The suspension of Chief Justice of Nigeria Walter Onnoghen has continued to generate controversies with the Senate heading for the Supreme Court to challenge the alleged usurpation of its power by the Muhammadu Buhari-led Executive.
The lawmakers came up with the position after cancelling its planned plenary earlier scheduled for today to discuss Onnoghen’s suspension.
However, the All Progressives Congress lawmakers are dissociating themselves from the move, saying the body never agreed on such a decision.
The positions are coming as the federal government yesterday justified its position to suspend the nation’s chief judicial officer without recourse to the National Judicial Council.
It said the jurist was evading the court service process to frustrate the course of justice.
Relying on an order from the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), President Muhammadu Buhari last Friday suspended the CJN and in his place announced the next in line, Justice Tanko Mohammed in acting capacity.
However, there have been torrents of condemnation against the action which some lawyers and the opposition parties described as being dictatorial.
Senate heads for S/Court
But dissatisfied with the decision which it described as the usurpation of its power, the Senate yesterday approached the Supreme Court to seek clarification on Onnoghen’s suspension.
Earlier, the Senate had planned a plenary for today to discuss the issue, but shelved the idea to avoid possible showdown between lawmakers of the ruling APC and their counterparts in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
The leadership of the red chamber chickened out of the planned move based on tension that was already building up within the camps of the APC senators who are 56 in number and their PDP counterparts who are 46.
Confirming the Senate’s move in a statement yesterday, the Special Adviser to the Senate President on Media and Publicity, Yusuph Olaniyonu said, “Earlier today (yesterday), the Senate filed a case in the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court, seeking its interpretation on whether President Muhammadu Buhari acted within the provision of the constitution in his suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Hon. Justice Walter Nkannu Onnoghen or whether the action of the president does amount to usurpation of the powers of the Senate as provided for in Section 292 of the constitution.
“Following the filing of the case, the matter of the suspension of the CJN which is the main issue for which the Senate had planned to reconvene tomorrow, has become subjudiced.
“Therefore, in line with the standing rules of the Senate not to debate issues that are already pending before the court, the reconvening of the Senate tomorrow has been put off. The previous adjournment of the Senate till February 19, 2019 stays.”
Similarly, Clerk of the Senate Nelson Ayewoh also issued a statement to that effect.
“This is to inform all Distinguished Senators of the National Assembly of the Federal Republic of Nigeria that the resumption in plenary scheduled for tomorrow, Tuesday, 29th January, 2019 has been cancelled.
“The scheduled date of resumption in plenary earlier fixed for Tuesday, 19th February, 2019, remains please,” the statement said.
Why Senate settled for S/Court
Reliable sources from both camps revealed that while the APC senators at a meeting held in a Guest House at the Asokoro District, vowed that no any form of negative resolutions would be allowed to be adopted on the action, their PDP counterparts in a similar meeting also held at a different Guest House, vowed to move for resolution condemning the action.
Due to numerical weakness, sources from the PDP camp, revealed that the two presiding officers of the Senate, Bukola Saraki and Ike Ekweremadu later came up with the idea of approaching the Supreme Court for interpretation of actions already taken against the suspended CJN by President Buhari .
The idea, the sources claimed, were later sold to the eight principal officers across the two party lines before eventually approaching the apex court.
The principal officers who allegedly keyed into the idea include; Senate Leader Ahmed Lawan (APC Yobe North), Deputy Leader Bala Ibn Na’Allah (APC Kebbi South), Chip Whip Sola Adeyeye (APC Osun Central) and Deputy Whip Francis Alimikhena (APC Edo North).
Others are Senate Minority Leader Abiodun Olujimi (PDP Ekiti South), Deputy Minority Leader Emmanuel Bwacha (PDP Taraba South), Minority Whip Philip Aduda (PDP FCT) and Deputy Minority Whip Emmanuel Paulker (PDP Bayelsa Central).
APC senators counter
But in a counter position, the APC lawmakers dissociated themselves from the planned decision to approach the apex court, insisting there was never a time such a decision was reached.
They made their position known yesterday through Senate Leader Lawan.
“It has come to the notice of the Senate APC Caucus that the Senate has approached the Supreme Court for the interpretation of the suspension of Justice Walter Onnoghen by the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.
“For the records, the Senate never met to take any such resolution, and at no time mandated anyone to approach the court on this matter on its behalf.
“Consequently, the Senate APC Caucus dissociates itself from the said request for the legal interpretation of the suspension,” Lawan said.
Onnoghen dodges court processes
Meanwhile, the federal government has justified the suspension of the CJN, saying it fully complied with all known rules.
Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed made the clarifications during a media parley in Abuja yesterday.
Specifically, he said the embattled jurist was dodging court processes in order to frustrate his case before the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
Mohammed also accused the embattled CJN of abusing his office by filing frivolous applications.
He, however, refuted the allegation that the federal government was hell-bent on muzzling the judiciary with Onnoghen’s suspension, just as he declared that the Code of Conduct Bureau is created for all public servants.
He said: “Please, remember that Justice Onnoghen has been given the opportunity of fair hearing, but he has been abusing his position and the judicial process by filing frivolous applications and even dodging service of process
“This issue has nothing to do with the executive arm trying to muzzle the judiciary. This is a clear court case and the government who believes in the rule of law, acted upon it.
“The Code of Conduct Bureau is for all the public officers, whether you are a judge, a lawyer, or an Accountant in the civil service or in the ministry. It does not have exclusion for judges.”
The minister also said the suspension of the CJN did not have anything to do with the forthcoming elections, stating that his suspension was not a threat to democracy.
“Contrary to what the opposition and their ilk have been saying, this is not about the forthcoming elections; neither does the suspension of the CJN signal the beginning of dictatorship. President Buhari is an avowed democrat, and this he has proven time and time again. This administration stands firm on the rule of law!
“Still talking of the big picture, some have suggested that the suspension of Justice Onnoghen is a threat to our democracy or even the country’s very existence. They are wrong.
“It is unfortunate that in the ensuing debate, the talk about due
process has overshadowed the talk about the substance. Procedure cannot or should not trounce substance. That brings me to the role of the National Judicial Council (NJC).
“Some have argued that the Justice Onnoghen issue should have been referred to the NJC to handle. They would have been right if Justice Onnoghen had been accused of professional misconduct, which is what is within the purview of the NJC.
“The allegations against Justice Onnoghen go beyond professional misconduct. It is the alleged breach of the Code of Conduct for public officers. And only one body is statutorily empowered to deal with this: The Code of Conduct Tribunal.
“Interestingly, Justice Onnoghen himself has elucidated on this. In various judgements, he upheld the provisions of the law concerning the CCT. In one particular judgement he delivered on July 12, 2013, Justice Onnoghen held that the CCT had EXCLUSIVE JURISDICTION (emphasis mine) to deal with all violations contravening any of the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau.”
In a related development, the CCT has adjourned indefinitely the trial of Justice Onnoghen pending the outcome of the matter at the Court of Appeal which adjourned till January 30 for its ruling.
Tribunal Chairman Danladi Umar, who announced the adjournment at yesterday’s sitting said the tribunal wishes to await the decision of the Court of Appeal, Abuja in a motion for stay of proceedings filed by the CJN and on which arguments were taken on January 24 this year.
Umar said the adjournment was in obedience of the interim order of stay of proceedings made on January 24 by the Court of Appeal.
Onnoghen had through his lawyers filed an application at the appeal court challenging the tribunal’s jurisdiction to sit over his case.
At its last sitting, the CCT said it would proceed with the case, insisting both the Federal High Curt and National Industrial Court lacked power to restrain it from performing its constitutional role.