Opposition Unrelenting as Senate Challenges Onnoghen’s Suspension at Supreme Court

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Walter Onnoghen
Walter Onnoghen

•CCT postpones arraignment indefinitely
•Police take over CJN’s office
•NBA issues boycott warning strike
•Atiku cautions Buhari against derailing democracy
•President avowed democrat, says Mohammed
•APC: Foreign intervention unacceptable

Iyobosa Uwugiaren, Onyebuchi Ezigbo, Adedayo Akinwale, Alex Enumah and Udora Orizu in Abuja

Opposition to the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, by President Muhammadu Buhari persisted yesterday, entering the next level as the Senate approached the Supreme Court for a determination of the
constitutionality of the executive action.

The Senate’s legal challenge was one of the many rebuke of what many legal and social critics, home and away, regard as the overbearing disposition of the executive that violates the principle of separation of powers distributed among the executive, legislative and the judicial arms of government by the 1999 Constitution as altered.

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in its remedial response asked all lawyers to stay away from courts for two days, in the first instance, in protest of the presidential action it said was reckless and unconstitutional.

And perhaps overwhelmed by the array of legal authorities put up by Onnoghen’s intimidating legal team and upbraiding by the public, the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) adjourned indefinitely, the arraignment of the CJN, its proceedings having been stayed by the Court of Appeal last Thursday.
Onnoghen is being arraigned by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) for alleged non-declaration of assets.

While the arraignment was being opposed by the CJN’s legal team and a stay of proceedings obtained at the appellate court, the president announced the suspension of the apex court’s boss, citing the CCT exparte order, and swore in Onnoghen’s deputy, Justice Ibrahim Muhammad as acting CJN.

The uproar generated by the presidential action became deafening yesterday with the Senate challenging at the Supreme Court, a statement by media aide to the Senate president, Alhaji Yusuph Olaniyonu, said.

Olaniyonu’s statement was preceded by that of the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, who warned Buhari not to hide under the pretext of anti-corruption war to subvert the country’s democracy and its institutions.
But, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, at a press conference yesterday in Abuja, described Buhari as an acknowledged democrat, and stoutly defended his decision to suspend the CJN.

His party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), however, described as unfortunate and unacceptable the concerns expressed by the international community over the action against Onnoghen and its implication for the forthcoming general elections.

Senate Heads to Court, Says Reconvening Subjudice

The Senate, according to Olaniyonu, is asking the Supreme Court to determine whether the president acted within the provisions of the Constitution when he suspended the CJN.
It is also asking the apex court to determine whether the action of the president does not amount to usurpation of the powers of the Senate as provided for in Section 292 of the constitution.
He said following the filing of the case, the matter of the suspension of the CJN, which was the main issue for which the Senate had planned to reconvene on Tuesday, had become subjudice.

“In line with the standing rules of the Senate not to debate issues, which are already pending before the court, the reconvening of the Senate tomorrow has been put off. The previous adjournment of the Senate till February 19, 2019 stays,” he stated.
However, sources told THISDAY that the decision to seek judicial interpretation of Buhari’s suspension of Onnoghen was arrived at on Sunday night at the meeting of Senate principal officers held at the Maitama, Abuja residence of Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki.

The principal officers at the meeting who keyed into the idea along with Saraki are Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu; the Senate Leader, Senator Ahmed Lawan (Yobe North); Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah (Kebbi South); Chip Whip, Senator Sola Adeyeye (Osun central); and Deputy Whip, Senator Francis Alimekhena (Edo North).
Others are the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Abiodun Olujimi (Ekiti South); Deputy Minority Leader, Senator Emmanuel Bwacha (Taraba South); Minority Whip, Senator Philip Aduda (FCT) and Deputy Minority Whip, Senator Emmanuel Paulker (Bayelsa Central).

Also yesterday, the Clerk of the Senate, Mr. Nelson Ayewoh, issued a formal statement, cancelling the reconvening of the Senate earlier scheduled for today.
Ayewoh, in the statement entitled, “Cancellation of Senate Resumption in Plenary’’ informed all senators that the resumption in plenary scheduled for Tuesday, January, 29, had been cancelled.

According to the Clerk, “The scheduled date of resumption in Plenary earlier fixed for Tuesday, February 19, remains, please.”
But Lawan has faulted the decision by the leadership of the Senate to approach Supreme Court on Buhari’s suspension of Onnoghen.

According to him, there was never any meeting of the Senate leadership where such decision was taken. He, therefore, distanced the APC caucus from the decision.
In a statement he personally signed and made available to newsmen late yesterday, Lawan said, “The APC caucus dissociates itself from the said request for legal interpretation of the suspension.”

