Justice Walter Onnoghen some months ago, did not know that he would become the most talked about man in Nigeria by January 25. 

At least these reactions will last till the end of this weekend. 

While Nigerians search for answers to why President Muhammadu Buhari’s decided to suspend Chief Justice Onnoghen and quickly replace him with Tanko Mohammed, as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), some lawyers are giving a more informed opinion on the issue.

Some persons who lacked knowledge of the constitutional rights of President Buhari, have put their neck on the gallows for the President, insisting that he did the right thing that was in line with the anti-corruption war he champions 

A lawyer, who understands the constitution and what it says about the rights of the Nigerian President to suspend the Chief Justice and replace him with another individual dwelling on an order from the Code of Conduct Tribunal,  has given his opinion on the issue.

He also suggested what should have been done, which included a withdrawal from service that should have been tendered by the CJN.  

In a lengthy analysis, Jiti Ogunye, looked at the right and the wrong of the decision of President Muhammadu Buhari. 

President Buhari had explained in a 25-paragraph address that his decision was taken based on an advice of the CCT after the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) said it had filed corruption related charges against the CJN before the CCT and the commencement of his “trial" for gross violations of the provisions of the Code of Conduct for public officers, as stipulated in the Constitution of Nigeria, the CJN, instead of resigning his position took steps to frustrate his trial. 

The CJN had been accused in the charges of receiving into and retaining in many banks accounts huge sums of money in foreign and local currencies, without disclosing them in his asset declaration forms and documents submitted to the CCB. 

The CCB had on January 7, 2019, received the petition against the CJN and between that date and 14 January, 2919, treated the petition and filed charges against the CJN, leading to his expected arraignment. 

In a written statement that Justice Onnoghen volunteered, he admitted the ownership of the bank accounts and the sums therein contained, but claimed that he forgot to declare the bank accounts. 

Unusual Speed

One thing that left many Nigerians shocked, according to the lawyer, was the speed of that process, making many to wonder whether that speed did not signify that the FGN was coordinating the plot to remove the CJN from office. 

The publicised demand of the Federal Executive Branch of Government for the resignation of the CJN from office, and the hollow and flat statement made by Vice President, claiming the President was not aware of the travail of the CJN before he was charged were pointers that the Buhari Administration was the resolute and implacable force behind the effort to remove the CJN from office. 

According to the lawyer, after the CJN confessed, the president stated that Nigerians had expected the CJN to resign his office.

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But instead of doing that (waiting), a team of senior lawyers working with him had obtained a number of orders from the courts to frustrate his trial.

It was in consequence of these orders that the Executive had to act.

It sought an order to suspend the CJN from office and upon the order being granted by the CCT, acted swiftly to suspend the CJN from office. 

Divided Public 

As it has now become the pattern, public opinion on the action taken against the CJN by the president is sharply divided. 

A section of the public is of the view that the president acted illegally and unconstitutionally. They cite the provisions of Section 292 of the Constitution, which guarantees security of tenure for judicial officers, especially the CJN. 

By this, he cannot be suspended or removed from office without the recommendation of the NJC and the 2/3 concurring approval of the Senate. 

The other section hails the action of the President, contending that it is premised on a valid and subsisting order of the CCT, which has not been set aside, and which is incumbent on the President to enforce.

Informed View 

Faced with the divided, nay partisan opinion on the matter, patriots, lovers of democracy, believers in the rule of law and abhorrers of corrupt practices in our public life must take an informed and well considered view on the far-reaching and unprecedented step the Executive Branch of Government has taken.

While isolated (and we say not pervasive) cases of corrupt practices in the judiciary must be combated assiduously by our anti-corruption agencies under the Executive Branch of Government, Nigerians must decry the procedure adopted by the Muhammadu Administration.

Because of wrong procedure, the suspension is patently illegal and unconstitutional. It is disingenuous for anyone to argue to the contrary.

Incidentally, the senior lawyers that colluded with the Goodluck Jonathan Administration then to traduce and harangue Hon. Justice Isa Ayo Salami, CFR, and cruelly and crudely abort his presidency of the Court of Appeal are now in the CJN Onnoghen’s corner, mouthing “the rule of law“ , “due process of law” , “judicial independence“, and decrying an alleged descent into fascism. 

Political Game Play 

Apparently, the executive branch of the government desired the ouster of the CJN from office. 

To actualise the objective, it worked closely with a shadowy NGO to dredge up CJN Onnoghen’s infractions of provisions of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers. Many of these infractions predated the appointment of Justice Onnoghen as the CJN in 2017. 

But there was no political exigency then for the use of the discovered and known transgressions of the CJN. 

The motive for using the allegations now is the feared harm the judiciary that is presided over by the CJN could do to the political interests of the ruling party, especially regarding pre-election cases and election petitions. 

The CJN is facing an indefensible and shameful allegation of corruption against him , an allegation which warrants that he resigns from office, without waiting for his suspension from office by the Executive Branch of Government. But if the truth must be told, the reasons for the action of the Executive are beyond the fight against corrupt practices in the Judiciary.

The constitutional path to be charted to legally suspend or remove a CJN from office is luminously delineated by the Constitution.

What The Law Says 

By virtue of Section 292(1)(a)(i) of the Constitution, the CJN cannot be removed from his office or appointment before his retirement age ( or suspended from office while the real intention is to secure his removal ) except by the President, acting on an address supported by two thirds majority of the Senate.

The NJC, by virtue of paragraph 21(b) of Part 1 of the Third Schedule to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 ( as amended ) recommends to the President the removal from office of certain category of judicial officers including the CJN, and exercises disciplinary control over them. Problematic? Of course, yes.

This is because regulators are being impracticably saddled with the power to regulate themselves. But that is the path for the removal or suspension of the CJN from office as provided by the Constitution!

Section 18, Part 1 of the Fifth Schedule to the Constitution defines the power of the CCT. In particular, Section 18 ( 2) stipulates the punishments which the CCT may impose upon conclusion of trial. They are : (a) vacation of office or seat in any legislative house as the case may be; (b) disqualification from membership of a legislative house and from the holding of any public office for a period not exceeding ten years; and (c) seizure and forfeiture to the State of any property acquired in abuse or corruption of office.

Also Read: Outrage On Social Network Over Northern Agenda In #OnnoghenSuspension

Instructively, the CCT is not vested with any power under the Constitution or the Code of Conduct Tribunal Act to order the Executive Branch of Government to suspend a public officer who is undergoing trial before it, from office, pending the conclusion of trial, as the CCT has purportedly done. 

Looking Ahead 

In order to save the Judiciary from further assault and embarrassment, and Nigeria from further international humiliation, a number of urgent steps must be taken by the Judiciary, the Executive Branch of Government and the legal profession. 

The President must withdraw his purported execution of the order of the CCT suspending CJN Onnoghen from office, and swearing in Hon. Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammed as the Acting CJN of Nigeria.

This must be done immediately to stabilise the failing health of the Supreme Court that must have been occasioned by the act of the President. 

Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen must immediately resign from the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria. 

His reputation as a judge and as the head of the Nigerian Judiciary has been irreparably damaged, and his clinging to judicial office will not serve any useful purpose at this time.

Every opinion contained in this article is that of Jiti Ogunye, a public interest attorney, commentator, author and the legal adviser to Premium Times.

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