sent their names to President Obasanjo to consider. This was where fate, and some strategy, stepped in.

The Attorney-General of Cross River called Donald Duke, the state governor at the time, and pointed out that their state had never produced a CJN, and that if they were able to get a young judge from Cross River into the Supreme Court, with time he would likely become CJN. Duke accepted the argument, and called President Obasanjo.

So, Tobi was 62 at the time, Tabai was 60, and Walter Onnoghen, the person that Duke recommended, was a 52-year old judge at the Court of Appeal. Thing was Chief Justice Uwais was an institution on his own, so his nominations could not just be upturned. But age was not on his side, and it was clear that another Justice from the South, Dennis Edozie, had three years left. So a deal was struck. Obasanjo nominated Justice Tobi to the Supreme Court, and he served eight years, and never became CJN. But crucially, because of Duke’s intervention, Onnoghen’s name had been noted, and so when Justice Edozie retired in 2005, Obasanjo nominated the then 55-year old Onnoghen to the Supreme Court to take his place.

The rest, is history. By the time Mahmud Mohammed was retiring in 2016, Onnoghen was the most senior justice on the Supreme Court, and became CJN despite a concerted attempt to thwart his elevation. What happened to him after is beyond the scope of this.

The scope of this is to support what Orji has said in terms of strategy. Had Duke not intervened in 2002, Francis Tabai would have replaced Dennis Edozie in 2005, and Onnoghen may never have become CJN.

To my limited legal knowledge, the administration of justice is made up of two arms, the bar and the bench. I have a few friends who are lawyers, and one thing that tends to happen is that when they finish law school, the Southerners tend to crowd the bar and go on to become SANs and rich. The Northerners tend to go to the bench, and end up as very powerful magistrates. So, who should the outcome surprise really?

Cheta Nwanze is a lead Partner at SBM Intelligence, a public affairs analyst, writes from Lagos State Nigeria


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