Massive criticisms have greeted President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to suspend the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, and swear in Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed as the acting CJN, with many Nigerians describing it as an assault on the constitution.
The President, who swore in Mohammed in the Council Chamber of the Presidential Villa yesterday, said his decision was spurred by the order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) which he said directed him to suspend Onnoghen pending the conclusion of his trial by the CCT.
Onnoghen had been dragged before the CCT on January 14 by the federal government following a petition filed before the tribunal against the CJN by the Executive Director of Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative, Dennis Aghanya.
Following the petition, the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) moved to arraign Onnoghen before the CCT over allegations that he was operating three domiciliary accounts in Standard Chartered Bank with the total balance of $3million which he allegedly failed to declare as required by the law.
However, various moves by the CCT to commence Onnoghen’s trial have been stalled by various court orders restraining the tribunal from going ahead with his arraignment pending the determination of the motions before them.
Buhari said: “It is against this background that I have received the Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal directing me to suspend the Chief Justice pending final determination of the cases against him. It also explains why I am not only complying immediately, but with some degree of relief for the battered sensibilities of ordinary Nigerians whose patience must have become severely over-taxed by these anomalies.
“In line with this administration’s avowed respect for the Rule of Law, I have wholeheartedly obeyed the Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal dated 23rd January 2019. Accordingly, I hereby suspend the Honourable Mr. Justice Walter Onnoghen, GCON as the Chief Justice of Nigeria pending final determination of the case against him at the Code of Conduct Tribunal.=
“In further compliance with the same Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, I hereby invite Honourable Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed JSC, being the next most Senior Justice in the Supreme Court, to come forward to take the Judicial Oath as Chief Justice of Nigeria in an Acting Capacity.” The President, who chronicled the series of events which had accompanied the unfolding drama since January 11, when the matter was made public, said “the nation has been gripped by the tragic realities of no less a personality than the Chief Justice of Nigeria himself becoming the accused person in a corruption trial since details of the petition against him by a civil society organisation first became public about a fortnight ago.”
According to him, as grievous as the allegations against the CJN had been, the head of the judiciary had failed to spare the arm of government of what he described as “further disrepute” by honourably allowing his prosecution to commence.
Buhari further argued that what was more disturbing was the admission of the CJN that he indeed failed to declare his assets as required by law, citing error and forgetfulness which he said were not known to the laws of the land.
According to him, both the CJN and his legal team had “made nonsense” of the moves by the CCT to try him, saying Onnoghen had been deploying his influence as the head of the judiciary to stall his trial even though nobody is above the law.
Buhari also accused Onnoghen of frustrating the war against corruption since he assumed office, stating that virtually all cases of corruption taken to the apex court that he presided over had been frustrated while the accused walked free on the street.
He said: “Although the allegations in the petition are grievous enough in themselves, the security agencies have since then traced other suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars to the CJN’s personal accounts, all undeclared or improperly declared as required by law.
“Perhaps more worrisome is the Chief Justice of Nigeria’s own written admission to the charges that he indeed failed to follow the spirit and letter of the law in declaring his assets, citing ’’mistake’’ and ’’forgetfulness’’ which are totally unknown to our laws as defences in the circumstances of his case.
“One expected that with his moral authority so wounded, by these serious charges of corruption, more so 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 his trial lasted.
“Unfortunately, he has not done so. Instead, the nation has been treated to the sordid spectacle of a judicial game of wits in which the Chief Justice of Nigeria and his legal team have made nonsense of the efforts of the Code of Conduct Tribunal to hear the allegation on merit and conclude the trial as quickly as possible considering the nature of the times in which we live.
“Whether deliberately or inadvertently, we have all seen the full weight of the Chief Justice of Nigeria descend on the tender head of one of the organs of justice under his control. There is simply no way the officers of that court, from the Chairman to the bailiffs, can pretend to be unaffected by the influence of the leader of the Judiciary.
“Not only the trial court, but others have been put on the spot. Practically every other day since his trial commenced, the nation has witnessed various courts granting orders and counter-orders in favour of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, all of them characterised by an unholy alacrity between the time of filing, hearing and delivery of judgment in same.
“The real effect has been a stalling of the trial of Justice Onnoghen, helped along by lawyers who insist that these orders, whether right or wrong are technically valid, and must be obeyed till an appellate Court says otherwise. No doubt, that it is the proper interpretation, but is it the right disposition for our nation?
“Nigeria is a constitutional democracy and no one must be, or be seen to be, above the law. Unfortunately, the drama around the trial of the Chief Justice of Nigeria has challenged that pillar of justice in the perception of the ordinary man on the street. For it is certain that no ordinary Nigerian can get the swift and special treatment Justice Onnoghen has enjoyed from his subordinates and privies in our Judicature.
