By Ajogwu Jerry Ochada
Since the coming to power of President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015, the pathway towards the reclaim of Nigeria’s integrity has been redefined to suit the attested posture of Nigeria’s incumbent leader reputed as a man of integrity in many quarters of public opinion and national ratings. To define this course, many politicians and citizens who prior before the present dispensation had cases of financial indictment are facing prosecution accordingly without regard for any immunity clause for those who are still in power. Recall that a sitting Senator and a former Governor of Plateau state was tried and jailed for corruption charges.
While many pundits are discussing how President Muhammadu Buhari’s anti-graft policy was able to unravel the scheming of his major opponent, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar arising from the now famous Dubai accord well attended by members of the opposition party, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Walter Onnoghen is facing there latest slam. He will be arraigned today before the Code of Conduct Tribunal by the Buhari led Federal Government over failure to declare his assets. The charge was prepared by Special Presidential Investigation Panel and Mr. Onnoghen was served the appearance notice on Friday the 11th January, 2019. This is the first time in Nigerian history that a serving CJN will be arraigned.
In solidarity with the CJN, in a document signed by Paul Usoro (SAN) President of the Nigerian Bar Association on behalf of the body on Sunday, it kicked against what it tagged the “assault, intimidation and desecration of the Judiciary”.
Part of the statement reads:
“1. Nigerians have witnessed again the targeted assault of the judiciary by agents of the
Federal Government of Nigeria (“FGN”) epitomized by today’s media trial of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honorable Mr. Justice Walter S N Onnoghen, GCON (“CJN”). According to media reports which have now been validated by the Statement of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (“CCT”) that was released today an application was “filed by the Code of Conduct Bureau to the CCT Chairman yesterday for the trial to commence against the Chief Justice of Nigeria on six
count charges” and that the CCT “will commence the trial on Monday, 14th January 2019”.
The Nigerian Bar Association unequivocally condemns this assault, intimidation and desecration of the Judiciary by FGN agencies and demands that it be stopped immediately.
2. In Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391(CA), the Court of Appeal
made it very clear 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. As the Court pointed
out, these requirements of the law are anchored on the overriding principles of separation of powers between the executive, the judiciary and the legislature and on 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.
3. In Nganjiwa v FRN (supra), the Court of Appeal made reference to Rule 3 of the Revised Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers of February 2016 (“Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers”)and held that the said Rule 3 “makes provision in relation to fidelity to the
Constitution and the Law”. The provisions in regard to assets declaration as they apply to all public officers including the CJN are contained in both the Constitution and the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act 1991, the enabling law that establishes both the Code of Conduct Bureau (“CCB”) and the CCT. The fidelity which judicial officers therefore owe “to the Constitution and the Law” pursuant to Rule 3 of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers encompasses compliance with the provisions relating to assets declarations as contained in theConstitution and the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act. Any infraction in that regard by a judicial officer, as the Court of Appeal rightly held, constitutes a misconduct by the judicial
officer and becomes the subject matter for discipline by the NJC as a condition precedent to any possible prosecution of the judicial officer by any of the FGN’s prosecuting agencies.
4. Why has FGN decided to embark on this anomalous course of charging the CJN before the CCT without first presenting whatever facts it purportedly has against His Lordship to the NJC for its deliberation and determination? The Petition that triggered the CCB action was on its face received by the Bureau on 09 January 2019 and the Charge was promptly drafted and is dated the following day, 10 January 2019 – giving the CCB a record 24 hours for completion of its investigation and the drafting of the said Charge and ancillary processes! If one contemplates the fact that the CCT arraignment is scheduled to take place on 14 January 2019, we have in total a record number of 3 (three) working days between the receipt and processing of the petition, investigation, preparation of Charge and ancillary processes and the arraignment! Such unprecedented speed and efficiency in Nigeria’s criminal justice administration! It is clear, given the rush with which this matter was conducted by the CCB, that the NJC was not privy to it and did not conduct its mandatorily required disciplinary processes prior to the filing of the Charge before the CCT.
5. We still wonder why the FGN choose to deviate from the laid down and explicit provisions of the law as expounded in Nganjiwa v FRN (supra). Could it be that it was misadvised? Or is this a naked show of power and force by agencies of the FGN? And why embark on the media trial of the CJN? This, unfortunately, is a predilection of the FGN’s prosecuting agencies with the possible exception of the Federal Ministry of Justice. As the NBA pointed out in its International Anti-Corruption Day Statement that was issued on 09 December 2018 “media trial of persons charged with corrupt practices . . . amount to corruption itself. Indeed, those orchestrated media trials degrade and corrupt the justice administration system quite apart from the incalculable (but obviously intended) damage that it does to persons who may ultimately be discharged and acquitted. In point of fact, it is corrupt practice to use as license or hide under the cover of the fight against corruption to recklessly destroy the names, characters and reputations of persons who have not been found guilty of corrupt practices by competent courts and who may ultimately be pronounced innocent of such charges.” These media trials must, alongside the on-going desecration and assault of the judiciary, cease forthwith.
5. There are two final issues that we must touch upon in this Statement, albeit, briefly. First, could it possibly be a coincidence that the current assault on the judiciary is taking place only weeks to the 2019 National Election? Apart from the conduct itself being wrongful and deplorable, its timing is condemnable. FGN will find it difficult to convince any reasonable person that its assault against the CJN and by extension the judiciary is not aimed at emasculating that arm of the government and intimidating our Judges ahead of the 2019 National Elections.
