NJC Gives Onnoghen, Muhammad Seven Days to Respond to Petitions

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Lawyers’ boycott of courts records partial success Agbakoba asks NBA to strip Umar of practice licence Group applies to CCB for Acting CJN’s asset declaration form

Davidson Iriekpen in Lagos and Alex Enumah in Abuja

The National Judicial Council (NJC) yesterday rose from its emergency meeting in Abuja and gave suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, and the acting CJN, Justice Ibrahim Muhammad, seven days to respond to petitions written against them.

Also caught in the wave of petitions is the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), Mr. Danladi Umar, whose matter was referred to the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) for consideration.

Umar also has a formal complaint to attend to at the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), where a former president of the association, Chief Olisa Agbakoba, has filed a demand for the withdrawal of his practice licence.

However, Justice Onnoghen has appealed the ruling of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, ordering his suspension.

Meanwhile, a boycott of courts directed by the NBA over the controversial suspension of Onnoghen was partially successful.

The NJC had on Sunday summoned the emergency meeting to look into the constitutionality of the suspension of the CJN.

However, at the meeting held yesterday at the NJC’s Secretariat in Abuja, both Onnoghen and Muhammad were not in attendance as they recused themselves.

A former president of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umaru Abdullahi, according to a statement by NJC’s Director of Information, Mr. Soji Oye, was elected to preside as interim chairman.

The council, according to the statement, considered four petitions in all: one against Onnoghen, two against Muhammad and one against the Umar.

It stated, “The National Judicial Council held an emergency meeting today (yesterday) and considered four petitions filed at its secretariat.

“The petitions are: Petition against Justice W.S.N. Onnoghen, by Zikhrillahi Ibrahim of Resource Centre for Human Rights & Civil Education; petitions against Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, by Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative and Olisa Agbakoba, (SAN); and petition against Danladi Yakubu Umar, Chairman, Code of Conduct Tribunal by Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative.”

It added that while the council referred the petition against Umar to the FJSC, which is the appropriate constitutional body empowered to deal with it, the council in line with its procedures forwarded the petitions against Onnoghen and Muhammad to them for their responses.

“In view of the gravity of the matters involved, Council abridged the usual response period from 14 to seven working days for the Justices to respond. Justice Onnoghen and Justice Muhammad, recused themselves from the meeting. Consequently, council elected Justice Umaru Abdullahi, former President of the Court of Appeal as Interim Chairman to preside over the meeting. Council will reconvene on February 11, 2019”, the statement added.

The judiciary has been in the eye of the storm in the last two weeks following the federal government’s attempt to arraign Onnoghen over alleged failure to disclose his assets as at when due.

The federal government had slammed a six-count charge of false asset declaration charges against the CJN.

He is being accused of failing to declare some funds in his domiciliary accounts with Standard Chartered Bank, Wuse 2 branch, Abuja as at when due.

While Onnoghen has challenged the jurisdiction of the tribunal to entertain the suit, the Federal High Court Abuja, the FCT High Court and the National Industrial Court in their separate ruling on exparte motion brought before them had ordered the CCT to halt the trial.

But the CCT refused to obey the orders claiming that the tribunal was not under the supervision of the courts hence their judgment is not binding on it.

Though the CCT however submitted to the order of the Court of Appeal to stay proceedings but not after it had issued the exparte order for the suspension of Onnoghen the previous day.

The obedience of President Buhari to the order has been the source of a major crisis both at the heart of the judiciary and polity, prompting the emergency meeting of the NJC as well as the NBA.

Ononghen Appeals CCT Ruling Ordering His Suspension

However, Justice Onnoghen has appealed the ruling of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, ordering his suspension.

According to the appeal, the CJN pleaded that the Chairman of the CCT, Danladi Umar and a member Mrs, Julie Anabor erred in law and violated the Constitution when they ordered his suspension.

He also claimed that they violated his right to a fair hearing by not giving him an opportunity for fair hearing.

He, therefore, asked the court to set aside the ruling of the CCT asking him to step aside as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and chairman of the NJC.

Meanwhile, in a petition dated January 29 and addressed to the General Secretary of NBA, Agbakoba cited the ruling by the CCT in an asset declaration case against a Supreme Court judge, Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, as reason that the CCT has no jurisdiction to rule over Onnoghen’s case.

He argued that it is only the National Judicial Council (NJC) that reserve the power to rule on the case of an erring judicial officer and recommend to the president the removal of such officer.

The learned silk described Danladi’s action as constituting a “constitutional crisis.”

“On January 14, 2019, the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) of which Mr. Danladi Umar is Chairman assumed jurisdiction in a matter against the CJN, Justice Onnoghen knowing the CCT had no jurisdiction in view of CCT’s own decision in the case of Justice Sylvester Ngwuta which also involved Asset Declaration,” the petition read.