“In the midst of all these distracting events, the essential question of whether the accused CJN actually has a case to answer has been lost in the squabble over the form and nature of his trial. This should not be so.
“If Justice cannot be done and clearly seen to be done, society itself is at risk of the most unimaginable chaos. As a Government, we cannot stand by wailing and wringing our hands helplessly but give our full backing and support to those brave elements within the Judiciary who act forthrightly, irrespective of who is involved.
“As you are all aware, the fight against corruption is one of the tripod of policies promised to Nigerians by this administration. Needless to say that it is an existential Policy which must be given adequate attention and commitment by all the three arms of government. The efforts of the Executive will amount to nothing without the cooperation of the Legislature and especially the Judiciary.
“It is no secret that this government is dissatisfied with the alarming rate in which the Supreme Court of Nigeria under the oversight of Justice Walter Onnoghen has serially set free, persons accused of the most dire acts of corruption, often on mere technicalities, and after quite a number of them have been convicted by the trial and appellate courts.
“Since there is nothing the Executive Arm can do after the apex court of the land has spoken on any matter, several of these individuals walk free among us today, enjoying what are clearly the proceeds of the corruption which for so long has defeated the efforts of this nation to develop and prosper.”
Saraki: It’s a Deliberate Attempt to Endanger the Nation’s Hard Earned Democracy
President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki described the suspension of the CJN as a deliberate attempt to endanger the nation’s hard earned democracy.
Saraki, in a 10- paragraph statement he personally signed emphasised that the suspension was a coup against democracy and another act of desperation by President Buhari.
NBA: It’s a Coup against the Judiciary
In its reaction, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) rejected the suspension of Onnoghen, by Buhari, describing the action as a coup against the judiciary.
It demanded the reversal of the suspension, and called on the National Assembly to assert its constitutional authority and powers and “prevent this slide into chaos and erosion of the rule of law.”
In terse statement last night by its President, Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN), the NBA noted that the action of the executive arm of government “portends a slide into anarchy and complete deconstruction of the rule of law and due process.”
Usoro added that the suspension of the CJN by President Buhari amounted to an absolute breach of the Constitution and the usurpation of the powers of the Senate and the Nigerian Judicial Council (NJC).
He faulted the suspension of the CJN on the basis of an alleged ex-parte order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, the same tribunal that, to the knowledge of the executive, had, only the previous day, Tuesday, 22 January 22, 2019 adjourned its proceedings to Monday, 28 January, 28, 2019 and has before it a motion on notice that is yet to be argued, seeking the same reliefs as were contained in the purported ex-parte application.
It called on the federal government to avert the looming constitutional crisis precipitated by its ill-advised action.
Atiku: It is an Act of Dictatorship Taken too Far
Former Vice President and Presidential candidate of the PDP, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar has urged the judiciary to resist the suspension of the CJN with every legal and constitutional means that they can muster.
He said: “This brazen dictatorial act is the latest action in the ongoing rape of our nation’s hard earned democracy by those who dined with anti-democratic forces, and is symptomatic of the increasing desperation that President Buhari and the cabal pulling the strings have as February 16, 2019 draws near.”
PDP: It is a direct invitation to anarchy capable of derailing Nigeria
The opposition PDP said Buhari, by his action, foisted an illegal Chief Justice on the nation while the substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria was still in office.
It said: “It is a direct invitation to anarchy, national confusion and a monumental crisis capable of derailing the country’s democracy and destroying its corporate existence as a nation.”
In the statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Kola Ologbondiyan, the PDP said it firmly holds that such impunity cannot stand, as Nigeria is a nation governed by law and not by the whims and caprices of a dictatorial leader, saying that Buhari wants to ruin the country and vowed never allow him.
“There can be no two Chief Justices of Nigeria. Our constitution is clear on how a Chief Justice is appointed and removed as such does not lie on the prerogative of the President. As such, we urge all Nigerians and the international community to recognize only Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria.”
Fani-Kayode: It is a clear breach of the rule of law and the constitution
On his part, a former minister of aviation, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode remarked: “For a President in a democracy to suspend the CJN is totally unacceptable; it’s a clear breach of the rule of law and the constitution and a manifest violation of the principle of separation of powers. If anyone thinks that we are practising democracy in Nigeria, that person needs to have their heads examined.”
Former President of Nigerian Bar Association Mr. Olisa Agbakoba called on Nigerians to vote out Buhari because of what he described as “the most violent denigration of the Nigerian’s Constitution” following the suspension of Onnoghen, while Mike Ozekhome said Buhari, had by the action, suspended Nigeria’s constitution.