The Onnoghen dilemma – In Touch, The Nation newspaper

It will intrigue not only lawyers, not least men of the bench, as well as psychologists what secrets lurk in the heart of Justice Walter Onnoghen. Is it that he genuinely feels righteous or he is acting one? Is it that he thinks the law sheds its lofty smile on his side or he has to play the role of jurist in pursuit of his own veneration?

Or is he like the canine in the cage but has to bark and whine and growl so as to gain a berth of freedom? The big paradox is that the number one law man has had to bow out and resign. Wh did he not do this earlier? Was it that his colleagues of the NJC played Judas, and his last pillar had crumbled? We have not seen the full letter of the NJC to the president, But it hints that Onnoghen has lost the moral authority to serve as chief justice. Did he need the letter to know that.

For, no doubt, he is between two worlds. One says he is a man of honour under the siege of an oligarchy of guileless confederates contracted to dethrone and rid him of a breadth of public grace. The other sees him as a pharisaic sophisticate who has wronged his high office and country. This group thinks he enjoys the backing of a legion of apostate lawyers and rogue politicians weeping vicariously and vigorously through him after their subversive crimes were unplugged on a stealthy night.

But what is more intriguing to this essayist is not so much that the Code of Conduct Tribunal is tracking his fidelity on his assets declaration, or that the EFCC is on his financial trail. It is that the Onnoghen phenomenon represents the twain of the Nigerian political life. With the CCT, we see legal gunfights. In the EFCC, morality is blazing.

Just like last week I tried to show how two consciences are at the heart of a bleeding nation, the Onnoghen case challenges us whether it is law we want or justice. If we want law, we may not have justice. If we want justice, the law genuflects to moral virtue.

The CCT case, this writer has held, is necessary because of the EFCC. The real matter for conscience is whether the man Onnoghen has had a dialogue between himself and conscience. But if it is Onnoghen the lawyer that matters more than the Onnoghen the free moral agent, then the resigned chief justice has not shown himself, like many like him, worthy to be on the judicial chair.

The root of every law is a moral virtue. Society codified the laws to engineer a moral society. As French writer and economist Frederic Bastiat has noted, “when law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing is moral sense or losing his respect for the law.”

There is a sense that in the Onnoghen matter as in quite a few in the past few years, Nigeria is at the crossroads of whether we want to do what is right or we want to obey a skewed version of law. Law and morality should not necessarily clash, but they do when the society has not raised its sense of virtue. The manipulation of legal nuances becomes the crotch of those societies.

If virtue came before the law, then it goes without rancour that morality should come first. It is instructive that the NJC recognised this and has asked the man to go because of the moral question. Many lawyers can be blind like a bat in sunlight. They see the law and nothing else. When a man says he did not remember a princely sum of money so he does not declare it, it only takes a bull of technicality to believe him.

Gani Fawehinmi of blessed memory once said to me that if there is a case between a rich man and a poor man, “I will find the law for the poor man.” The law is thus flexible and the legal mind luminously facile. The lawyer’s mind is like how John Milton described Satan in Paradise Lost. “The mind is its own place/it can make hell of heaven and heaven of hell.”

While lawyers quibble over whether Onnoghen was right by showing details of whether he submitted or filled a form, what is substantial is lost in the delirium. The CCT is there because primarily the EFCC makes a case.

The United States founding father has said that the country is a nation of laws and not of men. But before the society soared to legal integrity, it had established its moral codes. The British legal system is so kinetic and fluid that in Nigeria, it will bring us to anarchy. Laws are important, but only to enforce virtue.

When law thrives for law’s sake, we have not justice, but the triumph of state over conscience. Onnoghen has now been forced by the moral question to do the right thing: resign. He would have done good for himself and his sense of moral purity if he did it early in this controversy. But he was egged on by his obdurate colleagues.

He would have gained time. “You can’t kill time without injuring eternity,” said Henry David Thoreau. Onnoghen knows now if he didn’t know before that he was killing time. He has injured many things, especially his image and that of his exalted office.

Not that technicality of law is not good. We should use it for justice, not like the late Justice Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court who saw law as textual matter – cold, dead words. People like him see the law as though without a soul. Hence the scriptures lead in this matter by saying the law is not a school master, so we judge the spirit and not its letter.

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