By John Onah, Abuja, Gabriel Atumeyi, Abuja and Mark Maya, Lagos
The governors of the South-south region, yesterday asked the Chief Justice of Nigeria,CJN, Walter Onnoghen not to honour the Code of Conduct’s Bureau, (CCB) court summon to him today.
The federal government instigated a trial of the head of the country’s judiciary in the bureau over a sudden allegation of partial declaration of his assets. The nation’s head of the judiciary is accused of lack of full disclosure on his assets in breach of the provision of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act.
The CJN is billed to appear before the Justice Danladi Yakubu led – Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) in Abuja today on six count charges bordering on failure to declare his assets as required by law and for operating domiciliary account, which is a foreign currency account.
The South-south region, comprising the six states of Rivers, Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom, Cross River and Edo met under the aegis of South South Governors Forum, in Abuja yesterday in an emergency meeting, called at the instance of the forum’s chairman, the governor of Bayelsa State, Honourable Henry Seriake Dickson at the Bayelsa State Governor’s Lodge, Abuja.
Barring the governor of Edo State, who is of the All Progressives Congress, (APC), all other governors in the region attended.
The meeting according to the communique signed by Governor Dickson, (Bayelsa State); Nyesom Wike, (Rivers); Prof Ben Ayade, (Cross River); Udom Emmanuel, (Akwa Ibom) and Dr Ifeanyi Okowa, (Delta) resolved that the action against Onnoghen constituted a setback to the gains of the nation’s democratic experience of 20 years.
“We note that under Section 158(1) of the 1999 Constitution, the National Judicial Council, has ample powers to deal exhaustively with matters pertaining to allegations of misconduct and discipline of Judicial officers. Specifically, the NJC has the powers and clear procedures for investigating allegations, and recommending appropriate sanctions or disciplinary measures against judicial officials as a matter of first instance before any further steps,” the governors said.
They further stated that “the judicial pronouncements in the cases of FGN Vs Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court (January 9, 2018) and Justice Ngajinwa Vs FGN 2017 at the CCT have given validation to the express provisions of the constitution on this issue.
“We note that the attempt to drag the CJN to the CCT is also a grave and dangerous escalation of the assault on institutions of state including the National Assembly and the judiciary
“We believe that the President, Muhammadu Buhari has a constitutional responsibility and huge moral obligation to defend our democracy. Therefore, we consider this step, which is directly aimed at humiliating the nation’s highest judicial officer and a prominent son of the region, as totally unacceptable as it is reflective of the South South story of endless marginalization and intimidation. The unceremonious removal of former Acting Director General of the Department of State Service, Mathew Seiyefa and his replacement is still very fresh.”
According to them, “the unfortunate action against the CJN further reinforces the perception that the Buhari administration has no regard for the sentiments of Nigerians, in particular the people of Niger Delta, and the rule of law.” They accused the administration President Muhammadu Buhari of having “a penchant for flagrant disobedience of and disregard for legitimate and valid court orders.
“We expect President Buhari to know that democracy cannot survive without respect for the constitution, strict adherence to the rule of law, and separation of powers as enshrined in the constitution.
“We strongly believe that the regrettable development at the Supreme Court at this critical time, when preparations for the general elections are wobbling (with serious concern about INEC and security agencies) is capable of causing avoidable anxiety, tension and possible breakdown of law and order in the country.
We note further that the action undermines confidence not only in the judiciary but also the electoral process that has already commenced, in view of the pivotal role that the judiciary plays in the process of electoral adjudication.
“We affirm President Buhari should know that the continuous assault on critical institutions of state is a defining feature of a dictatorship, and that the President is obliged to live up to his word that he is a born-again democrat, as he assured Nigerians in 2015.”
They urged the president “to condemn without any equivocation, this assault on the CJN and the judiciary especially coming after similar assaults on the National Assembly, to save the country from this embarrassment and global contempt, and called on the CJN to ignore this so-called Court summon from the CCB and the provocative call for his resignation in some quarters.”
They stated that they are not opposed to a genuine fight against corruption, and that any of such action as the one taken against the CJN must always be anchored on the rule of law.
They alerted on a massive buildup of arms in the region, which they pointed APC leaders and members in the region as culprits with the intent to cause mayhem and a general breakdown of law and order during the elections.
Similarly, the Nigerian Bar Association, (NBA) and some lawyers have condemned the action of the federal government
A statement issued by the NBA yesterday in Abuja said the move was an attempt by the executive arm of the government to intimidate the judiciary.
