…Over failure to declare his assets, operating Domiciliary Foreign Currency Accounts
…NBA, S’South Govs, Agbakoba, Afe Babalola, Falana, Ozekhome, others flay move
…Due Process should be followed in move to try CJN – Saraki, Dogara
…N’Delta will resist attempt to intimidate Onnoghen, says Clark
There was palpable tension in the nation’s Judiciary on Sunday as the Federal Government, barring last minute change of mind, is set to arraign the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen, before the Code of Conduct Tribunal in Abuja, today, over his alleged refusal to declare his assets.
In a six-count criminal charge filed last week by officials of the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) in Abuja, Onnoghen, Nigeria’s Number One Judicial officer, was accused of failing to declare some assets allegedly traced to him, as required by law.
The prosecuting agency alleged that contrary to relevant laws regulating conduct of public office holders, the CJN maintained a domiciliary foreign currencies account that comprised of Dollars Account, Pound Sterling Account and Euro Account.
In a statement, Ibraheem Al-Hassan, Head, (Press & Public Relations), Code of Conduct Tribunal Headquarters, Abuja, said: “The Code of Conduct Tribunal has scheduled Monday, 14th of January for the commencement of trial in the charge the against current Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon Justice Onnoghen Nkanu Walter Samuel, for alleged non declaration of asset.
“This was consequent upon an application filed by the Code of Conduct Bureau to the CCT Chairman on January 11 for the trial to commence against the Chief Justice of Nigeria on six count charges.
“The application was filed yesterday by the operatives of CCB, dated 11th January, 2019 and signed by Musa Ibrahim Usman (Esq) and Fatima Danjuma Ali (Esq), containing six counts charges, all bordering on non-declaration of asset.
“The three-man panel, led by Justice Danladi Y. Umar, will commence the trial on Monday, 14th January, 2019 at the CCT courtroom, situated at the headquarters, along Jabi Dakibiyu, Saloman Lar way, Abuja, at about 10:00am.”
However, as the planned arraignment of the CJN holds today, not a few Nigerians have condemned the development, insisting that it will impact negatively on the Judiciary, the nation’s third arm of government.
NBA, Agbakoba, Afe Babalola, Falana, Ozekhome, others flay action
Reacting, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) condemned the move and described it as an assault, intimidation and desecration of the Judiciary by the Executive arm of government.
It therefore demanded that the Federal Government put a stop it immediately.
NBA President, Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN), in a statement, said in the case of Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391(CA), the Court of Appeal held in a judgment that any misconduct attached to the office and functions of a judicial officer must first be reported to and handled by the National Judicial Council (NJC) pursuant to the provisions of our laws.
“Only after the NJC has pronounced against such judicial officer, can the prosecuting agencies of the Federal Government proceed against him”, the NBA stated and added that the appellate court pointed out the need to preserve, promote and protect the independence of the judiciary.
“Our respective liberties and the rule of law are best protected and preserved if the judiciary remains independent and shielded from intimidation and assault by the other arms of the government”, the NBA boss stated.
The NBA wondered why the Federal Government will embark on an anomalous course of charging the CJN before the CCT without first presenting whatever facts it purportedly has against the CJN to the NJC for its deliberation and determination.
In the same vein, a former President of the NBA, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba SAN, condemned in strong terms the proposed arraignment of the CJN, noting that it did not followed due process.
He said: “It is outrageous to even suggest that a CJN can be arraigned at all on any grounds as the constitutional procedure clearly specified that the CJN will have a charge laid before the Senate for misconduct or the NJC, which is also empowered to take disciplinary action.
“The courts have stated very clearly that the NJC is charged with the sole responsibility for disciplinary action against judges in addition to powers conferred on the Senate.
“It is therefore unconstitutional to charge the CJN before a CCT, whether guilty or not.”
In a statement issued on Sunday entitled: Proposed arraignment of the Hon Justice Walter Onnoghen: Again, I say two wrongs do not make a right, legal luminary, Chief Afe Babalola SAN, 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.”
His words: “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.”
Chief 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 further: “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.”
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.”
Human rights lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, in a statement made available to The Daily Times on Sunday, faulted Federal Government’s move to press charges against the CJN.
He asked the Federal Government to urgently withdraw the charges against the CJN, as such move will amount to prosecutorial misadventure.
He said: “The charge against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen ought not to have been instituted at the Code of Conduct of Tribunal in view of the case of Nganjiwa v FRN (2017) LPELR 43391 wherein the Court of Appeal held that a judicial officer who has not been investigated by the National Judicial Council and sanctioned for misconduct cannot be arraigned in any criminal court in Nigeria.
“As all authorities are bound by the Court of Appeal verdict, the case should be withdrawn by the Attorney-General of the Federation without any delay because it is likely to be a prosecutorial misadventure,” he said.
Similarly, a constitutional lawyer and human rights activist, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), said that the charges preferred against Justice Onnoghen by the Federal Government are highly political, and designed to intimidate the Judiciary ahead of the 2019 presidential election.
The human rights lawyer said in a statement that the action of Federal Government is designed to force out Onnoghen, who, as the CJN, will constitute the Presidential Election Tribunal that will entertain disputes arising from the presidential election.
