Twenty Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs), who said they were embarrassed by the crisis of confidence created in the judiciary by the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, yesterday said they were ready to work with other stakeholders to reform the justice sector. A statement released by the SANs, under the aegis of The Justice Reform Project, said the bodies established to regulate and sanitise the judiciary and the legal profession, including the National Judicial Council (NJC) and the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), had failed.
That was as former Cross River State governor and presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Mr. Donald Duke, said both Onnoghen and the man appointed in his place, albeit in acting capacity, Justice Tanko Mohammed, might lose their jobs at the end of the current inquest by the NJC into the allegations against them. Duke, who is also a lawyer, stated this in an exclusive interview with Akelicious in the week. He expressed worry over the conduct of the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), saying he may get the same treatment as a former AGF, Michael Aondoakaa, who was stripped of the SAN title after leaving office because he failed to live up to the billing during his tenure.
Onnoghen, facing trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) for alleged partial asset declaration, was on January 25 suspended by President Muhammadu Buhari, who prompted appointed and swore in Mohammed as acting CJN. The haste has raised widespread national and international suspicion and condemnation, with Buhari being criticised for failing to follow due process.
20 SANs tackle rot in judiciary
The 20 SANs under The Justice Reform Project said they were obliged to make the intervention in the CJN saga for two primary reasons. One, according to them, is a recognition that the events that resulted in the current debacle are a manifestation and response to a deeper malaise in the administration of justice and justice delivery in Nigeria. The second is a concern that the crisis of confidence currently shaking the judiciary and the legal profession in Nigeria is unprecedented.
The lawyers said, “Therefore, this group has been established to collaborate with stakeholders in an effort aimed at achieving broad consensus on, and implementing a process that will lead to the review and reform of the following critical aspects of our justice delivery system:
“The composition, constitution, functions and internal controls of the National Judicial Council; the process for the appointment, continuing education and promotion of judicial officers; the process for the discipline and regulation of judicial officers; the terms and conditions of service of judicial officers; Judicial ethics, values and the relationship of the Bench with the Bar; the process for the appointment of lawyers to the Body of Benchers; The composition, constitution and internal controls of the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee; the process and criteria for the conferment of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria; the roles and responsibilities of Senior Advocates of Nigeria as leaders of the Bar; the regulation and discipline of Legal Practitioners; ethics, values and standards of legal practice the composition, constitution and internal controls of the National Executive Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association.”
The group said they would commence work immediately, as the need for action was urgent, stressing that they would operate on the basis of transparency, objectivity and inclusiveness.
They also promised to publish details of how they intend to engage and collaborate with all stakeholders, especially the NBA.
“Let us act now to save our profession and our nation,” they declared in a clarion call to judicial stakeholders.” Members of the group are Mr. Ebun Sofunde, SAN; Mr. Kayode Sofola, SAN; Mr. Kola Awodein, SAN; Mr. Ademola Akinrele, SAN; Dr. Eyimofe Atake, SAN; Mrs. Olufunke Adekoya, SAN; Mr. Oluwafemi Atoyebi, SAN; Mr. Yemi Candide – Johnson, SAN; Mr. Olasupo Shasore, SAN; and Dr. Babatunde Ajibade, SAN. Others are Mr. Osaro Eghobamien, SAN; Mr. Babatunde Fagbohunlu, SAN; Mr. Wemimo Ogunde, SAN; Mr. Jibrin Okutepa, SAN; Mr. Olumide Sofowora, SAN; Prof. Ernest Ojukwu, SAN; Mr. Olatunde Adejuyigbe, SAN; Dr. Adewale Olawoyin, SAN; Mr. Adeniyi Adegbonmire, SAN; and Mr. Oyesoji Oyeleke, SAN.
The statement by the lawyers read, “We are a group of Senior Advocates of Nigeria who feel embarrassed and deeply concerned by the recent events surrounding the suspension of Honourable Justice W. S. N. Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
“In making this intervention, we do not propose to delve into the merits or demerits of the respective positions that have been taken by the different actors regarding the suspension of Justice Onnoghen.
“Our focus in making this intervention, given the context of the unfolding events, is to examine the underlying factors that have engendered or perpetuated the undoubted loss of confidence in the judiciary and the legal profession and to proffer suggestions for a much needed reform.
“Certain facts are hardly contestable. There is a widespread perception that there is corruption in the judiciary and this perception is supported by anecdotal evidence. “Unscrupulous litigants and some complicit lawyers, including some Senior Advocates, procure judgements and orders by corrupt means.
“It is also beyond dispute that the system for self-regulation in the judiciary and the legal profession has failed.
“Lack of transparency and a deep appreciation of the basic ethos of governance in the processes and procedures of the relevant institutions lies at the very heart of the challenges the Bench and the Bar are currently facing.
“There is a perception that the National Judicial Council (NJC) has been ineffective in exercising discipline where high-ranking judicial officers are involved and that its proceedings and internal processes are unduly opaque.