The statement which was signed by the NBA President, Mr Paul Usoro, condemned the speedy nature of the investigation and trial of Onnoghen, saying the established precedent for such a trial was not followed.
“If one contemplates the fact that the CCT arraignment is scheduled to take place on January 14, we have in total a record number of three working days between the receipt and processing of the petition, investigation, preparation of charge and ancillary processes and the arraignment.
“With such unprecedented speed and efficiency in Nigeria’s criminal justice administration, it is clear that the NJC was not privy to it and did not conduct its mandatorily required disciplinary processes prior to the filing of the charge before the CCT.
Usoro said it was 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.
On his part, Mr Sebatian Hon, (SAN) said that the haste with which the charge was filed indicated that it was a political witch-hunt and not an honest investigation.
According to Hon, there is an attempt to destroy the judiciary or gag it; and in the latter situation, to hector it into submission.
“I personally say no to this and all Nigerians must say no to this unprovoked assault on the judiciary.
“Nothing stops the federal government from deferring, in the interest of national peace and cohesion, the filling of those charges till an opportune time since there is no limitation of time in criminal proceedings,” Hon said.
He counseled the CJN not to heed what he described as the obviously unholy call that he should step aside.
Mr Mike Ozekhome, (SAN) also described the act as an attempt to gag the CJN who was constitutionally empowered to inaugurate the presidential election tribunal, on the 2019 election.
According to Ozekhome, the trial is undoubtedly politically motivated because as head of the judiciary, the CJN will be the one to empanel the presidential election tribunal that will try cases which emanate from the elections.
“There are many questions to be asked: When have Nigerian security agencies optimized and displayed such efficiency that a petition by an NGO, dated Jan.7 and received Jan. 9 was acted upon with such automatic alacrity that by Jan. 11, charges have already been filed against Onnoghen.”
He added that the CJN could be removed from office only where he had been convicted or if under Section 291 of the Constitution, the Senate, by two-third majority vote, affirms a request by the president to remove him.
Legal luminary, Chief Afe Babalola (SAN), on his part, has described the proposed trial today of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, at the Code of Conduct Tribunal over alleged failure to fully declare his assets as “denigration of the country’s Judiciary and Constitution.”
He also noted the constitutional provision which stipulates that any infraction by judges must first be investigated and then resolved by the National Judicial Council, “to the exclusion of any other body or authority.”
Babalola, in a statement yesterday entitled, “Proposed arraignment of the Hon Justice Walter Onnoghen: Again, I say two wrongs do not make a right”, said the law had made clear the processes for the trial of judicial officers and as well their removal, hence the need to desist from “contempt and denigration of the judiciary.”
He said: “I am of the view that the Constitution requires that any infraction by the said judges be firstly investigated and resolved by the National Judicial Council, to the exclusion of any other body or authority.”
Babalola, who stated that the decision of the Court of Appeal in Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391(CA) “still subsists and has not been set aside,” said: “I therefore see no justification for the decision to arraign the CJN before the CCT.”
He argued that, “Again, the point must be made clear that the Constitution clearly provides for the procedure with which the CJN can be removed from office.
“Section 292 (1)(a)(i) and 292 (1)(b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (As Amended) addressed it.”
According to him, given the clear provisions for trial and removal of judges, “It becomes more worrying to learn that, aside from laying the proposed charges, the prosecution has also filed an application for an order directing the CJN to recuse himself from office pending the conclusion of the trial.”
The senior advocate said: “By proceeding as proposed, the government is unwittingly or, perhaps, deliberately, creating a wrong impression in the minds of millions of Nigerians that the judiciary is a criminal organisation.
“For the sake of our democracy, this is a misconception that must not be allowed to fester.
“No country, no matter how well intentioned its political leaders are, can aspire to greatness if its judicial arm is denigrated and held in contempt.
“While the judiciary itself must be awake to its huge responsibilities, its efforts in this regard will surely not be helped by the erosion of its independence,” the SAN stated.
The Senate President, Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki in his statement advised the federal government to ensure that its plan to put on trial the nation’s chief judicial officer, does not cause chaos in the judicial system and that the due process would not be compromised.
Saraki in a statement in Ilorin yesterday said he believed that if the government truly had genuine reason to put the incumbent Chief Justice of Nigeria on trial, it should ensure that every step in the process was transparent and the normal process as provided by the law, followed to the letter.
