For the first time in the history of this nation, a sitting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) is about to be arraigned before a court for trial.
The Federal Government has slammed a six-count criminal charge against Justice Walter Onnoghen, the CJN, over an alleged refusal to declare his assets.
Aside allegation that he failed to disclose his assets as prescribed by law, the FG, in the charge that was filed by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) also accused the CJN of operating foreign bank accounts.
The prosecuting agency alleged that contrary to relevant laws regulating conduct of public office holders, the CJN, maintained a domiciliary foreign currencies account that comprised of Dollars Account, Pound Sterling Account and Euro Account.
Efforts were made last week to dock the CJN before the Justice Danladi Umar’s Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), in Abuja, even as a motion was prepared for the tribunal to compel Justice Onnoghen to vacate his office to concentrate on clearing himself of the criminal allegations against him
The application dated January 11, was signed by two senior lawyers at the CCB, Musa Ibrahim Usman and Fatima Danjuma Ali. The motion, if had been granted, would have seen the replacement of Justice Onnoghen, the first Southern to attain the position of the CJN in over 30 years, with the next most senior jurist on the apex court Bench, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed, who is from the Northern extraction.
A cross section of Nigerians, however, see the travails of the CJN as part of intrigues over the 2019 general elections.
But, Justice Onnoghen, however, declared the readiness of the Judiciary under his watch, to dispassionately resolve disputes that would arise from the impending elections.
Justice Onnoghen’s appointment, it would be recalled, suffered unprecedented delay by President Muhammadu Buhari over undisclosed issues. It took the boldness of Prof Yemi Osinbajo the Vice President, to confirm Onnoghen’s appointment during one of President Buhari’s medical sojourn in United Kingdom (UK).
However, several senior lawyers, including Chief Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), as well as civil society groups, have risen up against Justice Onnoghen’s arraignment.
Thus, is the FG right by prosecuting the Justice Onnoghen over asset declaration?
What The Constitution Says
Section 291(1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), provided that a judicial officer appointed to the Supreme Court or Court of Appeal, may retire when he attains the age of 65 years and shall cease to hold office when he attend the age of 70 years.
Section 292 (1) says: “A judicial officer shall not be removed from his office or appointment before his age of retirement except in the following circumstances: (a) In the case of (1) Chief Justice of Nigeria, President of the Court of Appeal, Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, President of the National Industrial Court, Chief Judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Grand Kadi of the Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja and President Customary Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, by the President, acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate.
(b) “In any case, other than those to which Paragraph (a) of this subsection applies, by the President or, as the case may be, the Governor, acting on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council that the judicial officer be so removed for his inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment (whether arising from infirmity of mind or of body) or for misconduct or contravention of the Code of Conduct.”
FG Ought To Apply Utmost Caution, Decency In Trying CJN –UPP Chief
Professor Francis Dike, a chieftain of the United Progressive Party (UPP) and chairman, Orlu Elders Council in Imo State, said: “The Judiciary is the third arm of the government and in any constitutional crisis, it is only the judiciary that survives because in such a situation, both the executive and the legislative are usually swept away.
“Justice Walter Onnoghen occupies a very sensitive strategic office in the land and the Federal Government ought to have applied utmost caution and decency.
“If really he has a case to answer, rather than prosecuting him, what is happening now is an embarrassment to the nation and her judiciary.”
CJN Not Above The Law – Party Chief
Onuchukwu Nwadiuto Okenna, Secretary, Mass Action Joint Alliance, Owerri North, Imo State, “If the Federal Government feels that the Chief Justice has a case to answer, what is wrong in prosecuting him? Being the Chief Justice of the Federation does not mean that Walter Onnoghen is above the law, after, it is said that the law is made for man and not man for the law.”
