Judiciary on Trial: NBA Asks All Lawyers to Storm CCT in Support of Onnoghen

Walter Onnoghen
  • South-south govs tell him to shun summons   
  • Babalola, Saraki, Dogara, Afenifere condemn charges   
  • APC endorses federal government’s move

By Iyobosa Uwugiaren, Deji Elumoye, Onyebuchi Ezigbo, Shola Oyeyipo in Abuja, Ernest Chinwo in Port Harcourt and George Okoh in Makurdi

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has asked all lawyers in the country to appear at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) today in solidarity with the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, who is being arraigned by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) for alleged failure to declare his assets.

A statement by the NBA President, Mr. Paul Usoro, SAN, yesterday mandated all lawyers to populate the tribunal sitting to stand with Onnoghen, who South-south governors have also asked to ignore the summons from the CCT.

“The President of the NBA, Usoro, urges members to be at the CCT Abuja tomorrow (today) to firmly stand against the federal government’s onslaught against the Nigerian judiciary,” the NBA statement stated.

The South-South Governors’ Forum, which met yesterday, described the planned arraignment of Justice Onnoghen as a humiliation of the nation’s highest judicial officer.

The forum also said that the action against the CJN was unfortunate and has further reinforced the perception that President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has no regard for the sentiments of Nigerians, the people of the Niger Delta and the rule of law.

The governors’ reaction aligned with those of many other prominent Nigerians who reacted harshly to the federal government’s action, warning the Buhari administration of the grave consequences of its action.

Among those who expressed serious concerns yesterday over the issue that has attracted wide condemnations, include, Senate President Bukola Saraki; Speaker Yakubu Dogara; Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State; legal luminary, Chief Afe Babalola, and others.

The ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), however, endorsed the planned trial of the CJN.

The South-South governors in a communiqué issued in Abuja last night, after over four-hour emergency meeting held at the Bayelsa State Governor’s Lodge, said the action against CJN constituted a setback to the gains of the nation’s democratic experience of 20 years.

The meeting had in attendance the five governors: Mr. Henry Seriake Dickson (Bayelsa State), who chairs the forum; Prof. Ben Ayade (Cross River); Chief Nyesom Wike (Rivers State); Mr. Udom Emmanuel (Akwa Ibom), and Senator Ifeanyi Okowa (Delta State). Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State was, however, absent at the meeting.

In the communiqué read by Dickson, he said the meeting deliberated on the recent happenings at the Supreme Court, involving Justice Onnoghen, adding that the action against him constituted a setback to the gains of the nation’s democratic experience of 20 years.

The forum noted that under Section 158(1) of the 1999 Constitution, the National Judicial Council (NJC) has ample powers to deal exhaustively with matters pertaining to allegations of misconduct and discipline of judicial officers.

The forum also stressed that 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 Bayelsa State governor added that the judicial pronouncements in the cases of FGN Vs Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court on 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.

The forum added, “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 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 marginalisation and intimidation.”

The forum also condemned the assault on the CJN and the judiciary, especially coming after similar assaults on the National Assembly, calling on Buhari to save the country from this embarrassment and global contempt.

Dickson added, “We call on the CJN to ignore this so-called court summon from the CCB and the provocative call for his resignation in some quarters. While we are not opposed to a genuine fight against corruption, such an action must always be anchored on the rule of law.”

The communiqué also decried the alleged massive build-up of arms by APC leaders and members across the Niger Delta, with the intent to cause mayhem and a general breakdown of law and order during the elections.

 Meanwhile, more prominent Nigerians have reacted to the planned arraignment.

The Senate president, Saraki, in a statement yesterday by his spokesman, Alhaji Yusuph Olaniyonu, said a situation where the petition, which triggered the planned trial was submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) on Wednesday, January 8, 2019 and by Friday, January 10, the CJN 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), is suspicious.

He added that with these entire thing taking place within three days and commencement of trial fixed for Monday, January 14, already indicates unnecessary haste and short-circuiting of the process of fair hearing.

“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,’’ Saraki noted.

