The National Judicial Council, on Wednesday, asked Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, in the absence of President Muhammadu Buhari, to extend the tenure of Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Punch reports.
This came on the heels of a confirmation by the Presidency on Wednesday that it had forwarded Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation as the substantive CJN as provided under Section 231(1) of the Constitution.
One of our correspondents learnt that the NJC took the decision to ask for the renewal of Onnoghen’s acting status at its emergency meeting in Abuja, on Wednesday.
It was learnt that the NJC’s recommendation was to avert a vacuum in the nation’s topmost judiciary position pending when the Senate would confirm Onnoghen as the substantive CJN.
It was gathered that Onnoghen, whose first three-month tenure as acting CJN expires on Friday, was absent from the NJC’s emergency meeting where the resolution on the renewal of his acting tenure was taken.
Onnoghen, as the acting CJN, is also the acting chairman of the NJC, but The PUNCH gathered that he was excused from the Wednesday’s meeting in line with the tradition of the council barring a member from participating in the proceedings where issue concerning such member is to be tabled.
Top judiciary sources confirmed to The PUNCH that the second most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, who is statutorily the Vice-Chairman of the NJC, Justice Tanko Muhammad, presided over the Wednesday’s meeting.
Explaining the motive behind the emergency meeting, a top source said, “The NJC had since last week scheduled today’s (Wednesday’s) meeting to avoid a possible constitutional crisis.
“Nobody was sure of what the Presidency was doing. And it was certain that even if the Presidency sent Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation as far back as last week, there was no way the Senate would be able to confirm him before his acting tenure status expires on Friday.
“So, the only option left to save the situation was to fall back on Section 231(5) of the Constitution, which allows him to be re-appointed by the President in acting capacity upon a recommendation by the NJC.”
Section 231(5) cited by the source reads, “Except on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council, an appointment pursuant to the provisions of subsection (4) of this section, shall cease to have effect after the expiration of three months from the date of such appointment and the President shall not re-appoint a person whose appointment has lapsed.”
The source added that this was not the first time a similar development of extending the acting status of a head of court would be applied.
“Some years back, when the then President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami, was removed, on the recommendation of the NJC, the acting status of the then President of the court was renewed six times,” he added.
Another source confirmed to one of our correspondents that shortly after the emergency meeting on Wednesday, the council communicated its formal recommendation for the renewal of Onnoghen’s acting status to the Acting President Yemi Osinbajo.
With this, Onnoghen will be able to act as CJN pending when the Senate will reconvene to consider his confirmation.
The NJC had, since October 2016, sent Onnoghen’s name to Buhari for appointment as the substantive CJN.