What FG Is Doing Amounts To Intimidation – Lawyer
Baret Imonitie Okoedo, a Benin-based legal practitioner, said: “Some of us in the legal profession are not viewing the issue from that perspective. We are not saying CJN Onnoghen should not be investigated over his assets declaration, but it should be done in the right way. Nobody is above the law, but what the Federal Government is doing now is what I will called intimidation to submission.
“They want to intimidate the CJN to submission because they want to remove him so that their favoured person can be appointed in anticipation of the election tribunal. “They believe that Onnoghen may not do their bidding should the election matter goes to the Supreme Court for final adjudication. My advice to the Federal Government is that the CJN issue should be handled with care to avoid ridiculing the country before the international community.
“Before the advent of the present administration, Nigerian judiciary was respected all over the world which was why most of the international courts were presided over by Nigerian judges.
“I strongly believe that the Bench and the Bar will not just fold their hands for this reputation to be rubbished by this administration. So, we are watching.”
FG Erred In Prosecuting Justice Onnoghen – Ex-SSG
Hon. Oseloka Henry Obaze, former Secretary to Anambra State Government (SSG), has faulted the prosecution of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, saying the rules were not followed.
Obaze said much as nobody is above the law, the Federal Government and every government must play according to rules.
Obaze, a former governorship candidate of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Anambra State, said there are guidelines and precedents on about disciplining judicial officers, “and indeed, he is the highest judicial officer in the land and that process has not been followed.
“This is the major challenge. If there are issues against Onnoghen, they would have gone to the NJC, either for him to stand down or stand aside.”.
He maintained that having been a civil servant, he knows what the law says. According to him: “You file a declaration of asset and it subsides for four years. There is no order that says any time you buy a new car, you declare it.
“So, if that is the case, it means that the individuals that filed proceedings against Onnoghen have not done their homework.”
Obaze, however, said the bigger question is on the timing of government action. He added: “But, the bigger question is: Why now? He is the CJ, he has been in Supreme Court for a while. Why didn’t you find this out?
“The juxtaposition of what has happened and the fact that it happened at a critical period of election, which may be subject to litigation, is what I am highly against because the outcome of every election is subject to litigation.”
There Is political undertone In CJN’s Trial – Pensioner
Ufuoma Izeani, Minna-based pensioner, said: “The Federal Government has the right to prosecute the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen over alleged asset declaration issues, or even any other Nigerian of such status.
“But, there are two things that I see as being wrong, which perhaps have given rise to the general outcry by a cross section of Nigerians, opposition political parties in particular.
“Agreed, the fact that the number one law office in Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen as a Nigerian citizen, is familiar with the laws of the land, and as such cannot claim ignorant of the law or to insinuate that he is above the law. But, the contents of charges against him and the timing are what brought about the general outcry.
“We are all Nigerians and we know the tricks by the government in power just to frustrate anyone that is not supporting whatever they are doing to actualise second term agenda and because whether we like it or not, the way they are going about and timing clearly spells political undertone to the whole saga.
“I have heard and read so much about all the hullabaloos from both government agents like the Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and the ordinary Nigerians, including of course Nigerian lawyers wherever they are or members of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), who of course, are not happy about the incarceration of their President who is also accused of high level corruption.
“Reading the body language of the Vice President, what is happening to the judiciary could have been avoided if there were moderations or elements of restrictions by President Muhammadu Buhari, which could have avoided what is happening today.
“Maybe someone out there reading my views does not know, I don’t think the same charges against ordinary Nigerians will be same as that of a sitting highest ranking law officer in Nigeria today. A lot of interpretations and dimensions kept coming up for and/or against Onnoghen apparently considering the circumstances surrounding the origin and mode of summon by those behind his arraignment.
“My question is: Why now? There are a number of high profile corruption cases that have been left behind or abandoned and here we have an allegation against Onnoghen in less than one week summoned, and they are so fast about nailing him, that you can read the hand writing on the wall what they are aiming at, simply to frustrate and muzzle the judicial arm of government ahead of the elections so that trial of all election related offence will be messed up.