“The Court of Appeal in Nganjiwa v. FRN (2017) LPELR-43391 (CA) held that allegations of misconduct against a serving judicial officer must first be referred to and handled by the National Judicial Council.

“It is only after the NJC has entertained and made a finding or pronouncement on the allegation against a Judicial officer and recommended to the president or governor as the case may be, the removal of such judicial officer, and the recommendation is accepted and acted upon by the appropriate authority, that the prosecuting agencies of the federal government can proceed against such judicial officer to make him face the full wrath of the law. Umar knew the state of the law yet acted otherwise. Umar’s misconduct has created a constitutional crisis and brought great embarrassment to the legal profession.

“On January 23, 2019, the Code of Conduct Tribunal of which Mr. Danladi Umar is Chairman issued an exparte order which on its face is clearly defective having not set out on record the counsel that made the application. This gives the impression the CCT may have drawn up the application on itself. This led the President of Nigeria to purportedly suspend the CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen and purportedly appoint an Acting CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad, as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria.

“Umar’s misconduct has created a constitutional crisis and brought great embarrassment to the Legal profession.”

Agbakoba said since Umar is not a member of the NJC, so he cannot proceed with Onnoghen’s trial.

He further said the ongoing trial of the CCT chairman at a federal high court in Abuja over his alleged receipt of bribe robs him of the right to try Onnoghen.

He prayed the NBA to strike out Umar’s name from the roll of legal practitioners in the country.

Lawyers Divided over NBA’s Boycott Directive

Meanwhile, lawyers were yesterday divided over the directive from the NBA for them to stay away from the courts in protest against the suspension of Onnoghen.

The association issued the directive at an emergency national executive committee meeting in Abuja on Monday.

It said the action which should last for two days is meant to serve as a warning to the federal government.

A communiqué issued at the end of the NBA emergency meeting read, “That Justice Walter Onnoghen remains the Chief Justice of Nigeria and that his purported removal from office is null and void.

“That the NBA does not recognise Justice Tanko Mohammed JSC as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, his appointment being null and void.

“That the NBA demands the immediate reversal of the purported suspension from office of Justice Walter Onnoghen as CJN by the president on the January 25, 2019”.

However, THISDAY gathered that while some complied with the boycott order, others ignored the directive.

In the South-south and South-east, the directive was fully complied with as lawyers stayed away from the court. So was the case in Kaduna State.

However, the directive recorded partial success in some courts in Lagos and Abuja.

In some states in the North such as Kano, Jigawa, Yobe and others, the directive to boycott courts was totally ignored.

A visit to various courts in Abuja to assess the level of compliance revealed that though most of the courts did not sit, lawyers were found in some of the courts.

Some of the lawyers who spoke with THISDAY on condition of anonymity at the Federal High Court, Maitama, said they were in court because their matter was slated for that day.

At the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court in both Maitama and Gudu, lawyers were seen taking new dates for their matters as it was obvious the courts were not going to sit.

In one of the Federal High Courts in Abuja, a senior lawyer was seen addressing other lawyers in the court room, after a meeting with a judge.

Group Applies to CCB for Acting CJN’s Asset Declaration Form

In a related development, a civil society group, African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL), has applied to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) for the asset declaration of the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Tanko Muhammad.

The CSO said it sent the request to the Chairman of the CCB seeking copies of Mohammed’s asset declaration on his elevation as a Justice of the Supreme Court and appointment as acting CJN by President Buhari.

AFRICMIL in a statement by its Coordinator, Chidi Onumah in Abuja yesterday, said it hinged its request on Paragraph 11, Part 1 of the Fifth Schedule to the 1999 Constitution as amended.

The provision read in part, “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, every public officer shall within three months of the coming into force of this Code of Conduct and immediately after taking office and thereafter – (a) at the end of every four years; and (b) at the end of his term of office, submit to the CCB a written declaration of all his properties, assets, and liabilities and those of his unmarried children under the age of 18 years.”

In applying for the acting CJN’s asset forms, AFRIMIL also said it relied on Section 1(1) of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011, arguing that the request was part of its advocacy for increased transparent and accountable governance in the nation’s public service.

The statement said, “The African Centre for Media and Information Literacy, a non-governmental organisation focused on good governance and the promotion of accountability has applied to the Code of Conduct Bureau for the asset declaration of the new acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad.

“In a letter to the Chairman of the CCB and signed by its coordinator, Chido Onumah, AFRICMIL stated that in making the request, it relied on Paragraph 11, Part 1 of the Fifth Schedule to the 1999 Constitution as amended.”