By Chibisi Ohakah & Okechukwu Onuegbu
A controversial move by the presidency to oust Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) barely four weeks to the 2019 general election over his alleged failure to declare his assets have drawn widespread condemnation and debates across the country.
Onnoghen, who is expected to be docked before a Justice Danladi Umar’s led code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) in Abuja today, is also accused of operating foreign bank accounts contrary to relevant laws regulating conduct of public office holders.
The federal government in a signed application dated January 11, 2019 and signed by two lawyers, Musa Ibrahim Usman and Fatima Danjuma Ali, also prepared a motion to compel the CJN to vacate his office to concentrate on clearing himself of the criminal allegations against.
Onnoghen is the first Southerner to attain the position of CJN after over 30 years, and if the application succeeds, he will hand over power to the highest ranking jurist on the apex court bench, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammed.
The speedy prosecution of the CJN is based on a petition filed by a civil society group, identified as anti-corruption and research based data initiative. The petition signed by the group’s executive secretary, Denis Aghanya and dated January 7, 2019, accused the CJN of operating several accounts through which has been making transfers of local and foreign currencies in a manner that is ‘’inconsistent with financial accuracy’’.
Justice Onnoghen, however, replied the CCB that his “asset declaration form numbers SCN 00014 and SCN 00005 were declared on the same day, 14/12/2016 because I forgot to make a declaration of my assets after the expiration of my 2005 declaration in 2009. Following my appointment as acting CJN in November, 2016, the need to declare my assets anew made me to realize the mistake.
“I then did the declaration to cover the period in default. I did not include my standard charted bank account in SCN 000014 because I believed they were not opened. I did not make a fresh declaration of asset after my substantive appointment as CJN because I was under the impression that my SCN 000015 was to cover that period of four years which includes my term as CJN….,” he explained.
However, many Nigerians, including senior lawyers, politicians and human right groups, have raised alarm over the grave implications of such an action. The reactions are coming on the heels of the news that over 150 seniors lawyers are mobilising themselves to defend the Chief Justice on Monday, before the Justice Danladi Yakubu led-Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in a statement signed by the NBA president, Paul Usoro (SAN), condemned what it called the ‘targeted assault of the judiciary by agents of the federal government.’ “The Nigerian Bar Association unequivocally condemns this assault, intimidation and desecration of the Judiciary by FGN agencies and demands that it be stopped immediately,” the statement said.
NBA quoted Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391(CA), where the Court of Appeal made it very clear that any misconduct attached to the office and functions of a judicial officer must first be reported to and handled by the National Judicial Council pursuant to the provisions of the law. “Only after the NJC has pronounced against such judicial officer can the prosecuting agencies of the federal government proceed against him,” the NBA said.
NBA described the onslaught against Onnoghen as one of “those orchestrated media trials that degrade and corrupt the justice administration system,” quite apart from the incalculable (but obviously intended) damage that it does to persons who may ultimately be discharged and acquitted. “It is corrupt practice to use as license or hide under the cover of the fight against corruption to recklessly destroy the names, characters and reputations of persons who have not been found guilty of corrupt practices by competent courts and who may ultimately be pronounced innocent of such charges,” NBA said
The group argued that is also difficult for a disinterested observer not to see a pattern of consistent assault by agencies of the federal government on the heads of the two independent arms of government, to wit, the legislature and the judiciary, starting with the prosecution of the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, before the CCT and now, the ill-fated prosecution of the CJN before the same CCT.
“The impression must not be created that the agencies of the Executive arm of the federal government are interested in destabilizing and laying prostrate the other arms of the government and in the process eliminating and destroying any and all voices of dissent and checks and balances,” NBA said
Former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Olisa Agbakoba [SAN], also condemned the move to sack CJN as “outrageous.” He described the CJN arraignment before the CCT as unconstitutional, regardless of whether he was guilty or not. Agbakoba stated that it was outrageous to suggest that a CJN could be arraigned at all on any grounds.
