The National Judicial Council yesterday began the probe of two most senior judicial officers in the country—Justice Samuel Walter Kanu-Onnoghen and Justice Tanko Mohammed over sundry allegations of misconduct levelled against them.
Justice Onnoghen is the Chief Justice of Nigeria but presently sent on suspension by President Muhammadu Buhari on the order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal sitting in Abuja, while Justice Mohammed, the next most senior justice of the Supreme Court was sworn-in an acting capacity as CJN by President Buhari.
Onnoghen’s suspension has generated heated controversies among legal experts and opinion leaders, with each arguing for and against the president’s action.
Indeed, a Lagos lawyer, Dr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, had written a petition to the NJC demanding that Justice Mohammed be sanctioned for yielding himself to the executive to destroy the judiciary.
Both Onnoghen and Tanko are presently facing probe committees of the NJC.
By virtue of Section 153 of the 1999 Constitution, the meeting of NJC is chaired by the substantive CJN or the most senior JSC in the event the substantive CJN is not available.
The council is empowered to hire and sanction erring judicial officers in Nigeria.
But coincidentally, both CJN Onnoghen and acting CJN Mohammed were absent at yesterday’s meeting.
This is because both Justices Onnoghen and Mohammed are having questions to answer.
Following their absence, it was gathered that there was a mild drama on who should preside over the meeting.
It was reliably learnt that the next most senior JSC, Olabode Rhodes-Vivour was invited by the Secretary of the National Judicial Council (NJC), Mr. Saleh Gambo to attend the meeting and possibly preside.
Although Justice Rhodes-Vivour, it was learnt, made himself available at the venue of the NJC meeting, but he was reportedly asked to leave politely, since he is not a member of the council.
At this point, the NJC members present eventually voted a former Court of Appeal President, Justice Umar Abdullahi to preside at the meeting.
Following thereof, the Abdullah-led NJC consequently examined the emergency petitions pending against the two most senior justices of the Supreme Court and another against the Chairman, Code of Conduct Tribunal, Mr. Danladi Umar.
It referred the one against the tribunal chairman to the Federal Judicial Service Commission for consideration.
The council however saw substance in the allegations against the duo of CJN Onnoghen and acting CJN Mohammed and directed that the petitions be sent to them for their reactions.
In a communiqué at the end of its emergency meeting, the NJC said it received two petitions against Mohammed and one against Onnoghen.
The petition, according to NJC, are the one against Hon. Mr. Justice W.S.N. Onnoghen, GCON by Zikhrillahi Ibrahim of Resource Centre for Human Rights & Civil Education; a petition against Hon. Mr. Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, CFR by Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative and another petition against Hon. Mr. Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, CFR, by Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, OON.
The petition against Hon. Danladi Yakubu Umar, chairman, Code of Conduct Tribunal was filed by Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative.
The NJC will reconvene in February to set up separate probe committees for the two most senior judicial officers to explain themselves.
The commencement of probe of the Chief Justice Onnoghen and acting CJN Mohammed by the NJC makes it the third time when heads of the council will be probed.
The first head of the NJC to face its probe panel was former CJN Mohammed Uwais during the trial of former Governor of Delta state, Mr. James Ibori.
In this case, however, Justice Uwais voluntarily submitted himself to the NJC panel to clear himself of dirty allegations of corruption levelled against him by some lawyers.
The jurist was, at the end of the probe, given a clean bill of health while the authors of the petition were referred to the NBA Disciplinary Panel which tried them and disbarred them.
The second serving CJN who also faced the NJC panel was late Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu when he had a disagreement with the then Court of Appeal President, Justice Ayo Salami over the handling of gubernatorial election petitions.
The NJC set up three separate panels at different times on the matter with the panels giving contradictory verdicts.
The third time is the instant case when the substantive CJN on suspension and the acting CJN would be facing NJC panel.
Onnoghen drags FG to Appellate Court
Meanwhile, the suspended CJN has filed an appeal before the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal, seeking to nullify the exparte order issued by the CCT directing him to step down.
In the appeal, Justice Onnoghen is urging the court to move in his favour because the tribunal abridged his right to fair hearing in the matter.
The appeal was filed yesterday by his team of lawyers; including Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, Kanu Agabi, SAN and James Onoja.
The appeal was anchored on four grounds, one of which reads: “The chairman and a member of the Code of Conduct Tribunal erred in law and violated the right of the appellant (Onnoghen) to a fair hearing when they made the order ex parte that he (Onnoghen) shall step aside as CJN and chairman of the National Judicial Council over allegations of contravening provisions of the Code of Conduct and Tribunal Act Cap C15 Laws of the Federation 2004 pending the determination of the motion on notice dated January 10, 2019.”
He asked the court to rule that the order was null and void.