By Soni Daniel, Emmanuel Aziken, Clifford Ndujihe, Ikechukwu Nnochiri, Johnbosco Agbakwuru, Joseph Erunke, Omeiza Ajayi, Dirisu Yakubu & Ike Uchechukwu
AHEAD of today’s meeting of the National Judicial Council, NJC, to deliberate on the boiling crisis in the Judiciary, security within the premises of the Supreme Court was beefed up, yesterday, especially around the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s suspension of Justice Walter Onnoghen as CJN over assets declaration glitches and the swearing-in of Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad as his successor in acting capacity had been generating heat in the polity, especially in the Judiciary.
A man holds a sign as protesters assemble outside the secretariat of the Nigerian Bar Association during a protest in Abuja over the suspension of Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) in Abuja on January 28, 2019. – Nigeria’s government has denied suggestions that the suspension of the country’s top judge on corruption charges was linked to next month’s election. President Muhammadu Buhari replaced Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen on January 25, 2019, sparking claims he had breached the constitution and was trying to manipulate the judiciary. (Photo AFP)
Security operatives sealed off Justice Onnoghen’s chambers at the apex court and his administrative staff were barred from having access into any of the offices.
This was as the Acting CJN, Muhammad, took over and presided over about 10 cases that came up for hearing before the Supreme Court, yesterday.
A security personnel at the entrance of the apex court told Vanguard that apart from the normal security operatives at the court, a detachment of Police officers was brought, yesterday morning.
According to the security officer, “Police officers apart from the ones that stay at the gate were brought in today (yesterday) at the CJN’s office but the suspended CJN did not come today (yesterday).”
A staff of the Supreme Court said the presence of the police was normal to guard the court premises.
Police distance self from sealing of Onnoghen’s office
However, the Police have denied sealing the office of Justice Onnoghen, and added the Supreme Court’s internal security outfit may be responsible, if the CJN’s office was sealed.
Force Public Relations Officer, ACP Frank Mbah, speaking on the telephone with Vanguard, insisted that the Police did not seal the office, saying he only heard of the development from the media.
His words: “Have you gone there yourself? It is very easy; all these speculations are not necessary. You are in Abuja,the CJN’s office is in the centre here in Abuja, it is not in Gwagwalada, it is not in Lugbe, it is just in the city centre here.
“Go there and look at things yourself. We have not sealed anywhere. I don’t have any information relating to any sealing. I just heard this from the media. If we seal a place,you are going to see armoured personnel and all kinds of things.
“The Supreme Court corps has right to make their own internal arrangements, so if they have made their own internal security arrangements, people should not attribute it to the police.”
Meanwhile, the CJN issue assumed more dimensions, yesterday, as 25 lawyers sued President Buhari to court to quash Onnoghen’s suspension on a day the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT adjourned the trial of embattled CJN indefinitely.
Presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, said President Buhari’s actions amounted to executive recklessness, with the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, countering that Onnoghen was Atiku and PDP’s last hope of rigging the 2019 general polls.
Also, the Senate shelved its planned resumption, today, and headed to court to challenge President Buhari’s suspension of Onnoghen without due process.
In like manner, some lawyers and groups, including Dr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN; Tayo Oyetibo, SAN; 67 political parties, kicked and urged the NJC, to do the needful to save the polity.
As protests rocked Calabar, the Cross River State Capital, yesterday, over Onnoghen’s suspension, the African Centre for Media and Information Literacy, AFRICMIL, applied to the Code of conduct Bureau, CCB, for the asset declaration of the Acting CJN, Justice Mohammed.
Lawyers protest, NBA orders 2-day boycott of courts; ABA condemns reign of tyranny
Lawyers and members of civil society organisations protested simultaneously across several cities in Nigeria, yesterday, to register their outrage over President Buhari’s suspension of Onnoghen.
In Abuja, lawyers marched through Airport Road with some hanging on trucks to register their disapproval of Buhari’s treatment of the CJN.
Meanwhile the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, has directed its members to stay away from the courts from today. The NBA took the decision at its emergency meeting in Abuja, saying the warning strike will last for two days.
Also, the African Bar Association, ABA, condemned the reign of tyranny in Nigeria under Buhari, calling on the Federal Government to tread softly and apply itself to the rule of law.