“The courts have stated very clearly that the NJC is charged with the sole responsibility for disciplinary action against judges in addition to powers conferred on the Senate. It is therefore unconstitutional to charge the CJN before a CCT, whether guilty or not.”
In his own reaction, renowned human rights activist Femi Falana [SAN], called for the withdrawal of the charges against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen. He said the charges ought not to have been instituted at the Code of Conduct of Tribunal. “As all authorities are bound by the Court of Appeal verdict the case should be withdrawn by the Attorney-General of the Federation without any delay because it is likely to be a prosecutorial misadventure,” he said
Reacting on the move to dock Onnoghen, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mike Ozekhome said the allegations were politically motivated since the CJN is vested with the authority to constitute the 2019 presidential election petition tribunal.
According to Ozekhome, “The CJN can be removed from office either if he has been convicted or if under section 291 of the constitution, the Senate affirms a request by the President to remove him by two-third majority vote.”
“This doctrine has been encapsulated in section 36 of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, that the person’s innocence is presumed until he has been proven guilty. Assuming for example that Senator Bukola Saraki had been forced to resign his office when charges were brought against him before the same Code of Conduct Tribunal almost three years ago, what would have happened and what would have been his fate when the Supreme Court eventually discharged and acquitted him of the charge, following judgments and earlier order of the Court of Appeal and the Code of Conduct Tribunal itself?”
On his part, a legal practitioner, Mr Ugochukwu Ezekiel, argued that the charge filed against the CJN was an action geared towards intimidating the judiciary. “Those who filed the charge know the current position of the law yet they took the action. Their target is not conviction or the eradication of corruption but to cow members of the bench ahead of the election. I am convinced that members of the bar and bench will not allow this calculated act of intimidation to succeed. We must all rise to defend our profession, the democratic institutions and our country.”
Kayode Ajulo, an Abuja base lawyer, described the charge against CJN as dead on arrival, insisting that it was aimed at embarrassing not only the government of Nigeria but the entire nation by turning them to a full fledge banana republic.
“Nigeria is a country governed by our sacred constitutions and prescribed rules and regulations. The charge against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen is dead on arrival in view of the case of Nganjiwa v FRN (2017) LPELR 43391 wherein the Court of Appeal held that a judicial officer who has not been investigated by the National Judicial Council and sanctioned for misconduct cannot be arraigned in any criminal court in Nigeria,” he added.
He argued that the Fifth Schedule of the 1999 Constitution which provides for the Code of Conduct for Public Officers has two relevant paragraphs. Ajulo added that “(a) Paragraph 3 prohibits a Public Officer from operating an account outside the Country. It does not prohibit operating an account in foreign currency in Nigeria. Accordingly there is nothing wrong with opening and operating a domiciliary account.
“(b) Paragraph 11 mandates a Public Officer to declare all his properties, assets and liabilities every 4 years and at the end of his tenure – 11(1). Paragraph 11(2) provides that any statement in the declaration found to be false by any authority or person authorised to verify the statement or declaration shall be deemed a breach of the Code.”
Bayelsa governor, Seriake Dickson described the trial as “a grave and dangerous escalation, coming a few weeks to the general elections.” He said that the South South governor’s would address a press conference after their meeting to convey the position of the zone to the Nigerian public.
Presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party [PDP}, Alhaji Abubakar, in his comments, called on Muhammadu Buhari and the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) to refrain from throwing Nigeria into an avoidable crisis over the move. Atiku said the principle of separation of powers remained sacrosanct in a democracy irrespective of what Buhari was being told by his advisers. He said the plot to sack Onnoghen was a pre-emptive move against the bench in the face of imminent defeat and knowing the role the judiciary plays in the final outcome of elections.
The former vice president said Nigerians were aware that the linchpin of the plot, the executive secretary of the anti-corruption and research based data initiative (ARDI), the author of the petition against Onnoghen, Mr. Dennis Aghanya, was the national publicity secretary of President Buhari’s defunct political party, the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC).