Meanwhile, the caucuses of both the APC and the PDP in the Senate still met in Abuja yesterday to take a position on the planned reconvening of the Senate.
As at 7p.m. yesterday, the two caucuses were still meeting at different locations in Abuja as some of the Senators confirmed to THISDAY through text messages that they were still meeting on latest development in the country.
All the 56 APC Senators were also billed yesterday to attend a dinner by 8pm to be hosted by President Muhammadu Buhari at the Banquet Hall of the State House, Abuja.

Atiku Warns Buhari

Atiku in his state of the nation address yesterday in Abuja, called on Nigerians to vote out the ‘’anti-democratic government’’ and restore the country to the path of true democracy, which according to him, is the surest way to ensure progress and prosperity for the people.
According to him, “Yet again, our dear country is passing through a difficult moment. How we react to this challenge in the following days will determine the fate of our democracy, which has been brought to great peril by this needless crisis engineered by a government that is unwilling to subject its conducts to the requirements of our constitution.”

Atiku stated that the latest action of Buhari falls squarely within the pattern of ‘’executive lawlessness’’ that has now been firmly turned into statecraft by the APC-led government.
He commended all Nigerians and friends of Nigeria, who have expressed outrage over the unlawful removal of Onnoghen, describing it as a flagrant breach of the country’s constitution and a frontal assault on the country’s democracy.

He warned that to create a condition that allows the Constitution and the rule of law to become secondary to any other agenda is to pave the way for tyranny, saying that history is replete with odious dictators whose path to dictatorship started with statements of good intentions, and advised Nigerians and the international community to remain vigilant in defence of the nation’s democracy.

The PDP presidential hopeful warned the APC government to desist from taking actions that might push the nation further down the slippery slope towards a major constitutional crisis that could derail the electoral process, advising Buhari to remember that he was a beneficiary of a free and fair election.

Buhari Avowed Democrat, Says Mohammed

However, The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, described Buhari as an acknowledged democrat, and stoutly defended his decision to suspend the CJN.
Dismissing the reports that the suspension signalled the beginning of dictatorship in the country, the minister said contrary to what the opposition had been saying, it was neither about the forthcoming elections nor a signal over the beginning of dictatorship.

He said, “President Buhari is an avowed democrat, and this he has proven time and time again. This administration stands firm on the rule of law. This whole issue is about the country’s highest judicial officer, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, being accused of a breach of the Code of Conduct for public officers, and the legal and moral conundrum surrounding that.

‘’It is about the suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars to the suspended CJN’s personal accounts, all undeclared or improperly declared as required by law.
“It is about the Hon. Justice Onnoghen himself admitting to the charges that he indeed failed to follow the spirit and letter of the law in declaring his assets, calling it a mistake. And it is about him refusing to take responsibility, instead opting to put the entire judiciary on trial.”

He claimed Onnoghen was given fair hearing but abused his position and the judicial process by filing “frivolous applications and even dodging service of process”.
The Minister of Information and Culture accused a section of the media of taking sides.

APC: Foreign Intervention Unacceptable

Meanwhile, the ruling APC has described as unfortunate and unacceptable the concerns being expressed by the international community over the suspension of Onnoghen and its perceived impact on the forthcoming general elections.

In a statement issued on Monday by the National Publicity Secretary of the party, Mallam Lanre Issa-Onilu, he said that it is completely untenable to insinuate any attempt on the part of the government to rig elections.

“Against the backdrop of statements by some foreign concerns over Justice Onnoghen’s suspension vis-a-vis forthcoming general elections, we strongly advise that they are abreast with our laws and procedures. A situation where these foreign concerns come across as meddling or being misled or influenced by bogus partisan narratives is unfortunate and unacceptable,” it said.

APC said both PDP and Atiku have been asking the international community to intervene in Onnoghen’s suspension as if the international community is not supportive of the fight against corruption.

The party said that the government is resolved to do away with a situation “where the rich and powerful are above the law; a Nigeria riddled with corruption and disregard for set down rules and laws as enshrined in the constitution; a Nigeria where institutions of government are manipulated and exploited for the benefit of a few privileged.

While alleging that the PDP and Atiku have perfected plans to use the judiciary as a trump card to hijack the electoral process and assume power, APC said president Buhari’s move has put a wedge to it.