He said a situation where the petition which triggered the trial was submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) on Wednesday January 8 and by Friday, January 10, the Chief Justice was presented with it for his reply only for the charges to be drafted that same day and filed in the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), all these taking place within three days and commencement of trial fixed for Monday, January 14, already indicated an uncommon haste and the short-circuiting of the process of fair hearing.
“It is important for the government and members of the public to know that as somebody who have travelled this route before, we should refrain from any media trial and political players should avoid abusing the judicial process in order to achieve what they could not get through normal political contests. Every body who is being tried should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. That is the underlining principle of our justice system.
“The proposed trial of the CJN has once again opened up the debate on the transparency and neutrality of the fight against corruption. The haste with which this trial is being pursued leaves a lot to be desired. From last Wednesday when the so-called petition against the CJN was initiated to the period the trial is scheduled to commence has been barely three working days whereas there are pending cases where the individuals involved have been indicted some months ago but no prosecution is being considered”, the Senate President stated.
“All these subjective actions politicize the anti-graft fight. They weaken national institutions. They send wrong signals. The CJN is not above the law but his trial puts the entire judicial system on trial. It sends a signal to the entire world about our judiciary. It has implications for the confidence of local and foreign investors about the system of adjudication over disputes in our country. Thus, the matter should be handled with care, demonstrating intense transparency and strict adherence to due process.
“This trial, coming just about a month to the commencement of the presidential elections, the aftermath of which the CJN and the judiciary he is leading are set to play crucial adjudicatory role, has already raised suspicion about the real motive. There are already suggestions that this plan is set to disorganize the judicial arm after constant attempts by agents of State to undermine the federal legislature.
“Therefore, the entire country and the international community will be watching closely every step in this trial because it is definitely unusual, unprecedented and will set a record in the engagement among the three arms of government recognized in our presidential system. This trial definitely has implications for the principle of separation of powers and concept of checks and balance embedded in our presidential system of government”, Saraki stated.
In the same vein, the Peoples Democratic Party, (PDP), which is the main opposition political party has accused the presidency of plotting to annex judiciary ahead of the 2019 general elections.
The party also alleged that the APC and a cabal at the presidency are hounding Justice Onnoghen and seeking his removal so as to cause a constitutional crisis, instill fear in judicial officers and pave way for the foisting of a pliable CJN that will do their bidding on electoral matters.
In the statement issued by the spokesman of the party, Mr Kola Ologbondiyan, “this is particularly following allegations that the APC seeks a new CJN that will aid its rigging schemes as well as execute the plot to use the court to detain and put opposition members and outspoken members of Civil Society Organizations out of circulation during the general elections.”
The PDP described the development as “a clear recipe for anarchy and a huge crisis that is capable of fracturing our justice system and derail our democracy as it portends a prelude to a total clamp down on institutions of democracy and rule of law in our country.”
The party urged “all Nigerians, the United Nations and all international bodies to unite” in the defence of Nigeria’s democracy, “especially at this very critical time in our political development.”
On the contrary, the ruling APC defended the federal government’s action, accusing the PDP of being sympathetic to corruption as a result of its stance against the trial of the CJN.
In a statement issued in Abuja by the national publicity secretary of the APC, Mallam Issa Lanre Onilu, it said that the PDP has again resorted to its tactics of spinning the narrative and attributing everything to the forthcoming elections.
According to the APC“ following reports of the move to prosecute Justice Walter Onnoghen, Chief Justice of the Federation, over an alleged infraction on the Code of Conduct laws, the swift statement by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) condemning the purported move has again exposed the party as one with a natural inclination to rise up in defence of cases of alleged corruption.
“The resort to baseless postulations anytime issues of corruption is leveled against public officers only confirms what Nigerians already know. PDP and corruption are siamese twins that are difficult to separate from each other. One would have thought that the PDP will call for impartial investigations when corruption cases are levelled against public officers, but spinning falsehoods and conspiracies remains the opposition party’s favourite past time.”
The party further disclosed that the president was only carrying out his mandate of ensuring that corruption in public services was reduced to the barest minimum.
“The fight against corruption remains a cardinal promise made by the APC to the electorate. We assure the PDP and indeed all Nigerians that the President Muhammadu Buhari-led APC administration remains uncompromising in its determination to rid the country of this malady,” the APC said.