Onnoghen’s travails: Which way for Nigerian’s judiciary?

Nigeria’s judiciary has in the past weeks been in the eye of the storm following the allegation of financial infractions levelled against the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, his arraignment and subsequent suspension by President Muhammadu Buhari. Since then the judiciary, known for its nobility and decency, has come under a series of attacks. TAIYE ODEWALE and TOPE SUNDAY write.

The genesis

The present debacle in the country’s judiciary could be as a result of the petition authored by the Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative (ARDI) and sent to the Code of Conduct (CCB) against the suspended CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, over false declaration of his assets.

The petition, which was filed on January 7, according to the body, was an offshoot of a painstaking investigation into the dealings of the embattled CJN.

Executive Secretary of the organisation Dennis Aghanya who made the content of the petition public said the body had acted as a whistleblower.

ARDI alleged that Justice Onnoghen made five different cash deposits of 10,000 dollars each on March 8, 2011 into Standard Chartered Bank Account 1062650.

The group also alleged that the CJN on June 7, 2011, made two separate cash deposits of 5000 dollars each, claiming that on the same day, transactions were followed by another four cash deposits of 10,000 dollars each.

Similarly, ARDI also alleged that Justice Onnoghen had, on June 27, 2011, made another set of five separate cash deposits of 10,000 dollars each and made four more cash deposits of 10,000 dollars on June 28, 2011.

The group also alleged that the Code of Conduct Bureau Forms (Form CCB1) belonging to Justice Onnoghen for 2014 and 2016 were dated and filed on the same day.

The group alleged that the acknowledgement slip for declarant SCN: 000014 was issued on Dec.14, 2016 while that for declarant SCN: 000015 was also issued on December 14, 2016.

The legal battle

Justice Onnoghen’s defence seemed not satisfactory to the federal government, which led to the filing of a motion before the Code of Conduct Bureau asking for the removal of the CJN who doubles as the Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC).

In a motion filed by Musa Ibrahim and Fatima Danjuma Ali on behalf of the Attorney-General of the Federation, the federal government “holds that it is aimed at ensuring that Onnoghen is not a judge in his case” and that “the next in line of seniority, Justice Ibrahim Muhammad, becomes the acting CJN pending the determination of the substantive suit.”

The plaintiff asked the court to compel President Muhammadu Buhari to name the next most senior judge as the acting CJN and chairman of the NJC.

The motion on notice was brought in pursuance of Section 6(6) Paragraph 11 (1) of the Fifth Schedule, Part 1 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended).

Furthermore, the federal government prayed the tribunal for an interlocutory order “directing the defendant/respondent to step aside as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and chairman of the National Judicial Council over an allegation of contravening the provision of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act CAP C15 Laws of the federation of Nigeria 2004 pending the determination of the case.”

The suspension

In a twist of the event, while the legal team of the CJN secured an order from the Court of Appeal to restrain the CCT from furthering the case, President Buhari wielded the big stick by suspending him and swore in Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed as the acting CJN.

The president, while announcing the suspension of the number judicial officer in the country on January 25, said he acted on the order of the CCT and made some allegations against Justice Onnoghen.

He said: “A short while ago, I was served with an Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal issued on Wednesday, 23rd January 2019, directing the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen, from office pending final determination of the cases against him at the Code of Conduct Tribunal and several other fora relating to his alleged breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers.

“The nation has been gripped by the tragic realities of no less a personality than the Chief Justice of Nigeria himself becoming the accused person in a corruption trial since details of the petition against him by a Civil Society Organisation first became public about a fortnight ago.

“Although the allegations in the petition are grievous enough in themselves, the security agencies have since then traced other suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars to the CJN’s personal accounts, all undeclared or improperly declared as required by law.

“Perhaps more worrisome is the Chief Justice of Nigeria’s own written admission to the charges that he indeed failed to follow the spirit and letter of the law in declaring his assets, citing ‘mistake’ and ‘forgetfulness’ which are totally unknown to our laws as defences in the circumstances of his case.

“One expected that with his moral authority so wounded, by these serious charges of corruption, more so by his own written admission, Mr. Justice Walter Onnoghen would have acted swiftly to spare our Judicial Arm further disrepute by removing himself from superintending over it while his trial lasted.

“Unfortunately, he has not done so. Instead, the nation has been treated to the sordid spectacle of a judicial game of wits in which the Chief Justice of Nigeria and his legal team have made nonsense of the efforts of the Code of Conduct Tribunal to hear the allegation on merit and conclude the trial as quickly as possible considering the nature of the times in which we live.”

The controversies

The suspension of Onneghen has generated a lot of ripples. Some people have likened his removal to part of the intrigues precipitating the 2019 general elections. Also, it has resulted in protest and counter- protests in Abuja and some major cities in the country.

The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the main opposition party, claimed that “President Buhari wants to ruin our country, saying that it will never allow him. “PDP rejected “in its entirety, the attempts” by President Buhari to allegedly “foist an illegal Chief Justice on the nation while the substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, is still in office.”

The former ruling party said: “Nigerians must reject the incendiary move by President Buhari to forcefully suspend our constitution, annex the judicial arm of government and open the nation up for full-blown totalitarianism to achieve his self-succession bid, having realised that he cannot win in the 2019 general elections.

“President Buhari’s action in attempting to unilaterally appoint a Chief Justice and foist him on our country is a direct invitation to anarchy, national confusion and a monumental crisis capable of  derailing our democracy and destroying our corporate existence as a nation.”