25 lawyers drag Buhari to court,
Kicking against what they described as illegal suspension of the CJN, the 25 lawyers led by human rights activist, Mr. Johnmary Jideobi, dragged Buhari to court.
They prayed the high court to determine: “Whether by the combined interpretation of Section 153(1) (i) paragraph 21(a) of the 3rd Schedule and Sections 271, 291, 292 and 231 of the amended 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria [and especially in view of the Supreme Court decision in Elelu-Habeeb vs. AGF (2012) 13 N.W.L.R. (Pt. 1318);], there exists any authority in the 1st Defendant (Buhari) to suspend the 4th Defendant (Onnoghen) as the Chief Justice of Nigeria?
“Whether by the combined interpretation of Section 153(1) (i) paragraph 21(a) of the 3rd Schedule and Sections 271, 291, 292 and 231 of the amended 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria [and especially in view of the Supreme Court decision in Elelu-Habeeb vs. AGF (2012) 13 N.W.L.R. (Pt. 1318);] the purported suspension of the 4th Defendant as the Chief Justice of Nigeria by the 1st Defendant on 25th January, 2019 is not unconstitutional?”.
Upon determination of the questions, the Plaintiffs, asked the court to among others hold that President Buhari lacked the constitutional power to suspend Onnoghen as the CJN, and “an order of this honourable court restoring the 4th Defendant forthwith to his office as the Chief Justice of Nigeria.’’
In a 30-paragraphed affidavit deposed to by the 1st Plaintiff, the litigants, insisted that President Buhari acted beyond his powers by suspending Onnoghen without recourse to the NJC.
CCT adjourns Onnoghen’s trial indefinitely
Meantime, the Mr. Danladi Umar-led tribunal said its decision to suspend Justice Onnoghen’s trial was based on the order of the Court of Appeal in Abuja.
“In view of the Court of Appeal order for stay of proceedings and out of respect for the Court of Appeal, the tribunal hereby adjourn this matter sine-die (indefinitely) pending the determination of the Appeal before the Court of Appeal”, Mr. Umar ruled.
Only the CCT Chairman and the third member of the panel, Mrs. Julie Amabo, attended the sitting.
The second member of the panel, Mr. William Agwadza Atedze, was absent.
It will be recalled that Mr. Atedze had openly disagreed with the Tribunal’s Chairman over the procedure adopted in the trial of the suspended CJN.
While the Chairman relied on section 306 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015, to reject a motion Justice Onnoghen filed for the tribunal to suspend his trial and await the outcome of his appeal, Mr. Atedze, relied on section 287(3) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, and a plethora of Supreme Court decided cases, to insist that the CCT panel ought to have respected four different interim injunctions that restrained all the parties, including the tribunal, from taking further steps in the matter.
In Atedze’s absence, the CCT Chairman, Umar and Amabor, on January 23, issued the ex-parte order President Buhari relied upon to suspend Onnoghen and appoint Justice Tanko Mohammed as the Acting CJN.
At the resumed sitting of the CC, yesterday, government lawyer, Mr. Musa Ibrahim, drew the attention of the tribunal to an order the Court of Appeal made on January 24.
“Ordinarily, the matter was adjourned till today for hearing of the preliminary objection filed by the defendant. But in view of the order from the Court of Appeal, we will be asking for an adjournment pending the ruling of the Court of Appeal”, Musa submitted.
In his response, Mr. Kanu Agabi, SAN, who led nine other Senior Advocates of Nigeria and 38 other lawyers who appeared for Onnoghen, said he was not opposed to the request for adjournment.
Agabi who did not make any reference to the ex-parte order that empowered President Buhari to suspend the defendant, however expressed his displeasure over the refusal of the tribunal to furnish his client with records of its proceedings.
“We have been on it since January 23. It is very unfortunate that we have literally been on our knees begging for the record of this tribunal”, Agabi stated.
Before he adjourned the case indefinitely, Mr. Umar promised to ensure that the CCT records were made available to counsel to the defendant.
Senate heads to court
Meanwhile, the Senate has challenged the decision of President Buhari to suspend Justice Onnoghen. Following the decision of the body to go to court, the Senate yesterday called off today’s emergency session called to deliberate on the issue.