Rivers state governor, Nyeson Wike, in his reaction, urged Nigerians to resist every attempt to intimidate the Chief Justice of Nigeria and emasculate the judiciary as a whole. “Nigerians must stand up and resist this tyranny. It is a ploy to whip the judiciary into line to achieve their rigging plans. We warned that this government was not interested in holding elections several months ago. Otherwise how can they even think of arraigning the Chief Justice of Nigeria before asset tribunal?
“This APC government is desperately trying to emasculate the judiciary. They did it to the Senate President and the National Assembly and failed now they have moved to the judiciary. This is a ploy to intimidate and coerce the judiciary into playing along with them on election matters. Who will be next if they get away with this? Nigerians must stand up against this draconian attempt to frighten and intimidate every institutions of state. They are afraid of the elections; they want to rig it if they even hold it at all,” Wike said.
Senator Shehu Sani of Kaduna Central, said the move against the CJN Onnoghen is a political assault on the sacred temple of justice, and “should be resisted and rescinded. The Govt has moved in the crane to the Court in order to remove a Bench from the roof. This amounts to throwing a bolt on the runway of our democracy & peace.”
A former minister for aviation, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, accused Buhari of acting a script with the Onnoghen saga. “If anyone thinks that Buhari intends to leave power this year or anytime in the near future they need to think again. Deji Adeyanju is in custody and being framed with murder. Dino Melaye is in custody and being framed with attempted murder. Doyin Okupe is in custody and being framed with corruption. Sambo Dasuki is in custody and being framed with corruption. Ibrahim El Zak Zaky is in custody and being framed with murder. Nnamdi Kanu in exile and being framed with treason.
“Meanwhile the Chief Justice of the Federation has been added to the list. Buhari has directed that he should vacate his seat and prepare for arraignment on criminal charges on Monday. This is all part of a well-crafted script. The bitter truth is that democracy is dead in Nigeria. If anyone thinks that Buhari intends to leave power this year or anytime in the near future they need to think again,” he said.
To Charles Ogbu, a writer,said “President Buhari‘s action is nothing but an act of desperation which reveals so much about the psychology of the President and his handlers. He’s but a desperate man living in perpetual fear. Perpetual fear of losing the election either at the polls or the Supreme Court where the case is expected to end up before the CJN. So, it makes perfect sense hounding the CJN who is a southern Christian out of office knowing that next in line to the position of the CJN is a Northern Muslim.
“If I were a hopelessly desperate ethno-religious bigot afraid of having the Supreme Court upturn a victory, I hope to secure through mindless rigging, I would behave exactly like President Buhari. But if I were a good Strategist, I would not do that because it will only end up winning more friends for the CJN and uniting the whole judiciary, legislature and those who ordinarily were not interested in the election against me. I will now be marked as a common existential threat who must be stopped at all cost. Indeed, the President and his handlers are not as sophisticated as we give them credit for.
“Nigerians are being ruled by a bunch of political terrorists whose madness has no known method. They are willing and ready to do just about anything to win re-election. Burning down the whole country won’t be a problem to them if only they could rule over the ashes. Democracy, if not well guarded by men and women of conscience, can also be a victim of its own institutions.”
Also speaking, Moses Ochonu, alleged that ‘cabals’ were hunting to remove Onnoghen because they never liked him, and that his appointment was approved by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo when President Muhammadu Buhari was in medical leave at London.
“The cabal thinks Onnoghen is not amenable to their agenda. They have the police, the army, DSS, INEC, and other apparatuses of power. The judiciary and the legislature are the only institutions they’re yet to capture. Of these two, the judiciary is more consequential, especially in election-related matters.
“They blamed Justice Onnoghen for engineering the judgment denying the Rivers State APC a chance to field candidates in the coming election. They also desire a CJN who will help uphold a rigged APC presidential victory. AG Malami, acting on behalf of the cabal, found an asset declaration issue and the domiciliary account issue. They pressured the CCT chairman to write a report, which they submitted to Buhari to nail Onnoghen and force him out.”