“It is more like a battle between the Judiciary and the Executive arm of government. After the Legislature, it is now the turn of the Judiciary to fight for its survival from clutches of the executive, trying to annihilate them ahead of the general elections.
“This shouldn’t be. There must be some decorum by this government instead of what is happening today and that is why the over 100 lawyers, including SANs, I heard volunteered to join in the fight to liberate the Judicial am of government from the clutches of the executive arm of government.
“Onnoghen, according to the information gathered, is being brought to public ridicule by one of the Presidential aides over what he did in the year 2011. Why now? It shows that the handlers or those behind this government of President Buhari are guilty of fears being expressed by most Nigerians that the Buhari-led All Progressive Congress (APC) is really on a vendetta mission to get back at, ‘political enemies’.
“I have always asked: Whose interest is the Buhari administration protecting, trying to bring down the judiciary? President Buhari is not lawyer.He never trained as one. He is a retired soldier. What does he know about legal issues? Did he ever sought for the advice of the Vice President in handling issues about the sector before the moves to disorganise the judicial arm of government in Nigeria as he tried to do with the legislature, Senate and House of Representatives, which he has not been able to achieve in the life of the administration.
“His aim is to muzzle the sector after severally lamenting that the judiciary has been his problems. He is looking the other way while Nigerians are suffering due to poorly managed economy. A hungry man is an angry man. All that the President is telling us is that he will continue to pursue all those who looted national treasury and recover stolen monies as if that is the most important thing to hungry Nigerians.
“Without sounding as if I am defending the Chief Justice of Nigeria, I believe this issue would have been better handled if professionals, like the Vice President, were detailed to handle what the Code of Conduct is doing, considering the level of haste in the handling of the issue by those behind the trial, which to me speaks volume of level of impunity going on in various arms of government. They should have done this instead of washing our dirty linens outside as the world is watching.
“In conclusion, holding the NBA President on corruption charges, and now, the CJN on same issue, sounds like intimidation, and harassment. To me, this is not the best because I have seen people whose appointments expires, but were extended, to try to scuttle on-going process ahead of coming elections.
“Does anyone still doubt the motive behind what the Federal Government is doing by current trend. I assure you, this case may remain endless if the NBA and Nigerian lawyers everywhere decide to keep quiet because it could be any of them tomorrow.
FG Right To Prosecute CJN – Rights Activist
Ayobami Agboola, a human rights activist and social commentator, has said the Federal Government is absolutely right to prosecute the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen over asset declaration, if the anti-corruption war of the present government is going to be meaningful, successful and not selective.
Agboola noted that the same law that made Mr. President and his Vice to declare their assets on assumption of office should also compel the Chief Justice of the country to declare his asset publicly.
Agboola, who wondered why Justice Walter Onnoghen failed to declare his asset as somebody expected to uphold the tenets of the law in the country, stressed that in a country that must grow and move forward, there must be equality before the law and the law is not a respecter of anybody, irrespective of his position or status.
He wondered whether the law in Nigeria was made absolutely for the poor. According to him, “the law is above and should always be obeyed. It is regrettable that someone who is supposed to uphold the tenets of the law, like the Chief Justice, is being accused over asset declaration.”
Agboola therefore urged the Federal Government to extend the arm of the law beyond the judiciary, noting that it is not only Chief Justice of Nigeria that flouts the law. Many Nigerians, according to him, especially those in higher authorities flout the law of the land.
He added that this is not good enough and the reason why things are not working well in the country. According to him, “It is disturbing that the action and behaviour of our leaders suggest that they are above the law. They are not laying good examples for the future generation. The Federal Government must ensure that it strives hard to ensure that other people in top positions who flout the law are made to face the music.
“It must not end here. The Federal Government must ensure that it prosecutes this case to logical conclusion and ensure that other people, especially on the platform of ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) are also brought to book so that the anti-corruption war will not look selective.”