Ozekhome said if the judiciary is terrorised, intimidated harassed and humiliated using strong hand and brute force, democracy will be bided farewell in the country.
He said: “A strong judiciary is one of the irreducible fundamental platforms for any meaningful constitutional democracy.
“The President Buhari government has been very intolerant of any credible dissenting voice in the country. From the crude break – in and invasion of judges’ houses in October 2018, by masked DSS operatives, to the horrific siege laid on the National Assembly and the residences of the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki and his Deputy, Dr Ike Ekweremadu.
“It is clear that this government, which protects its own members, however corrupt and despicable, has blown into full maximum dictatorship, totalitarianism and absolutism. Nigerians must say no to fascism”.
According to Ozekhome, the CCT has no jurisdiction to try a suspect until a fundamental condition precedent is first met and the condition precedent is provided for in the proviso to Section (3) (d) of the CCBT Act.
He said, the position of the law is that a suspect must first be confronted with the allegations by the CCB and be given an opportunity to reply them.
“Facts available in the public domain are that an NGO petitioned against the CJN on 7th January, 2019, and same was received by the CCB two days later, on 9th January, 2019. By 11th January, 2019, charges had been filed and arraignment is to be made on the 14th January, 2019.
“Everything thus took place in one week. When did prosecutorial agencies in Nigeria become so efficient as to accomplish this 8th wonder of the world within such a short time”, the senior lawyer asked.
Another senior advocate, Mr. Abiodun Owonikoko, who wondered where the disingenuous idea came from said: “Given the state of the law today, the charges are premature and misdirected. Nganjiwa v FRN is the last word on the due process to follow in properly seeking sanction against a serving judicial officer who is amenable to the disciplinary and supervisory powers of the National Judicial Council.
Also, a Lagos based lawyer, Mr. Ebun Adegboruwa, said: “By section 36 (4) of the 1999 Constitution, a citizen who is charged with a criminal offence must be taken to the appropriate forum with the requisite jurisdiction to try the offense, be it a court of law, a tribunal or such other quasi-judicial organ.
“By section 153 (1) (i) & (2) of the 1999 Constitution, the National Judicial Council (NJC) was established for the Federation of Nigeria.
“By Paragraph 20 (b) of Part 1 of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution, the NJC shall “exercise disciplinary control over” all judicial officers, including the CJN.
“The NJC being a quasi-judicial organ established by the Constitution, it is the appropriate forum to first raise any matter against any judicial officer, including the CJN. Thus, the NJC has exclusive jurisdiction over all judicial officers, including the CJN.
“By the decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria, no criminal charge can be laid against a judicial officer, including the CJN, in any court of law, without first filing such complaint before the NJC.
“The Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) and the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) are both part and parcel of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and are bound by the decision of the Court of Appeal in NGANJIWA V FRN.
“Under and by virtue of section 287 (2) of the 1999 Constitution, “the decisions of the Court of Appeal shall be enforced in any part of the Federation by all authorities and persons and by courts with subordinate jurisdiction to that of the Court of Appeal.
“The Code of Conduct Bureau and Code of Conduct Tribunal are both subordinate entities to the Court of Appeal and they are bound to enforce, apply and obey the decision of the Court of Appeal in Nganjiwa v FRN.
“From the foregoing, the criminal charges filed against the CJN before the Code of Conduct Tribunal are illegal, ultra vires, unconstitutional, null and void and should either be withdrawn forthwith by the Code of Conduct Bureau, discontinued by the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation by filing a nolle proseque or struck out by the Code of Conduct Tribunal.”
Another legal practitioner, Jiti Ogunye, sees the case as a very grave and unprecedented arraignment.
According to him, the prosecutorial decision taken by the Executive branch of Government (FGN/FRN) is a very grave one, adding that “it is unprecedented in the political history of Nigeria”
He said: “In the life of the Buhari Presidency, the leadership of the National Assembly, the First arm of government, has been subjected to, at least, two criminal trials (Senate Rules forgery case and CCT False Asset Declaration Case). Following those charges and trial is now this charge and planned arraignment of a serving Chief Justice of Nigeria, the head of the Judiciary, the third arm of government.
“Being a weighty issue, therefore, one would have imagined that the decision to put the CJN on trial with frenetic speed, following the petition against the CJN, was weighed very carefully.
“The general election is 35 days away. The CJN, the Supreme Court and the NJC will play certain statutory roles, post the elections.
And even as these events unfold, these judicial authorities are playing some adjudicatory and administrative roles regarding the determination of pre-election matters (appeals) arising from contentious party primaries.
“The CJN is also the head of the Judiciary. Putting him on trial while he is in office, certainly, will impact the Nigerian Judiciary negatively.
The portrayal here inevitably will be that the Nigerian Judiciary is so corrupt that its head is put on trial.
This depiction is not fair to many judicial officers whose integrity is solid and who are free of corrupt practices.
“The most important reason why the CJN ought not to have been charged before the CCT, let alone being prepared for arraignment is because the charge is illegal and unconstitutional.
