Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen is the head of Nigeria’s judiciary.
By Ben Ezeamalu
Some judicial advocacy groups have criticised the Nigerian government over its planned arraignment of its chief justice, Walter Onnoghen, over false assets declaration.
In separate statements sent to PREMIUM TIMES on Sunday, the groups called on the government to stop the action and withdraw the charges against Mr Onnoghen.
“This prosecution, for the records, is unprecedented,” said Joseph Otteh, the convener of the Lagos-based Access to Justice.
“No Chief Justice of Nigeria, before now has been charged in a court of law for any offences. Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen is head of the Nigerian judiciary, and whenever a government moves against the head of a Judiciary, if the lessons of history teach us something, it is often a red flag.”
The Code of Conduct Bureau had scheduled the arraignment of Mr Onnoghen, who was appointed the head of Nigeria’s judiciary in 2017, on January 14.
He is charged with six counts of alleged false assets declaration.
The planned arraignment had drawn criticisms from several legal practitioners including the umbrella body of lawyers in the country, the Nigerian Bar Association.
Mr Otteh described as unnerving, the circumstances surrounding how the case was stringed together by the accusers and the motives of the government seen through its response to the criticisms.
“There is extraordinary evidence of back-stage collusion between government and the protagonists of the complaints (evidenced, for example, by the unprecedented haste with which the Code of Conduct Bureau has acted on the petitions), and well-founded fears that the prosecution is politically-motivated and is targeting strategic influence over how an incumbent Chief Justice exercises the roles of that office in the upcoming elections.”
Mr Otteh said everything about how the case was orchestrated and put forward – the alleged links between the petitioners and the president, the amount of personal information of the Chief Justice made available to the petitioners, the haste with which the Code of Conduct Bureau acted on the petitions, giving no reasonable time to conduct credible forensic investigations into them – are evidence of a plot to remove Mr Onnoghen from office.
“The motive is corrupt from the word go and will pitch many of those who want to see a more transparent judiciary, against the move,” he said.
“Overall, this prosecution will be cast as an invidious effort to undermine judicial independence and interfere with the adjudication of election cases, which, really, is what it appears to be more than anything else.”
On Sunday, South-south governors convened an emergency meeting where they prevailed on Mr Onnoghen to shun appearance before the Code of Conduct Tribunal on Monday morning.
Chino Obiagwu, the coordinator of the Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP), said the charges against Mr Onnoghen are not only unlawful but that the executive arm lacks the constitutional power to discipline or charge any judge to court for a criminal offence unless the judge had been subjected to disciplinary procedure by the National Judicial Council (NJC).
“LEDAP filed a suit at the Federal High Court Abuja in October 2016 when some judges’ homes were raided and some of them arrested,” Mr Obiagwu, a senior advocate of Nigeria, said.
“We challenged the constitutionality of the arrests without prior reference to NJC. In 2017 in a similar suit, the court of appeal confirmed that only the NJC can discipline judicial officers or refer them for criminal prosecution. This was the case of Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391 (CA).
“The charges against the CJN without reference to, and prior disciplinary actions of NJC, are grossly unlawful. The CCT as a vehicle for such unlawful enterprise, as an arm of the Presidency, contravene the principle of separation of powers under the 1999 Constitution.
“We call on the federal government to immediately withdraw the charges against the CJN, as well as the purported motion for order suspending him from office. The executive arm of government has no power for seek for such orders. We also call on the Hon Attorney General of the Federation to put a stop to this unconstitutional actions and to allow caution and good sense to rule to avoid the erosion of judicial independence.”