The head of the legislative arm of government said that the anti-corruption fight has become a case of a separate rule for the people close to the executive branch and another set of rules for the rest of Nigerians, declaring that the fight has been compromised and politicised.

The Senate President added, “All these subjective actions politicise 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.’’

Nigeria Not a Banana Republic, Says Speaker Dogara

Also reacting, the Speaker  House of Representatives Yakubu Dogara called for caution in the charges filed against Justice Onnoghen.

In a statement issued yesterday, by his Special Adviser (Media & Public Affairs), Mr. Turaki Hassan, the speaker said while the House of Representatives awaits further briefing from relevant agencies,  due process must be followed because Nigeria is a country governed by laws and not dictates of men.

He noted that the House is not less zealous in the fight against corruption but said to commence a matter of that grave magnitude with a media trial is pregnant with innuendos least needed by the polity at this sensitive time.

The speaker asserted that Nigeria is a country governed by laws with clearly spelt out procedures and processes for their activation and not the dictates of men.

He said, ‘’It is important that people in authority should exercise power with decorum and not plunge the nation to needless crises as Nigeria is not a banana republic.

“This is a matter that affects another arm of government and its head, which should be treated with caution so as not to send the wrong signal that there is a political undertone or other ulterior motives to the issue.’’

Ortom: Federal Government’s Harassment of CJN Unacceptable

Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State said the federal government’s harassment of the CNJ is an unacceptable attack on the judiciary.

He said, “We join Nigerians of good conscience to condemn and reject the attempt by federal government to force the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Onnoghen to resign or be removed.

‘’We consider the move as a deliberate ploy to intimidate and gag the judiciary. It is also in gross violation of the principle of separation of powers.’’

The governor stated in a statement by his Chief Press Secretary, Terver Akase that the manner in which the federal government is plotting to remove the CJN by rushing charges against him to the CCT and leaking the charges to the press at a weekend is suspicious, smacks of desperation and lacks regard for due process.

Urging all Nigerians to resist ‘’this unwarranted assault’’ on the country’s Judiciary and save democracy from the hands of its enemies, the government added that it is now clear that after unsuccessful attempts to intimidate the National Assembly, the ‘’same undemocratic forces’’ have turned their attacks on the judiciary.

Afe Babalola: Only NJC Investigates Erring Judges

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) with over 54 years at the Bar, Chief Afe Babalola, described the proposed trial as “denigration of the country’s judiciary and Constitution.”

He also noted the constitutional provision, stipulates that any infraction by judges must first be investigated and then resolved by the National Judicial Council (NJC), “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.”

“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,” he noted.

Babalola, who stated that the decision of the Court of Appeal in Ngajinwa 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.”

PANDEF, Afenifere Condemn Attack on Onnoghen

Former federal commissioner for information and leader, Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), Chief Edwin Clark, said the action was targeted at forcing Onnoghen out of office, saying his people are being treated a second closs citizens in Nigeria.

According to Clark, “The news of the planned arraignment of Justice Onnoghen came to us as a shock. It is a very embarrassing and very disgraceful act of the federal government, which the international world will never accept. We are damaging our image because some people just want to rule this country.’’

Also speaking on behalf of pan-Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, Mr. Yinka Odumakin said it is an attempt at eroding Nigerian democratic tenet and that it must be resisted, adding that the South and Middle Belt Leaders Forum will be meeting tomorrow and will take a stand on the matter.

APC Accuses PDP of Condoning Corruption

Meanwhile, the APC said the swift statement by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) condemning the move to prosecute the CJN has exposed the party as supporting corrupt acts.

The ruling party said the PDP’s resort to baseless postulations anytime issues of corruption is levelled against public officers only confirm what Nigerians already know.

In a statement issued yesterday by APC’s National Secretary, Mallam Lanre Isa-Onilu, the party said PDP and corruption are Siamese twins that are difficult to separate from each other.

According to him, “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.”

APC said the fight against corruption remained a cardinal promise it made to the electorate, adding the Buhari-led APC administration will not compromise on its determination to rid the country of this malady.