Onnoghen: Nigeria’s Flawed Democracy - Oke Umurhohwo

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Democracy is a unique form of government and one of its enticing features is the separation of power. This is the principle that spread the power of the state between the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary– a system that effectively promotes checks and balances.

But this feature is serially lacking in Nigeria, although the country is widely viewed as a democratic nation. While Nigeria, just like most democratic nations, has its government structured along with the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary, it practically operates with an executive domineering on the two other arms of government.

A typical indication is a recent revelation by a former chief justice of the country, Walter Onnoghen, on how the executive masterminded his removal from office. Onnoghen was pushed out from the country’s judicial top position in 2019, and for the first time since that controversy, the retired jurist shared inside details on how his ouster was perfected by the Muhammadu Buhari-led government.

“Before my suspension, I was confronted with no allegation,” Onnoghen recalled during a book launch in Abuja on Friday, before he went on to reveal that “there were rumours that I met with Atiku in Dubai. But as I am talking here today, I have never met Atiku one on one in my life.” This is unbelievable and exposed the deep flaws in Nigeria’s democracy.

The Chief justice of Nigeria is the head of the country’s judicial system, and his or her stay and exit in his office shouldn’t be at the whim and caprices of a president. Unfortunately, that was not what Onnoghen’s experience is telling us, and once again, spotlights the undue advantage that the executive exercise over the two other arms of government in Nigeria.

This is an anomaly that is gradually becoming a norm, and consistently, sends an awry message about the country’s democracy. To be sure, the chief justice, as Onnoghen was then, was not immune to scrutiny just like every other public officer, but the kind of manipulation that saw his exit was shambolic.

Pause and cast your mind back to the lines of events that culminated in Onnoghen’s ouster. Out of nowhere, a faceless organisation questioned the integrity of Onnoghen’s asset declaration document, and in a flash of light, the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) filed out an interim order for his suspension. And capping it all was the speed which Buhari, who is widely known for dragging foot in the application of orders, bounced on the order to ease Onnoghen out of office.

The truth, which was not too hard to decipher, was that Onnoghen was caught up in the absolute misapplication of power. Going by his recent revelation, his removal from office was simply political and revolved around the 2019 general election, which the incumbent feared could bring an unpleasant outcome through an independent-minded judicial review.

That suggests an overreach from the executive, who though consistently professes democracy, continue to act in a way that undermines it. Onnoghen’s episode is a typical example of this awkward behaviour and just like many other similar scenarios, brought to the fore the ills of Nigeria’s democracy.

Over two decades ago, Nigerians settled for democracy because of the highly tempting checks and balances feature that the system of government promises. But here we are and things are looking awkward, reminiscent of the terrible experience of the military regime, where the legislature is non-existent and the judiciary is largely influenced by military leadership.

Take a look around and you’ll not miss this salient truth, which has significantly distort our democracy. If you’re still at a loss, take an objective review of the legislature and you’ll be alarmed at how it is nearly reduced to an appendage of the executive. The same pattern is not lacking in the judiciary, though, it could still pretend all is well.

But how long can this defect continue? Hard to predict, but what is certain is that this is not the democracy we opted for.

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