In 2009, when the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua travelled abroad for medical treatment, he refused to hand over power to former President Goodluck Jonathan, his deputy. As expected, this created a huge crisis, but what was to follow was nothing compared to the agitation for Jonathan to take over power.
The Save Nigeria Group (SNG) under the leadership of Tunde Bakare, fiery preacher, was in the forefront of the campaign for Jonathan to take charge.
The group, which was able to garner support from influential personalities in public space, staged rallies and a series of protests; the kitchen cabinet too will not not cave in easily: their message was simple, Yar’Adua could govern the country from anywhere.
“The powers of the president are not exercised territorially. Yar’Adua can exercise his powers anywhere in the world, on the plane, at the meeting of the United Nations or even on his sick bed, as long as he is not incapacitated by the sickness,” Michael Aondoakaa attorney-general had said at a press conference.
While Aondoakaa was theorising, the tenure of Idirs Kutigi as chief justice of Nigeria (CJN) was nearing its end, and Aloysius Katsina-Alu was ready to mount the saddle, but the only problem was that the man who had the constitutional authority to administer oath of office on Katsina-Alu was bedridden in faraway Saudi Arabia.
He was battling pericarditis, or so they made us believe, and a constitutional crisis was brewing.
“As the Vice-President, based on our laws, I do not have any powers to swear in the chief justice of Nigeria,” Jonathan had told those who wanted him to tinker with the idea.
The man, who eventually succeeded Yar’Adua did not stop there: “Ceremonial responsibilities and ceremonial functions are sometimes more serious than the real work we do. I do not have the powers to swear in the chief justice of the federation… The tradition has been there for 51 years. It is Mr President who swears in the chief justice.”
Jonathan was not just saying these things for the fun of it. He was not just talking, he had a confession, and of course this was after the issue had been resolved.
“I was worried that if we get to that Thursday and the chief justice of Nigeria is not sworn in, that means one arm of government has no leader and that would have been an invitation to chaos,” he had revealed.
“In fact, I even had to approach the former chief justice, that, ‘look, I have the powers to extend your period of stay in the office. Since I cannot swear in a new chief justice, can I extend your stay in office so that there will be no vacuum?’
“But he said it was not possible because the constitution says at the age of 70, he must go. But he promised he was going to re-examine the laws. I got back to my office; I was terribly worried within that period.”
Then came the solution: “Few days to the time, expiration of the tenure of the former CJN, the attorney-general came and showed me the act that says either the president or the chief justice of the federation can swear in the new chief justice of the federation. That law was there but nobody saw it.”
On December 30, 2009, Kutigi administered the oath on his successor, and trust Nigerians, this created conundrum among lawyers.
Rotimi Akeredolu, incumbent governor of Ondo state, who was then the president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), had accused Kutigi of foisting two CJNs on the nation.
Akeredolu said he was worried that the task which had been traditionally reserved for presidents was usurped by the retiring CJN.
“In my personal view, the swearing-in of the CJN is pure illegality. It is illegal because the country cannot have two CJNs at the same time. I was told that the outgoing CJN said in his speech that he is still the CJN till tomorrow (Thursday December 31); you can see the absurdity. It is unfortunate that the legal profession is letting itself into this illegality,” he had told reporters.
Well, Acting President Yemi Osinbajo has just sworn in Walter Onnoghen as the substantive chief justice.
One must commend President Muhammadu Buhari for empowering his deputy to act. Otherwise, history would have repeated itself, and George Santayana, the Roman philosopher, who said: “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it”, would have perhaps been laughing in derision.