In our afore-referenced International Anti-Corruption Day Statement, the NBA had deplored “conducts that qualify as . . . political non-accountability, absence of transparency and impunity in public service.” The FGN’s conduct in this instance qualifies,
amongst others, as “impunity in public service”.
6. As a final point, it is also difficult for a disinterested observer not to see a pattern of
consistent assault by agencies of the FGN on the heads of the two independent arms of
government, to wit, the legislature and the judiciary, starting with the prosecution of the
Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, before the CCT and now, the ill-fated prosecution of the
CJN before the same CCT. The impression must not be created that the agencies of the
Executive arm of the FGN are interested in destabilizing and laying prostrate the other arms of the Government and in the process eliminating and destroying any and all voices of dissent and checks and balances. That is not desirable for the democracy that we strive to build neither is it good for the image of the Government. We urge restraint on the part of Government and demand that the CCB follow due process in proceeding against the CJN by complying with Nganjiwa’s Judgment (supra) and other similar judicial precedents. This continuing attack on the justice sector must cease forthwith. FGN and its agencies must desist from debasing the rule of law,” it concluded.
Also reacting to the scandal, a renowned Human Rights lawyer, Femi Falana while speaking to Premium Times described the move against Justice Onnoghen as a “prosecutorial misadventure.” He called on the justice minister, Abubakar Malami, to immediately withdraw the charge. According to Falana, “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.”
A self acclaimed Buharist, Martin Terna Gyado was not left out in the bandwagon of defenders kicking against the CJN’s indictment. In a Facebook publication, Terna said “Gentleman, this is the complete story. Buhari and his APC have been unable to capture the judiciary. If Wike had lost his governorship seat to the APC, if Saraki had been convicted in consonance with their designs and desires …the CJN would have been a trustworthy jurist that would give them the confidence to kill and maim to steal victory in the imminent elections through rigging.
But these people can’t stand an independent judge or an independent institution, so Hon Justice Walter Onnoghen must go down.
They call him a PDP sympathizer but like anything the APC says this again is bull. Onnoghen was one of only three Judges who read a minority judgement nullifying President Umaru Yar’Adua and GEJ’s election in 2007.
An election Yar’Adua himself agreed was flawed but validated by the judiciary all the same.
But Onnoghen will not stand for injustice so he’s name has been recorded by history as a brave and courageous judge who refused to turn a blind eye to electoral malfeasance.
That’s why they are scared of him because this is an election they can never win except through violence and manipulation.. which they know cannot survive in a court held by Onnoghen,” he alleged.
In a protest against the proposed trial, five governors from the south-south urged Walter Onnoghen, the chief justice of Nigeria (CJN), to ignore the summons by the Code of Conduct Tribunal. The governors, who met in Abuja on Sunday, accused President Muhammadu Buhari of not having any regards for the feelings of the Niger Delta. The governors said the trial is “directly aimed at humiliating the nation’s highest judicial officer and a prominent son of the region” and described it as “totally unacceptable”. In the communique issued by the governors after an emergency meeting they also pointed to the removal of Mathew Seiyefa, from Bayelsa state, as acting director-general of the Department of State Service as an indication of the “endless marginalization and intimidation” of the south-south geo-political zone.
The communique was signed by Governors Henry Seriake Dickson (Bayelsa), Nyesom Wike (Rivers), Ben Ayade (Cross River), Udom Emmanuel (Akwa Ibom) and Ifeanyi Okowa (Delta) — all members of the PDP. Godwin Obaseki (Edo), the only APC governor from the south-south, did not attend the meeting.
Full text of the communique read:
“An emergency meeting of the governors of the states of the South South geopolitical zone, held at the Bayelsa State Governor’s Lodge, Abuja on Sunday, January 13, 2019.
The meeting, called at the instance of the Governor of Bayelsa State, the Honourable 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.
The meeting deliberated on the recent happenings at the Supreme Court involving the Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Walter Onnoghen and resolved that the action against him constitutes a setback to the gains of the nation’s democratic experience of 20 years.
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.
The judicial pronouncements in the cases of FGN Vs Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court (January 9, 2018) and Justice Ngajinwa Vs FGN 2017 at the CCT have given validation to the express provisions of the constitution on this issue.
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
We believe that the President, Muhammadu Buhari has a constitutional responsibility and huge moral obligation to defend our 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 marginalization 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.
We strongly believe 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.
We note 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.
Based on the foregoing, we hereby call on the President:
1) 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.
2) We call on the CJN to ignore this so-called Court summon from the CCB and the provocative call for his resignation in some quarters.
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,” the communique cautioned.
However, in a recent twist, the Special Adviser to President Buhari on Political Matters, Senator Babafemi Ojudu, has dismissed reports that the president demanded the resignation of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen. Ojudu made the disclosure when he was reacting to reports that Buhari asked the embattled CJN to tender his resignation letter. According to him: “Buhari never at any time demanded CJ’s resignation. I challenge anyone who says so to cite the pronouncement, the press statement or quote any public official who made such announcement,” he said
As Nigerians and international observers watch the outcome of today’s trial, it is worthy of note that over 150 jurists are on standby to protect one of their own. The status of Chief Justice of Nigeria is the highest legal status in the land and such seat cannot be abused or humiliated. However, if the CJN is found to be guilty as charged, the law will definitely take its course.