A statement issued by the spokesman of the Senate President, Mr. Yusuph Olaniyonu on the development read thus: “Earlier today, the Senate filed a case in the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court, seeking its interpretation on whether President Muhammadu Buhari acted within the provision of the constitution in his suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Hon. Justice Walter Nkannu Onnoghen or whether the action of the President does amount to usurpation of the powers of the Senate as provided for in Section 292 of the constitution.
“Following the filing of the case, the matter of the suspension of the CJN which is the main issue for which the Senate had planned to reconvene tomorrow, has become subjudiced.
“Therefore, in line with the standing rules of the Senate not to debate issues that are already pending before the court, the reconvening of the Senate tomorrow has been put off. The previous adjournment of the Senate till February 19, 2019 stays.”
67 parties kick
Meanwhile, 67 political parties including the PDP, Social Democratic Party, SDP, and Action Alliance, among others yesterday flayed the suspension of Justice Onnoghen from office.
The parties in a joint resolution described the action as illegal and contrary to the nation’s constitution.
“The CJN, as a judicial officer, can only be removed from office by the President acting on an address supported by two thirds majority of the Senate for his inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment or for misconduct or contravention of the Code of Conduct.
“Anything contrary to this procedure is unconstitutional and serves only to harm our democracy. Furthermore, the National Judicial Council, (NJC), has not recommended the suspension or removal of the CJN, neither has it exercised any disciplinary action against the CJN. Thus the purported suspension of the CJN by President Buhari must fail”, the 67 parties stated and called on the president to reverse the suspension.
Agbakoba petitions NJC
In a related development, former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, has submitted a petition to the NJC, asking it to take punitive measures against Justice Muhammad for making himself available to be sworn in as the acting CJN.
Agbakoba urged the legal body to determine the propriety of Justice Muhammad, accepting to be sworn-in to replace the suspended CJN, thereby lending himself to constitutional infraction by the executive arm of government.
The former NBA boss noted that Justice Muhammad was part of an NJC panel that sanctioned Justice Obisike Orji of Abia State for allowing himself to be sworn-in as Abia State Chief Judge by the state’s governor without the recommendation of the NJC.
Four issues NJC must determine – Oyetibo
Also, Tayo Oyetibo, SAN, urged the NJC to look at four cardinal issues in the matter.
He said: ‘’Four major issues call for the attention of the Council which ought to be looked into. They are:
- 1. in the face of the serious allegations of infraction of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers, should His Lordship the Honourable Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen still continue to sit over cases that come to the Supreme Court which might include cases involving violation of the Code of Conduct? In dealing with this issue, the NJC will need to recall the recent cases of their Lordships against whom certain allegations were made by the DSS.
‘’Was the conduct of the various Judges who took tums issuing ex-parte injunctions to stop the proceedings of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, at the instance of strangers to the proceedings, in accord with the provisions of Rule 2(2) of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers which require that a judicial officer must avoid the abuse of the power of issuing interim injunctions, Ex Parte?
‘’3. Was the conduct of the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal in purporting to issue on, 23’d January, 2019, an Ex Parte order for the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, after having adjourned the proceedings on 22″d January, 2019 to 28th January, 2019 in accord with the provisions of Rule 212 already set out above and Rule 2 (5)(i) of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers which requires the Judge to hear the other side before making such an order 2.
‘’ We recall here the ABN days of 1993 when “black market” injunctions were being procured from various courts. The tragedy of the case at hand is that the impugned order was obtained by the Federal Government.
‘’4. Was it right for his Lordship the honourable Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad to have presented himself to the President to be sworn in as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria to supplant the incumbent Chief Justice of Nigeria, when it was clear from the provisions of section 292(1) and paragraph 21(b) of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution and decided cases that only the NJC has constitutional power to exercise disciplinary control over the Chief Justice of Nigeria?
‘’ In dealing with this particular issue, the NJC should bear in mind the precedents of the 2006 Ekiti State Judiciary episode and the recent Abia State Judiciary incident.
‘’In dealing with these issues we expect the NJC to be proactive and not be inhibited by the dilatory provisions of the Judicial Discipline Regulations 2017.’’