“Similarly, the Nigerian Bar Association is notorious for its inefficacy in respect of disciplinary issues.
“Petitions filed by litigants and members of the public linger for years on end without resolution.
“The Nigerian legal profession and justice system have known better days.
“We recall the golden era of our judiciary, when judgements of Nigerian courts were cited with approval in foreign courts. Sadly, this is no longer the case.
“In our view, the incessant examples of contradictory decisions that have afflicted Nigerian jurisprudence in all facets of law further fuel the perception of incompetence and corruption by the Nigerian judiciary and the legal profession.
“It must be obvious to everyone that the time has come for urgent self- introspection and evaluation with the ultimate aim of a robust systemic reform of the Nigerian judiciary and the legal profession.”
NJC may remove Onnoghen, Mohammed -Duke
Meanwhile, Duke said even though it seemed like the federal government had a good case against Onnoghen, it had messed it up with high-handedness.
According to the former governor, “If they say there are allegations against you, and they seem to have a major case against him, go open with it – send it to the National Judicial Council (NJC). If you send the allegations to the NJC and you go public with the allegation, even if they said he is the head of the NJC, they will run away from him. Two, he cannot chair that forum.
“If you want to remove someone like that, you have to follow the due process. But what has happened is that they procured an ex parte order from the CCT and then the president, in a speed unknown to our judicial system, brings in and swears in Tanko Muhammed. And Tanko failed to tell them that you have to go through due process.
“When Rotimi Amaechi wanted to appoint a Chief Judge, he brought someone and the NJC said no, the same thing in Abia State and they told the person, who accepted the position, to proceed on compulsory retirement.
“You have to follow due process.
“Now, Tanko stands the risk of losing his job, too, for not advising properly. The two of them may have to go. Truth is they have a rivalry, so, Tanko in his haste went to be sworn in.”
Disappointed by the process of Mohammed’s emergence, Duke explained, “Nobody in the court knew that that he was being sworn in. The other justices of the Supreme Court knew nothing about the swearing-in, because he went in a clandestine manner to be sworn in.
“If you looked at the video, you won’t see any of the other justices of the Supreme Court. Even the vice president wasn’t there, which shows that he, too, was uncomfortable with it, because the legal profession is his constituency. How does he explain it?”
Duke condemned Malami’s alleged unprofessional conducts, saying, “Even the Attorney General, after his tenure, what happened to Aondoakaa will happen to him. He will be brought before the legal Privileges Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and they take away his license to practise.
“But the federal government seems to have more than enough proofs against him (Onnoghen). How do you explain three million dollars in your account?
“Now, they said they have conversations between him and Wike, publish it; you said you have proof of his conversation with PDP chairman, Secondus, publish it. If you do that, even his justice colleagues will distance themselves from him. Do you know you could do a good thing in a bad way? That is what they have done with the Onnoghen case?”
Further addressing the federal government’s approach to the matter, Duke said, “The thing about leadership is that it follows arrogance. Government is never humble enough to say, I made a mistake here. I apologise, we need to do it over again.
“I think Onnoghen’s case settled itself even by the responses he gave the issues thrown at him. ‘Oh I forgot’, the chief law officer cannot forget to obey the law, and if you forgot, you have to bear it. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.
“But follow the procedure, send it to NJC. If you say he was in cahoots with the PDP, send the evidence to NJC. If you say since that happened you have even found more spurious accounts, send it to NJC, because you are talking about the head of an arm of government – an equal arm to yours. Now, it looks as if all the other arms are working under the executive. Even during the military era, no chief justice was treated this way.”
He continued, “In a democracy, you follow due process, because democracy is about due process. The constitution is very clear about how to remove a chief justice. So you follow the process; don’t short-circuit it.
“More than anything else, this is a government that tried to remove the head of the legislative arm of government. Now you have removed the head of the judiciary. Is it that you can’t work with anyone? Then, the problem is you. I worry for them. They are taking us back to 1985.”
Breaking down the structure of the Supreme Court, Duke said the apex court’s justices are all equals at that level, but they only “use seniority to head the courts. In terms of judgement, they are the same. So, if seven or five of them empanelled and three read this way, while two read that way, even if the two includes the chief justice, the majority carries the day.
“So, they are all equals. The job of the chief justice is purely administrative. You just invited Tanko in a very ‘Nichodemus manner’. While they were swearing him in, the CJN was in his office working, because he was preparing to swear in the judges for the electoral tribunal, and while he was working, Tanko went and took oath.
“The whole thing is comical. After he was sworn in, he didn’t return to the office. The next thing was they saw on television that he had been sworn in. They went to the CJN office and asked him: ‘Oga, are you aware that Tanko has been sworn in?’ They went to his office and met his secretary, when they asked where he was, the secretary said Oga left about three hours ago. That is what we have reduced governance to in Nigeria.”