In NGANJIWA V. F. R.N, 2018, 4NWLR, Part 1609, Page 301, at page 339, para. G-page 352, para. E, the Court of Appeal (Lagos Division) held that no serving judge in Nigeria can be investigated or tried in a court of law, without first being removed from the Bench”.
Due Process should be followed in move to try CJN – Saraki, Dogara
Also reacting , Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki advised the Federal Government to ensure that its plans to put on trial the nation’s chief judicial officer, Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen, does not cause chaos in the judicial system and that the due process is not compromised.
In a statement by his media adviser, Yusuph Olaniyonu on Sunday, Saraki noted that he believes that if the Government truly has genuine reason to put the incumbent Chief Justice of Nigeria on trial, it should ensure that every step in the process is transparent and the normal process as provided by the law is 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 January 10 on Friday, 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 this taking place within three days and commencement of trial fixed for today, January 14, already indicate unnecessary haste and 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.
Everybody 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.
In his reaction, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, called for caution in the charges filed against Justice Walter Onnoghen by the Federal Government.
In a statement issued on Sunday by his media aide, Turaki Hassan, Dogara said that while the House awaits further briefing from relevant agencies, it is important that due process is followed because Nigeria is a country governed by laws and not dictates of men.
He stated 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.
“It is important that people in authority should exercise power with decorum and not plunge the nation into 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.
“As we raised our voice when the National Assembly was invaded by hooded security men last year, it is incumbent on us as the legislature to voice our concerns because we operate under a system where three arms of government are co – equal branches and enjoy a measure of independence guaranteed by the constitution.
“As we approach the general elections, it is incumbent on the prosecutorial authorities to exercise caution and treat matters of this nature with utmost circumspection,” he added.
S’South Governors ask Buhari to quash CJN’s trial, urge Onnoghen not to resign
In their reaction, Governors of the South-South states unanimously condemned the planned trial of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, and asked President Muhammadu Buhari to stop the trial forthwith to save the nation from international embarrassment.
The governors rose from an emergency meeting held at the Bayelsa State Governor’s Lodge in Abuja on Sunday night to call on 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”.
The governors also called on the CJN, Justice Onnoghen, to ignore this so-called Court summon from the CCB and the provocative call for his resignation in some quarters.
They resolved that the action against the CJN constitutes a setback to the gains of the nation’s democratic experience of 20 years.
Reading the resolution of the meeting, the convener and Governor of Bayelsa State, Seriake Dickson, said: “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.
“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”.
They said that President Buhari has a constitutional responsibility and huge moral obligation to defend the nation’s 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 unceremonious removal of former Acting Director General of the Department of State Service, Mathew Seiyefa and his replacement is still very fresh.
“We note that 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.
“It is a fact that this administration has 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”.
They argued 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.
They noted 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.
“While we are not opposed to a genuine fight against corruption, such an action must always be anchored on the rule of law.
“We also decry the massive buildup 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,”, he said
The meeting, called at the instance of the Governor of Bayelsa State, Henry Seriake Dickson, who is also Chairman of the South-South Governors Forum, was attended by the Governors of Cross River State, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, and Delta states.
N’Delta will resist attempt to intimidate Onnoghen, says Clark
Meanwhile, former Federal Commissioner for Information and Niger-Delta leader, Chief Edwin Clark, has warned that the people of Niger Delta would resist any attempt by President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration to harass and force the CJN out of office because of the plan by All Progressives Congress, APC, to rig the elections.
Speaking in a telephone conversation, the Ijaw leader, said: “The people of Nigeria Delta will not accept the CJN being harassed and forced out of office because President Muhammadu Buhari and his party want someone, who will do their bidding after rigging the elections.
“Pan-Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF, which represents the traditional rulers, leaders and stakeholders of the coastal states of Niger Delta and indeed the entire Niger Delta people, will never accept it. We will go all out legally to fight this battle and will never yield to anybody. It is pure victimisation.
“We were all shocked on Saturday when the news came that the Chief Justice of Nigeria is being charged before the Code of Conduct Tribunal. This is clearly unnecessary harassment of the judiciary, a different arm of government that is independent.
“First of all, we all know that before the Chief Justice was appointed, the same President Buhari delayed it, refused to appoint him until when he went on leave on health grounds and that enabled the Vice President, who was acting President to send his name to the Senate for confirmation and appointment.
“Buhari has always preferred that one of his kinsmen should be the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
CJN Onnoghen has done nothing wrong, you cannot charge him to court because the court lacks jurisdiction to try him. The matter should first got the National Judicial Council, NJC.
“They just want to harass him, molest him simply because they want somebody that will be pliable after they have rigged the elections, to appoint tribunal chairmen and members for them to consolidate their rigging.
“That is all what they are looking for, not any other thing, but I want to warn that this country belongs to all of us. If some people think that they own this country, let them have it and others will have their own country.
“You cannot treat some people as if they are slaves or second-class citizens in this country, we will never allow it, not at this time, the harassment is becoming too much”.
Doosuur Iwambe, Tunde Opalana, Henry Omunu, Andrew Orolua, Abuja and Peter Fowoyo, Lagos