For the most of the second half of 2012, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola as Osun State Governor and the National Judicial Council tussled over the position of Osun Chief Judge. Then Chief Justice of Nigeria and chairman of the Council, Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, fresh from her historic and unprecedented elevation in July of the same year, had declared her residence out-of-bounds to all politicians, which must have also included lobbyists and influence-peddlers. Then the battle began over Justice Olubunmi Oyewole, now of the Court of Appeal, then a mid-level High Court judge in Lagos Division, who Aregbesola, for reasons best known to him, preferred as Osun CJ, over and above the then most senior judge in Osun State and other judges in Osun Division who were Oyewole’s senior on the Bench.
Of course, NJC, and rightly so, stuck with the seniority arrangement and pointedly told Aregbesola he was on a mission impossible. As the back-and-forth raged, with Aregbesola also rejecting NJC’s choice, an aide to Aloma who was privy to a backdoor channel Aregbesola chose for truce, claimed the ban on politicians, which she quickly imposed once she took office, frustrated the said diplomacy.
In Yorubaland, when you want to pacify an unrelenting fellow, you go for someone he or she can’t say no to. Most times, the one with the massive influence has a thriving Emotional Bank Account (eba for short) with the one to be pacified. So, Aregbesola reportedly went to a former CJN who masterminded Aloma’s lift to the Supreme Court, thereby paving the way for her to become the first female CJN in Nigeria’s history. You ask what connected the ex-CJN and a politician? Well, socialisation can level and connect at different points, irrespective of calling. Seeking help where one thinks he can get help, as long as it isn’t criminal or devilish, should be okay, though the Oyewole project looked a bit shady then.
Well, possibly thinking Aloma owed him one, the ex-CJN allegedly led the then governor to pay Aloma a visit at her official residence, but according to her aide, she would not welcome them, despite her “benefactor” allegedly leading the party. That is how to treat politicians when you are resolved not to play their game.
I have been around the incumbent CJN, Justice Oluwakayode Ariwoola. He loves being charming. He is also a banterer. From the moment I stepped into his office to when I departed, he kept interspersing his delivery with heartfelt jokes, as he spoke of his efforts to return sanity to the system and the Supreme Court in particular, following the fiasco of the Tanko years. I smiled through his monologue. A top official of the system who was with us wasn’t also spared the fun-filled session, though the CJN’s message still came through and clear enough. I don’t know about others, but I love big men of power who make people, irrespective of status, feel very comfortable in their presence. These are leaders who exercise authority with meekness. Jesus spoke of their kind in Matthew. It is humility when you want to relate with others without first projecting the fear of your office or your status into their subconscious. Men, of course, will still honour such meek leaders. I didn’t and couldn’t have gone back-slapping the CJN because we were all merry. In fact, I left him with greater regard for him, though I can bet, some of his jokes, particularly about the system, appeared to slightly unsettle the other big man with us, who his admirers fondly call Judiciary’s Brain Box.
In Port Harcourt, the CJN simply walked into a “trap” and he would have nobody to blame for it. After coming into office, with the quality of human resources available to him, he should have long taken a position on his relationship with the ever-desperate political class, like Aloma did, before the Rivers debacle. He should have long settled whether he was going for a total ban, outside official duties, like Aloma or create his own list of the untouchables, who must also be avoided at quasi-official events like the commissioning event in Port Harcourt.
If the CJN must know, that story was deliberately allowed to slip into the public domain, for political mileage and traction. Imagine what looked like a validation from a personality like the CJN! An average politician won’t allow such “endorsement” go to waste, let alone a desperate group, playing a zero-sum game.
If the situation had been in reverse and the Judiciary big man had remonstrated with the G5 at event, the blackout could be so total, that the Judiciary número uno would be wondering if his outing in the state was ever covered by the media.
Politicians rarely bother about who will bite the dust once their purpose is served. After using the abortion campaign to mitigate their loss in the midterm election, Democrats, including so-called pastors amongst them like Raphael Warnock in the Georgia Senate runoff can’t be bothered if hundreds of young girls who have taken the pro-choice preachment as the creed of freedom die in the process of removing pregnancies for the flimsiest of excuse. But someday, we will all account for our deeds.
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Since the CJN appears wired to chat and joke to the discomfort of some top operatives of the Judiciary (especially the jokes), the 68+ year-old would have to strike a balance between innateness to be Ali Baba and the “demand” of office from the perspective of the ever-critical Nigerian public.
They say you don’t teach a man to be left-handed at his old age. Except you want a total pretender, the CJN that would emerge from the Port Harcourt debacle may not be necessarily be different from who he was before he went to honour retired Justice Mary Odili only to return with a storm in a teacup. But he would have to choose his company going forward. Thankfully, he appears to have his brother-justices on his side, since he launched the unconventional collegiate leadership in the apex court, which has seen all the 12 justices simultaneously running the system with him. Someone says the arrangement is unconstitutional, but hey.
Going forward, he would have to delegate more responsibilities to them, especially quasi-official assignments, the kind that landed him in hot water in Rivers. If a representative had made the controversial joke, even on his behalf, it would just be a matter of saying the opinion of the stand-in was entirely his and the backlash would have been minimised, with the country being saved the needless tension of the last few days. And considering that his colleagues practically powered him to power, it is doubtful if any of them would want to put him in any kind of trouble. He appears to be safe with his own, at least, for now.
A major lesson for the country from the Rivers’ saga is how fragile the fault-lines have further become. Though the aborted public protest against Ariwoola had participants from the South West, many Yoruba didn’t believe it wasn’t the handiwork of other ethnic groups, seeking to depose a Yoruba CJN for his Northerner-deputy to take over, despite the fact that the last South Westerner before the incumbent was Justice George Sodeinde Sowemimo who was in office between 1983 and 1985. That is another burden of history on the CJN.