Buhari’s action amounts to executive lawlessness – Atiku
Also, former Vice President and PDP Presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar described as an act of executive lawlessness, President Buhari’s suspension of Onnoghen.
Addressing a world press conference yesterday at the Shehu Yar’ Adua centre, Abuja, Atiku also took a swipe at the APC-led government for what he called its serial disobedience of court orders and constitutional violations.
He said: “I need to state that this latest action by General Muhammadu Buhari falls squarely within the pattern of executive lawlessness that has now been firmly turned into statecraft by the APC government.
“The serial disregard of court orders, and consequent violation of constitutionally guaranteed human rights of our citizens confirms beyond all doubt that General Buhari and his government would rather obey their own whims and operate by separate rules outside the well-established constitutional order and the rule of law. It scarcely requires emphasis that this behaviour is alien to democratic rule and more in line with that of a military dictator.
“I commend all Nigerians and friends of Nigeria who have expressed outrage over the unlawful removal of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, an action, which constitutes a flagrant breach of our constitution and a frontal assault on our democracy. I want to note the universal condemnation of this unlawful act by all Nigerians, as well as the international community.”
He called on Nigerians to resist any shape or form of dictatorship by ensuring that the constitution is obeyed at all times.
“Our dear country is passing through a difficult moment. How we react to this challenge in the following days will determine the fate of our democracy, which has been brought to great peril by this needless crisis engineered by a government that is unwilling to subject its conducts to the requirements of our constitution.
“Without doubt, the fight against corruption is crucial to good governance and the progress of our country. In this context, the issue of corruption as it relates to the institution of the judiciary is even more crucial.
“As the last refuge of the common man, our judiciary must not only be above suspicion but must also be seen to be manifestly above board. The issue at stake is not whether the Chief Justice is guilty or not, but whether his removal from office has been done in accordance with the process specified in our constitution,” he added.
Continuing, the PDP flag bearer said, “as a democrat, I must say, without equivocation, that no mission or goal, no matter how noble or well intended, should be used as a pretext for the subversion of our democracy and our democratic institutions.
“To create a condition that allows the constitution and the rule of law to become secondary to any other agenda is to pave the way for tyranny. History is replete with odious dictators whose path to dictatorship started with statements of good intentions. We must therefore remain vigilant in defense of our democracy.
“We are all witnesses to how this government has serially assaulted the National Assembly, a separate arm of government that represents the bastion of our democracy. However, with this attack on the judiciary, General Buhari has set a new precedent in our democracy that has no equivalence in our history, not even in the darkest days of military dictatorship. This cannot be allowed to stand.
“At this juncture, I must warn the APC government to desist from taking actions that may push us further down the slippery slope towards a major constitutional crisis that could derail the electoral process. General Muhammadu Buhari must remember that he is a beneficiary of a free and fair election. It is therefore a matter of honour for him to allow a political environment and process that gives confidence to everyone.’’
Onnoghen was Atiku, PDP’s last hope of rigging polls – APC
Countering, the APC said the PDP and its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar have continued to whine over the suspension of Justice Onnoghen because the opposition party had planned to use the top jurist to get back to power at all costs.
National Publicity Secretary of the APC, Mallam Lanre Issa-Onilu in a statement, yesterday, said: “The strident opposition to Justice Onnoghen’s suspension coming from the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) led by its presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar again points to their penchant for anything corrupt and criminal”.
“We have read the PDP and Atiku’s responses to the President’s action with shock albeit with a feeling of vindication. Their responses portray the Nigeria they wish for. A Nigeria where the rich and powerful are above the law; a Nigeria riddled with corruption and disregard for set down rules and laws as enshrined in the constitution; a Nigeria where institutions of government are manipulated and exploited for the benefit of a few privileged.
“For one, the Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike’s hold on Justice Onnoghen and a few others in the Judiciary is well-known. This was their trump card to hijack power post-election. It is clear that Justice Onnoghen’s suspension has devastated the PDP as their plans to get back to power through the “cash and carry” justice system they put in place during their unfortunate 16 years reign is in serious jeopardy.
“In citing the election tribunals as reason for Justice Onnoghen’s suspension, has Atiku given himself away on his now busted plot to use the tribunals to steal the people’s mandate in the presidential election he knows he will lose?
