By Nasir Ayitogo
The Senate President, Bukola Saraki, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, have spoken on the arraignment of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, over his failure to declare his assets.
In separate statements on Sunday by their spokespersons, Yusuph Olaniyonu and Turaki Hassan respectively, the two presiding officers urged the federal government to thread with caution.
Mr Onnoghen is billed to appear before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) on Monday.
He was charged with six counts of false asset declaration by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) on January 10.
The charges followed a petition brought against him by a group, the Anti-corruption Research and Data Based Initiative, headed by a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress and former official of the defunct Congress for Progressive Change, Denis Aghanya.
In a statement, the CCT said it received the request for the trial of Mr Onnoghen on Friday and had slated Monday to commence with the matter.
But the senate president, in his statement, advised the federal government to ensure that its plans to put on trial the nation’s chief judicial officer does not cause chaos in the judicial system and that the due process is not compromised.
Mr Saraki added that he believes that if the government truly has genuine reason to put the 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), 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 has 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 said.
While noting that the anti-corruption fight has become a case of a separate rule for the people close to the executive branch and another set of rules for the rest of Nigerians, the senate president stated that the fight has been compromised and politicised.
“All these subjective actions politicise the anti-graft fight. They weaken national institutions. They send wrong signals. The CJN is not above the law but his trial puts the entire judicial system on trial. It sends a signal to the entire world about our judiciary. It has implications for the confidence of local and foreign investors about the system of adjudication over disputes in our country. Thus, the matter should be handled with care, demonstrating intense transparency and strict adherence to due process.
“This trial, coming just about a month to the commencement of the presidential elections, the aftermath of which the CJN and the judiciary he is leading are set to play crucial adjudicatory role, has already raised suspicion about the real motive. There are already suggestions that this plan is set to disorganize the judicial arm after constant attempts by agents of State to undermine the federal legislature.
“Therefore, the entire country and the international community will be watching closely every step in this trial because it is definitely unusual, unprecedented and will set a record in the engagement among the three arms of government recognised in our presidential system. This trial definitely has implications for the principle of separation of powers and concept of checks and balance embedded in our presidential system of government,” Mr Saraki said.
The speaker, in his own statement called for caution in the charges filed against the judicial officer.
Mr Dogara said the House awaits further briefing from relevant agencies. Nevertheless, it is important that due process is followed because Nigeria is a country governed by laws and not dictates of men.
He noted 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 added that Nigeria is a country governed by laws with clearly spelt-out procedures and processes for their activation and not the dictates of men. It is important that people in authority should exercise power with decorum and not plunge the nation to 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.
Various lawyers and the Nigerian Bar Association have condemned the arraignment, describing it as unlawful, politically motivated and “a prosecutorial misadventure”.
The main opposition, the Peoples Democratic Party, has also condemned the trial, describing it as a plot by the APC to frustrate the judiciary and rig the forthcoming general elections.
The ruling APC has, however, defended the proposed trial, scheduled to start seven days after Mr Aghanya’s petition was sent to the CCB. It denied any attempt to stifle the judiciary or rig the general elections, next month.