The federal government appears in a fix over the appropriate option to explore in finally booting out the embattled former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Walter Samuel Onnoghen from the bench to send right signals to those holding position of trust in the country,Blueprint authoritatively learnt at the weekend.
Justice Onnoghen was expected to retire from the apex bench and quit office as the CJN December 22, 2020 after he would have clocked the mandatory retirement age of 70 years.
But much ahead of his due time, Justice Onnoghen had, on his own, sent a letter to President Muhammad Buhari seeking his approval to quit the exalted office.
But President Buhari has been silent on the jurist’s request, a development that is causing some concerns and apprehension, particularly in Onnoghen’s camp.
Impeccable sources close to the Presidency told Blueprint that approving such letter from Justice Onnoghen would make the CJN leave office without sending the right signals to the appropriate quarters that engaging in misconduct of any sort is not good for public officers, especially those holding positions of trust.
Justice Onnoghen’s sack by the Code of Conduct Tribunal Thursday was another option available to President Buhari to ease out the embattled jurist.
The CCT convicted the suspended Onnoghen of all the six- count charge of failure to declare his assets in line with the provisions of the law for public officers and removed him as CJN and chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC).
The tribunal also barred the suspended CJN from holding any public office for the next ten years in line with section 23 of the CCT Act, just as it held that since the CJN could not adduce any evidence as to how he got the monies in his undeclared accounts in the Standard Chartered Bank, the monies—N26.8million, $137, 700 and E13, 730, should be confiscated and forfeited to the federal government.
Thinking in the presidency
But Blueprint gathered from sources close to the Presidency that President Buhari, though satisfied with the decision of the tribunal convicting Onnoghen and barring him from holding public office for ten years, “the presidency it is still of the opinion that it is not an order that could be implemented independently.
“I am reliably telling you that the presidency is satisfied with the punishment dished out to the Chief Justice, particularly hanging on his neck the tag of conviction.
“But President Buhari was however advised that he should be careful using the judgment of the tribunal in removing the Chief Justice for two reasons: One is that the Chief Justice has given a notice that he is challenging the decision. So, taking decision based on such judgment is already subjudice.
“Two is that while the tribunal might have lawfully made an order removing the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) from office based on the prayer before it or the consequential order the tribunal felt should be made in the circumstance of the case, the order cannot be lawfully executed except he goes through either the National Assembly or the National Judicial Council (NJC).
“This is because the only lawful means through which Mr President can constitutionally ease out an errant judicial officer or head of court like the Chief Justice Onnoghen, is going through the procedure as stipulated under section 292 of the 1999 Constitution,” the source further said.
The said section 292 of the 1999 Constitution provides: “A Judicial Officer shall not be removed from his office or appointment before his age of retirement except in the following circumstances (a) in the case of —(i) Chief Justice of Nigeria, President of the Court of Appeal, Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Chief Judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Grand Khadi of the Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja and President Customary Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja by the President acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate
(ii) Chief Judge of a state, Grand Khadi of a Sharia Court of Appeal or President of a Customary Court of Appeal of a state by the governor acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the House of Assembly of the state
“…praying that he be so removed for his inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment (whether arising from infirmity of mind or of body) or for misconduct or contravention of the Code of Conduct. “(b) in any case, other than those to which paragraph (a) of this subsection applies by the President or as the case may be, the Governor acting on the recommendation of the NJC that the Judicial Officer be so removed for his inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment (whether arising from infirmity of mind or of body) or for misconduct or contravention of the Code of Conduct.”
“By implication, the order of the tribunal cannot be independently implemented by the president without the imprimatur of either the National Assembly or the National Judicial Council,” our reporter further gathered.
Blueprint further learnt President Buhari is not willing to explore the option of removing the CJN with the judgment of the tribunal by going through the National Assembly for fear that it could boomerang.
“The other available option of going through the National Judicial Council is being weighed but no concrete decision has been taken on it,” the source added.
NJC’s earlier option
However, before the CCT’s judgment, the NJC, based on its findings in connection with the Onnoghen’s case, had sent a letter to the president in line with section 292 of the 1999 Constitution recommending that CJN be sent on retirement in the“interest of the nation and the judiciary.”
The Council had forwarded the recommendation to President Buhari after subjecting the CJN to a “full trial” over allegations of misconduct levelled against him by a non-governmental organisation and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) without indicating whether Justice Onnoghen was guilty as accused or not.
The president, our source confided, is wary of acting on the NJC letter for fear that it could boomerang.
“The letter by NJC recommending Chief Justice Onnoghen’s removal from office is nebulous, strange and unconstitutional.
“You know lawyers are very cunning. If President Buhari acts on that letter, some of those in the NJC will be the one to advise Chief Justice Onnoghen to sue and upturn the decision of President Buhari, especially if the language of the President’s approval is harshly punitive.
“Don’t forget that this government wants to send the right signal to all those in the public service that it is not a place you go to fight for personal interest but to serve the public.
“The president may want to approve that recommendation by saying that he shall disengage without benefits.
“What the NJC sent to President Buhari is dangerous. The council predicated its recommendation for Onnoghen’s retirement on “interest of the nation and the judiciary” which is unknown to law particularly section 292 of the 1999 Constitution.
“The president is expected by the constitution to act on the recommendation of the NJC that the affected judicial officer like Chief Justice Onnoghen be “removed for his inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment (whether arising from infirmity of mind or of body) or for misconduct or contravention of the Code of Conduct.”
“But in this case, NJC rewrote the constitution by seeking President Buhari’s approval for Justice Onnoghen’s retirement from the apex bench “in the interest of the nation and the judiciary”
“That ground is unknown to the constitution, strange, and constitutes a dangerous path to tread, which is why the president has renewed the appointment of Justice Tanko as CJN in acting capacity instead of confirming him, notwithstanding that the NJC had so recommended.
“The presidency is therefore considering the option of returning the NJC’s recommendation with a copy of the Code of Conduct Tribunal judgment to enable it review its position on why Chief Justice Onnoghen must be kicked out.”
It was however reliably learnt that in the event the NJC tarries or reluctant in amending its position and the suspended CJN is allowed home with his full benefits, he would have to spend the next years of his retirement going in and out of court for trial over corruption charges.