“Nigerians have seen beyond the PDP and Atiku’s charade and reject their dream and inordinate personal ambition in totality. Nigerians have seen the handwriting on the wall and we are poised to defeat the PDP and Atiku in the coming elections under a free, fair, and credible electoral process.
“It is completely untenable to insinuate any attempt on the part of our government to rig elections. Our party contested elections in 2015 as an opposition party and we trounced the PDP while operating strictly by the electoral rules. It is even needless for us at this period as the ruling party with unprecedented achievements in less than four years to rig or influence the elections. We are very confident of victory and are desirous of a peaceful and credible elections more than any political party.
“The PDP and Atiku have asked the international community to intervene in Justice Onnoghen’s suspension. Is the international community not supportive of the fight against corruption?
“Against the backdrop of statements by some foreign concerns over Justice Onnoghen’s suspension vis-a-vis forthcoming general elections, we strongly advise that they are abreast with our laws and procedures. A situation where these foreign concerns come across as meddling or being misled or influenced by bogus partisan narratives is unfortunate and unacceptable. Our firm commitment to ridding the country of corruption and ensuring credible electioneering processes remains resolute.”
The ruling party also berated Justice Onnoghen for attempting to cling on to power at all costs, describing his action as an assault in the same constitution which he swore to uphold.
“We must ask ourselves these questions, why was Justice Onnoghen suspended? What are the charges against him? It is on the basis of this, we had expected the PDP, Atiku and their agents to assess the President’s action.
“Justice Onnoghen was accused of non declaration of assets — a requirement by law for every public officer. While under investigations, other transactions have been traced to Justice Onnoghen’s personal accounts, all undeclared as required by law. Justice Onnoghen has personally admitted to this in writing claiming that he made a “mistake” and “forgot” to declare his assets.”
Protest rocks Calabar, as group vows to vote out Buhari, APC
Protesters under the aegis of “Concerned Cross Riverians on The Unconstitutional Suspension of the CJN” protested at the Millennium Park in Calabar describing as unconstitutional the suspension of Justice Onnoghen by President Buhari.
They also vowed to vote out APC at all levels especially President Buhari.
Addressing newsmen yesterday during the protest through a communiqué by the group a constitutional lawyer, Barr Leo Anyogo said the people of Cross River were peace loving but are dismayed by the ordeal of the CJN.
His words: “Whereas the peace loving people of Cross River have always contributed freely and enormously to the growth and development of the Nigerian state; we recall with dismay the foot dragging in the swearing of Justice Walter Onnoghen by President Buhari after due recommendation by the NJC and confirmation by the senate which after pressure and outcry, was subsequently sworn-in by the then Acting President and current Vice President Prof Yemi Osinbajo.
“It is with total shock and disbelief that President Buhari in clear violation of S.292 of the constitution and that of the court of Appeal purportedly suspended the CJN without due process. This is clearly an assault on the Sacred Temple of Justice.
“While we are in no way absolving the Honuorable Chief Justice of blame for any possible error, we insist that constitutionality and due process must be followed before his suspension or removal. We commend all those who are standing up for the defense of our constitution as we practice constitutional democracy with clear cut separation of Powers within the three Arms of Government.”
AFRICMIL seeks information on Justice Tanko Mohammed’s asset declaration
The African Centre for Media and Information Literacy, AFRICMIL, a non-governmental organization focused on good governance and the promotion of accountability has applied to the Code of conduct Bureau (CCB) for the asset declaration of the new Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim 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, which states that “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 the every four years; and (b) at the end of his term of office, submit to the Code of Conduct Bureau a written declaration of all his properties, assets, and liabilities and those of his unmarried children under the age of eighteen years.”
“Pursuant to the aforementioned provision of the 1999 constitution, as amended, and Section 1(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 which states that, “Notwithstanding anything contained in any other Act, law or regulation, the right of any person to access and request information, whether or not contained in any written form, which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution howsoever described, is hereby established,” we humbly request to be allowed to inspect and obtain copies of the following documents, the letter noted:
- The asset declaration of Honourable Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed JSC on his elevation as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria;
- The asset declaration of the Honourable Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed JSC on his appointment as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria by President Muhammadu Buhari.