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The Christian Lawyers Fellowship of Nigeria (CLASFON) observes with dismay the purported suspension of Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen, GCON, the Chief Justice of Nigeria and the swearing-in of Hon. Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, as another Chief Justice of Nigeria in an acting capacity, by His Excellency, Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR, President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, on Friday, 25 January, 2019.
It is our considered view that by this decision, the executive arm of government under the supervision of the President has precipitated a needless constitutional crisis having regard to the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 and the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances entrenched in the said Constitution.
The President in his speech disclosed that he was obeying the directives of the Code of Conduct Tribunal contained in an ex parte order made on 23 January, 2019 but which was served on him “a short while ago” presumably on 25 January, 2019 before taking the steps referred to above.
The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria1999 does not make express provision for the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria but this does not foreclose the exercise of disciplinary measures including suspension of the said judicial officer pending resolution of grave moral or criminal allegations against the holder of the important constitutional office. The point we are making is that taking the radical step of suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria without recourse to the National Judicial Council (NJC) is a naked usurpation of the functions of that constitutional organ and a brazen violation of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which the President has sworn to protect and defend. The Constitution, subject to its provisions on removal of certain judicial officers, has vested the NJC with power to exercise disciplinary control over all judicial officers.
We must state categorically that the order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal upon which the President acted to remove the Chief Justice of Nigeria and to immediately swear in Hon. Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad is completely alien to our criminal jurisprudence and we condemn this action in strong terms. This is against the backdrop of the ongoing proceedings before the Code of Conduct Tribunal which had just the previous day 22 January, 2019 been further adjourned to 28 January, 2019 for hearing of the Motion on Notice.
It is apparent from the President’s speech that the decision to suspend the Hon Justice Walter Onnoghen as Chief Justice of Nigeria was hinged on his refusal to “remove himself” for the time being on account of allegations of corruption. According to President Buhari, “One expected that with his moral authority so wounded, by these serious charges of corruption, more 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 it lasted”. It must be remarked that these allegations of corruption referred to by the President have not been brought before any court of competent jurisdiction.
The President demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of the decision-making process of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and arrogated to the Chief Justice of Nigeria powers which he does not possess by suggesting he can influence the decision of the apex court one way or the other contrary to his judicial oath as contained in the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution.
The President also clearly demonstrated disdain for due process, respect for the elementary principles of natural justice and the rule of law by constituting himself as the accuser or prosecutor, witness and judge at the same time in respect of the allegations against Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen. These are roles the 1999 Nigerian Constitution, like the constitutions of all civilised nations, have assigned to different persons to ensure justice is not only done but manifestly seen to have been done. If the allegations that huge sums of money and properties that cannot be justified are found in Justice Walter Onnoghen’s possession are thoroughly investigated by the appropriate authority and it is found that the CJN has a case to answer, it would then have been dealt with accordingly following due process. We cannot understand the rush especially in view of the subsisting order of the Court of Appeal restraining the CCT from further action pending the determination of the appeal. The action shows lack of respect for an order of competent because the President cannot pick and choose which court orders he deems fit to obey. That will be arbitrariness of the highest order in a constitutional democracy.
Our position as an organisation is that a judicial officer or public office holder who is found guilty of corruption has betrayed the confidence of the public and violated the law of the land. Such an officer is not fit to remain in office for a day beyond the time of proof of his guilt. In fact, such a judicial officer deserves to be punished according to the law of the land and must forfeit his ill-gotten wealth. However, the constitutional stipulation of the presumption of innocence must be observed in all cases. Due process cannot be subverted otherwise judicial independence will be compromised and then a descent to anarchy will be irreversible. It is also our considered view that if a corruption trial is handled properly, the Defendant will have no choice but to himself to the dictates of the law as no one is above the law.
The unusual speed with which the President acted when he summarily suspended Justice Walter Onnoghen as Chief Justice of Nigeria and swore in Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad in view of the general elections just a few weeks ahead makes us to believe that the removal was politically motivated given the crucial role of the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria in the adjudication of electoral disputes. This development portends a clear danger to our democracy and care must be taken to shield the judiciary from political partisanship in such an open and glaring manner.
Assuming as the President wants Nigerians to think and believe, the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria is due to the lack of co-operation by the Apex Court with President Buhari in his perceived fight against corruption, does this then mean the Justices of the Supreme Court must decide cases based on the whims and caprices of the President rather than on the basis of facts before them? If indeed the decision of the Supreme Court is compromised as claimed by President Buhari, do you hold the Chief Justice of Nigeria alone responsible for such decisions? The President’s posture with all due respect to his office is a present danger to the entire Judiciary and the institution of justice in Nigeria.
We state categorically that the exalted office of the President has been diminished by the President’s accusation against judgments of the Supreme Court of Nigeria which in the President’s judgment “serially set free, persons accused of corruption, often on mere technicalities, after quite a number of them have been convicted by the trial and appellate courts”. This blanket labelling of Supreme Court Justices who are by tradition precluded from joining issues with the President is most unfortunate and is a direct attack on judicial independence.
We condemn unequivocally constitutional infractions and disregard for the due process of law evident in the suspension of Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen as Chief Justice of Nigeria without the recourse to the NJC. We counsel against turning Nigeria to a country of all possibilities where the rule of law and constitutionalism lie prostrate.
We call on the President to abide by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 and allow the National Judicial Council to perform its role regarding the consideration of the allegations of breaches of the Code of Conduct against Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen.
We condemn the media trial of Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen, the Chief Justice of Nigeria and call on the executive arm to forward all allegations of improprieties against the Chief Justice of Nigeria to the National Judicial Council for its immediate action or to a court of competent jurisdiction.
We call on the Nigerian Bar Association to take immediate steps to mobilise members of the Bar to protect the independence of the Judiciary and in defence of the Constitution and our nascent democracy.
We call on the NJC as the face of the Judicial Arm of the Government in Nigeria to follow past precedents on Judicial Policy to take a decisive decision regarding the unilateral actions of the President in order to defend the independence of the Judiciary from further assault and desecration by the Executive.
Pending the decision of the NJC, we demand a reversal of the steps taken on 25 January, 2019 by the President and a return to the status quo in the overall interest of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and fidelity to the principles of separation of powers, rule of law and constitutionalism entrenched in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.
Arome M. Okwori