Also, the party’s presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, joined the fray by stating that the latest action of the president was against the law. According to him, the president said the suspension was as a result of the ongoing trial of Onnoghen by the CCT and subsequent order of the tribunal directing him to suspend the CJN pending the completion of his trial.

However, he dismissed the argument stating that no mission or goal no matter how noble or well-intended, should be used as a pretext for the subversion of democracy and democratic institutions.

Speaking on the same issue, the Forum of Presidential Candidates and Political Parties for Good Governance applauded the suspension, saying what President Buhari did was “proper and timely.”

The chairman of the Forum and presidential candidate of the Advanced Peoples Democratic Alliance (APDA), Alhaji Mohammed Shittu, said the suspension  pending the completion of Onnoghen’s trial at the CCT and the swearing in of Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, the most senior Supreme Court Justice, as the acting CJN, were within the ambit of the Law.

The president said the suspension was as a result of the ongoing trial of Onnoghen by the CCT and subsequent order of the tribunal directing him to suspend the CJN pending the completion of his trial.

Also, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, accused the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, of dodging court processes in order to frustrate his case before the Code of Conduct Tribunal.

He 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 was created for all public servants.

The minister also claimed that the suspension of the CJN did not have anything to do with the forthcoming elections, adding that his suspension is not a threat to democracy.

Which way?

The nation’s judiciary is evidently more divided now than ever as some senior lawyers have pitched tenets with both Onnoghen and the federal government. In this case, their opinions have made the interpretation of the Section 292, which talks about the suspension of the CJN more confusing.

For some of them, who are in Onneghen’s camp, the president lacks the constitutional power to remove the CJN, while some of them who support the president claim that the president acted well.

Now, the development has taken a new dimension to the extent that politics, ethnicity and religious biases have crept into it. The country seems to be divided on this issue. The crime allegedly committed by the CJN is not being addressed as his trial and subsequent suspension is the crux of the dominating discourse across the country.

However, a rights activist and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Femi Falana, while proffering solution to the debacle, asked Justice Onnoghen to quit the Bench after his suspension must have been lifted by President Buhari.

Featuring as a guest on Channels Television’s Politics recently, he argued that the executive and the judiciary arms of government have failed Nigerians with regards to the case of Onnoghen.

“The government should as a matter of urgency, lift the suspension on he Chief Justice since the Chief Justice as so much to on his own admitted that he did not declare his assets, he should do the needful by calling it quits,” he said.

Falana said after the suspension has been lifted, the Chief Justice should quit the bench because he has already admitted that he failed in his duty to declare his asset as required by the constitution.

While Falana appears to have spoken the minds of some lawyers and Nigerians, who are not happy with the turn of the event, the problem created by the conduct of Justice and his suspension by the president is not fizzled out.

 A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Robert Clarke, while also appearing on the same programme a fortnight ago, said the judiciary “is battling with the credibility crisis.”

 “There is no way the federal government can make you and I know that a judge has so many accounts, has so much money in those accounts and has been operating those accounts.

“So, the only way they can bring this out to us is to follow this route that they have followed. They know they are not going to get success, but they still want to inform you and I and the public that this is the rot in the Supreme Court that you and I must know,” he said.

The Court of Appeal has since dismissed the motion filed by Justice Onnoghen seeking stay of proceedings of his trial at the CCT, and the case resumed at the Tribunal on February 4, there are fundamental issues that are still hanging.

Senate makes U-turn, withdrawals suit

Exactly, a week after approaching the Supreme Court for interpretation of relevant provisions of the 1999 Constitution on the suspension of Onnoghen by the Senate on Monday, February 4, 2019, made U-turn by withdrawing the suit.

Senate’s withdrawal of the suit came at a time its APC caucus totalling 56 in membership, sought to be joined in the suit. The withdrawal of the suit according to the statement issued by the

Special Adviser to the Senate President on Media and Publicity, Yusuph Olaniyonu, followed the intervention of the National Judicial Council (NJC) on the issue.

The Senate in the statement said it had decided to give the NJC intervention a chance.

The statement read in part: “The Senate has, therefore, decided to discontinue the case it filed in the Supreme Court. This decision also affirms the confidence of the Senate in the ability of the NJC to successfully and creditably resolve the issues.”

The Supreme Court decision by the Senate leadership had penultimate pitched the APC and the PDP caucuses in the senate against each other.

While the APC caucus led by the Senate leader, Ahmed Lawan (Yobe North), disassociated itself from the move, the PDP caucus led by the Minority leader, Biodun Olujimi (Ekiti South), accused the APC caucus of being mischievous, saying the decision was consented to by the majority of the Senate’s principal officers.

Consequently, before the withdrawal of the suit by the Senate leadership, the APC caucus sought to be joined in it as a way of showing the court that there was no resolution to that effect by the Senate.

The Caucus in a statement signed by the Senate leader, Ahmed Lawan, told the court that the suit “does not represent the interest of the Senate since 56 out of the 109 members are not part of it.”

The statement read in part: “The Senate caucus of the APC consisting of 56 senators, being the majority party in the Senate, has today (yesterday), Monday, February 4th, 2019, applied to the Supreme Court to join issues in the suit purportedly filed by the Senate against the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as interested parties.

“The APC senators rely on the Supreme Court (Additional Original Jurisdiction) Act of 2002, which provides that the resolution of the respective chambers of National Assembly is a prerequisite of filling such suit. The Caucus is, therefore, challenging the said suit and objects to the inclusion of its members.”

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