CCT Adjourns Onnoghen’s Trial Indefinitely

At the CCT yesterday the arraignment was adjourned indefinitely pending the decision of the Court of Appeal in an appeal brought before it by Onnoghen.
A two-man panel of the tribunal led by the CCT Chairman, Danladi Umar, said the adjournment was in compliance with the Court of Appeal order made on January 24, which put the trial on hold till Wednesday January 30.

“In view of the order of the Court of Appeal and out of respect for the Court of Appeal, this matter is hereby adjourned sine die pending the decision of the Court of Appeal in the matter”, the tribunal held in a short ruling yesterday.

The CCT had on January 22 adjourned to yesterday for hearing on the motion filed by Onnoghen, challenging the tribunal’s powers to hear the charge against him.
At the resumed hearing yesterday, CCT Chairman, Mr. Danladi Umar, and another member, Mrs. Juli Anabor sat, while the third member of the panel, Mr. Williams Atadze, was however absent.

Atadze had given a dissenting ruling on January 22 holding that the tribunal ought to defer to the orders of the Federal High Court, FCT High Court and the National Industrial Court on grounds that a valid order of court must be obeyed until it was set aside.

When the matter was called, counsel to the federal government, Mr. Musa Ibrahim, drew the tribunal’s attention to the appellate court order and applied for adjournment pending the ruling of the Court of Appeal slated for January 30.
The Defence Counsel, led by Chief Kanu Agabi, SAN, however, did not oppose the request for adjournment but complained bitterly of the challenges being faced by defence in obtaining the records of the tribunal.

Meanwhile, another defence lawyer, Chris Uche, SAN, who was mandated by Agabi to speak with journalists outside the court, disclosed that the defence was already probing the circumstances in which the tribunal issued the exparte order directing the president to suspend the CJN, pending the determination of the charge against him at the CCT.

He said the defence was surprised on how the order was made, served and implemented even when the matter was already adjourned till January 28 for hearing of all pending motions.

He said with the suspension of the, CJN it appears the complainant had already achieved its aim and the case looking lifeless but that the defence is hopeful that justice will still be done in this matter.

Police Seal off CJN’s Office

Meanwhile operatives of the Nigeria Police Force yesterday sealed off the office of the CJN.
Confirming the development, the media aide to the CJN, Mr. Awusam Bassey, said the police operatives, who stormed the office premises in the early hours, sent staff members out of the office before taking it over.

Opposition Parties, Lawyers Storm NBA Headquarters

In its remedial reaction, the Nigerian Bar Association yesterday resolved to embark on a two-day boycott of courts to protest the suspension of Onnoghen.
The NBA arrived at the resolution at its National Executive Council meeting in Abuja yesterday.

“The Nigerian Bar Association rising from her NEC meeting has decided to embark on a two-day warning boycott of courts all over Nigeria over the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria by President Buhari,” the NBA said last night.
The boycott of the courts starts today and continues tomorrow.

Hundreds of opposition politicians, lawyers and civil society groups, had under the aegis of National Interest Defenders, earlier in the day stormed the headquarters of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) to protest the unconstitutional suspension of Onnoghen.

The aggrieved protesters, who were led by the spokesperson of Coalition of United Political Parties, Ikenga Ugochinyere, were armed with placards with various inscriptions such as: “NBA must act now”, “NJC must reconvene and expel Justice Tanko Muhammad for usurping the CJN office”, “Removal of Onnoghen an act of treason”, among others.

Ugochinyere, while addressing journalists said it is shameful that President Buhari relied on the use of ‘’forged and fictitious’’ tribunal order to purportedly suspended the CJN and appointed ‘’a factional Chief Justice’’, knowing the illegality of his action.
He said that the President has ‘’viciously, brutally and gruesomely’’ violated the constitution, which he swore to uphold.

He said, “This is an act that amounts to gross misconduct and it most certainly warrants his removal from office. The National Assembly should as a matter of urgency and patriotism commence without delay the impeachment process of the President.

“The National Assembly should immediately commence action for the removal from office, the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, Mr Danladi Umar, who having criminal charges against him and still sits in office.”

He urged the NBA to call on the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to resign for being complicit in the constitutional breach and face the disciplinary committee of the bar.
He added that no provision in section 157 and 292 of the 1999 constitution as amended, supports the President’s action.

Meanwhile a group of Tanko Mohammed supporters also stormed the NBA headquarters armed with placards with inscriptions such as “Onnoghen should resign and save judiciary”, “In Japan the CJN would have committed suicide,” PDP + Onnoghen = Corruption,” and so on.

The group chanted songs, insisting that Buhari was right to suspend the embattled CJN, calling for him to quickly resign.