The Federal Government’s planned arraignment of the Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, was greeted with massive pushback by senior lawyers, politicians and human right groups, warning government of the grave implications of such an action.
With the 2019 elections just a little over 30 days away, the announcement of the impending trial of the CJN over non-declaration of asset sent shockwaves which reverberated across the country as many prominent politicians including former Vice President and presidential candidate of the leading opposition, Party, PDP Atiku Abubakar condemning the move.
This is coming as over 150 seniors lawyers are mobilising themselves to defend the Chief Justice on Monday, before the Justice Danladi Yakubu led-Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).
Constitutional lawyer, Sebastine Hon, SAN on Saturday said the number of eminent lawyers that have volunteered to defend the CJN might even be more than 150.
The attempt to sack the chief justice of Nigeria is a cold reminiscence of the constitutional crisis that ensued in Pakistan in 2007 when the military President Pervez Musharraf, unceremoniously fired the Chief Justice of Pakistan whose rulings had begun to challenge the Musharraf government. Outraged Pakistani lawyers and others poured into the streets, setting off an unprecedented outburst of frustration that signalled the most serious challenge that General Musharraf had to deal with. The CJ was eventually reinstated. The protests weakened his presidency eventually leading to his resignation to avoid impeachment in 2008.
The former vice president warned President Muhammadu Buhari and the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) to refrain from throwing Nigeria into an avoidable crisis over the move. In a statement issued on Saturday in Abuja by Atiku’s Special Assistant on Public Communication, Mr. Phrank Shaibu, the PDP candidate said the principle of separation of powers remained sacrosanct in a democracy irrespective of what Buhari was being told by his advisers or the buttons being pressed to forcefully remove the CJN.
Atiku said the plot to sack Onnoghen was a pre-emptive move against the bench in the face of imminent defeat and knowing the role the judiciary plays in the final outcome of elections.
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) also reacted strongly late last night to the application filed by the Code of Conduct Bureau to the Code of Conduct Tribunal Chairman for the trial to commence against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen.
In a statement issued on behalf of the body by its president, Paul Usoro (SAN), it condemned the targeted assault of the judiciary by agents of the Federal Government.
Onnoghen’s ResponseJustice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen
But Onnoghen was quoted by the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) as saying in a response to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) queries regarding his asset declaration that his 2016 declaration made up for any default. He allegedly stated, “My asset declaration form numbers SCN 00014 and SCN 00005 were declared on the same day, 14/12/2016 because I forgot to make a declaration of my assets after the expiration of my 2005 declaration in 2009. Following my appointment as acting CJN in November, 2016, the need to declare my assets anew made me to realize the mistake.
“I then did the declaration to cover the period in default. I did not include my standard charted bank account in SCN 000014 because I believed they were not opened.
“I did not make a fresh declaration of asset after my substantive appointment as CJN because I was under the impression that my SCN 000015 was to cover that period of four years which includes my term as CJN,” Mr. Onnoghen said in his statement dated January 11.”
Also reacting Satueday former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, condemned the move to sack CJN as “outrageous,” while the national chairman of PDP, Prince Uche Secondus, said it was a plan “to destroy the Nigerian judiciary barely 30 day to general election.”
Governors from the South-south geopolitical zone, where the Cross River-born Onnoghen hails from, fixed an emergency meeting for today to discuss the alleged scheme to sack the CJN, among other issues.
However, a highly-placed Presidency source said last night that the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, was scheduled to meet Buhari yesterday night on the Onnoghen issue. The outcome of that meeting was unknown as at the time of going to press.
Atiku Abubakar’s Statement Further Reads
“We have just been made aware of the plot by President Muhammadu Buhari to sack Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen using flimsy assets declaration issues as a pretext. We are aware that there are plans to arraign Justice Onnoghen before the Justice Danladi Yakubu Umar-led Code of Conduct Tribunal on Monday, January, 14, 2019. The charge against Onnoghen, we understand, has already been filed and served on him last Friday at his official residence in Abuja, preparatory to his appearance at the tribunal.
“But we warn that despite the clandestine meetings in the highest echelon of the APC and also involving some top officials of the federal government, which include the Code of Conduct Tribunal, neither Buhari nor the APC can re-write the Nigerian Constitution just because of its impending defeat at the February 16 presidential election. Heavens did not fall when PDP lost to the APC in 2015. And heavens will not fall now that the APC is sure to lose to the PDP, seeing that the APC’s plan to rig in the forthcoming elections will not pull through.”
The former vice president said Nigerians were aware that the linchpin of the plot, the Executive Secretary of the Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative (ARDI), the author of the purported petition seeking Onnoghen’s removal, Mr. Dennis Aghanya, was the National Publicity Secretary of President Buhari’s defunct political party, the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC).
The PDP candidate warned that if Buhari and the APC succeeded in the current plot, they should be ready for an epic battle whose end and consequences could neither be predicted nor imagined.
“We have the strength of character, the courage and the conviction to mount a sustained campaign in defence of justice, and in defence of separation of powers as enshrined in the constitution, which is the grundnorm of our democracy,” Atiku warned.
He said even if the allegations against Onnoghen were true, the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) was wrong to have referred the petition to the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).
The PDP candidate noted that the Code of Conduct Bureau, according to Section 3 (e) of the Third Schedule (part 1) of the 1999 Constitution, “shall receive complaints about the non-compliance with or breach of the provisions of the Code of Conduct or any law in relation thereto, investigate the complaint and, where appropriate, refer such matter to the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).”
But Atiku argued that since judicial officers were disciplined by the National Judicial Council (NJC), the CCB was wrong to have referred the matter to the CCT even if the allegations had been found to have any substance.
According to him, “The proper procedure would have been for the petition to be referred to the NJC of which Onnoghen is the Chairman, but he would have to excuse himself from the process. If found guilty, he could be asked to vacate his office as CJN, in addition to other punishments.”
But Atiku alleged that Buhari was desperate to get Onnoghen out of the way and appoint a pliable acting CJN who would superintend over election petitions, in case his rigging plan failed. He called on Nigerians to resist the move to silence the judiciary, saying Nigeria’s democracy, and not the judiciary, is on trial.
“Buhari and his APC-led government should not emasculate the judiciary as they tried to do the National Assembly and was resisted by the President of the Senate, Abubakar Bukola Saraki. This is a brazen day light assault on the judiciary because he (Buhari) wants a pliable acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) to sit on his election petition because he has seen the signal that he will lose the February 16 presidential election,” Atiku said.