By Sufuyan Ojeifo
The perceived wrong procedure adopted by President Muhammadu Buhari in suspending the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Nkanu Onnoghen, has spawned much controversy. Before his suspension, Onnoghen had been listed for arraignment before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) over alleged failure to declare some of his assets as prescribed by law. The President acted on an ex-parte order by the CCT made in chamber to suspend the CJN.
But Onnoghen’s position has been that he had acted on the asset declaration matter in line with the provisions of Section 3(d) of the CCB and Tribunal Act to cure the mischief of his forgetfulness in bringing some of his foreign currency domiciliary accounts in sync with the requirements of the law. By so doing, the CCB had been restrained from charging him with the offence of non-declaration of assets before the CCT.
That provision of the CCB and Tribunal Act is salutary to preserving public and judicial officers in the prevailing circumstances in which they always claim to easily forget to comply with the constitutional requirement of regular updates of their asset declaration forms. If, therefore, the CCB, in that instance, cannot charge any officer who makes good the asset declaration after attention has been drawn to the lapse(s), the CCT cannot also try the officer.
Where some regime officials want to try him, the action should be taken to the normal courts where relevant agencies such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the Police, et al, to determine criminal culpability.
Different angles to the Onnoghen matter have been vigorously pursued in furtherance of the interests of individuals pushing the arguments. Agents, privies and assigns of the executive arm of government who advocate prosecution of Onnoghen have been insinuated into politicising the issue by promoting necessary process instead of due process.
The executive had clearly muddied the water by exercising the powers it clearly did not have, to wit: the suspension of the CJN and the unilateral appointment of an acting CJN without recourse to or recommendations by the National Judicial Council (NJC). The reputations of the CJN and the institution of the judiciary over which he presided, until his wrongful suspension, have been assailed by ethical question.
There are back and forth movements in the CCT, the Federal High Court and the Court of Appeal. Amid the legal acrobatics, the NJC had waded in, directing Onnoghen and the acting CJN, Mohammed Tanko, to respond to petitions against them. Given the urgency to resolve the contending issues, both justices have been given seven as against fourteen days to submit their responses.
The NJC is expected to make its findings and recommendations known in no time. The world is waiting on the NJC to save the judiciary from the deployment of executive might in embarrassing and manacling the Bench. The action had also circumvented Senate’s constitutional role.
Justifiably, the Senate had initially proceeded to the Supreme Court for judicial interpretation of the executive action, but withdrew the suit once the NJC decided to investigate the issues within the context of “serious” petitions against the suspended CJN and the acting CJN. What’s unfolding has, certainly, exposed the judiciary and its members, somewhat, to collateral damage.
The NJC should have strategically activated its investigative mechanism from the outset, if a petition was validly before it, to avert the current muddle. Its seeming failure had motivated the executive arm to resort to self-help, acting in breach of the principle of power separation by assuming powers outside its constitutional purview. Indeed, NJC’s proactive footing here would have preserved the judiciary’s reputation.
Reports indicate the executive allowed the pressure of political imperatives to preponderate and warp procedural exactitude. Its precipitate action was underpinned by preservation of sectional and partisan agenda. The context and politicisation of the Onnoghen debacle undergird the essence of this piece.
A narrative from a grapevine held that President Buhari and his relevant administration officials who moved against Onnoghen, using the alleged non-declaration of some of his assets, had issues with Onnoghen, dating back to the six months prior to his appointment as CJN in substantive capacity.
The Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo (SAN) sent his name to the Senate while Buhari was on medical vacation in London, thus averting a constitutional crisis.
The nitty-gritty of the narrative were hinged on certain developments that made it somewhat impossible for Buhari and some administration officials to continue to have absolute trust in the commitment of Onnoghen to be impartial and incorruptible in the administration of justice at the head of the apex court in the land.
Recall that Onnoghen was one of the three Supreme Court justices, others being Aloma Mukhtar and G.A. Oguntade, who delivered the minority judgment in favour of Buhari in his 2007 presidential election petition against the victory of PDP’s presidential candidate, Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua. Onnoghen, who could resist the overtures and influence of the then ruling PDP in a matter that was as critical as presidential election petition, should naturally be trusted to keep fidelity with his strong-willed character to uphold propriety in official conducts and actions.
But alas, it was either Onnoghen could no longer be trusted or some administration officials were simply mischievous in their stratagem to undermine him even before he was confirmed as CJN. A report said that before his confirmation, Onnoghen had a meeting with some administration officials where he was purportedly shown some documents about his “assets” that he did not declare.
At that meeting, Onnoghen, according to the grapevine, was said to have been downcast. He was reportedly told not to worry; that what was required of him by the administration was his commitment to the anti-corruption war. Onnoghen was said to have promised to commit to the anti-graft war. His name was then sent to the Senate for confirmation.
In line with his commitment, Onnoghen had immediately set up the Anti-Corruption Cases Trial Monitoring Committee and had appointed as chair, a former Court of Appeal President, Justice Ayo Salami (retd.), who turned down the appointment because, according to him, it was not in his interest to accept the offer of appointment. He was quoted to have said that the NJC abandoned him when the Jonathan administration refused to reinstate him on the recommendation of the NJC.
That was his claim after some media reports had linked his rejection of the appointment to the characters and antecedents of some members of the committee who could not be trusted to fight corruption in the judiciary. Onnoghen had to appoint a former Supreme Court Justice, Suleiman Galadima, to replace Salami as head of the 16-man committee.
With the benefit of hindsight, according to the grapevine, the Buhari administration only enjoyed the benefit of the optics of inauguration of the committee. But it is the perception of some administration officials that the dispensation of justice under Onnoghen’s leadership of the Supreme Court appeared skewed against the governing APC.
Samplers: The cases of Senate President, Bukola Saraki’s asset declaration case before the CCT where he was let off the hook by the Supreme Court and the Rivers governorship election petition, which Governor Nyesom Wike won after losing at the tribunal and the Court of Appeal, were cited among other cases in which the judgments by the Supreme Court were perceived as doubtful. The trend of critical verdicts had continued to favour the opposition PDP.
That explains the decision by some administration officials to move against Onnoghen at the threshold of the general election, using their foreknowledge of the inchoate asset declaration forms submitted to the CCB by him as basis. Realising that following due process would provide an escape route for Onnoghen, they resorted to a number of subterfuge because the embattled CJN provided the obligatory condition for his possible prosecution. And now, the beats go on. Isn’t this narrative interesting?
*Ojeifo contributed this piece via firstname.lastname@example.org