Buhari suspends Onnoghen …swears in Mohammed Tanko as acting CJN
Uproar greeted the news of the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, by President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday. The President made the announcement at the Council Chambers, Presidential Villa, Abuja.
In his place, he named Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammed, who is from Bauchi State. The President followed it up by inaugurating Mohammed as the new CJN.
Reactions came from senior lawyers, including Senior Advocates of Nigeria and professors of law who condemned the President’s action, describing it as unconstitutional, null and void.
Buhari stated that he carried out the suspension on the orders of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, which was given on January 23.
The new CJN had, prior to the ceremonies, arrived at the Forecourt of the Presidential Villa at about 4.28pm.
Buhari defended his action, saying, “A short while ago, I was served with an Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal issued on Wednesday, 23rd January 2019, directing the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen, from office pending final determination of the cases against him at the Code of Conduct Tribunal and several other fora relating to his alleged breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers.
“The nation has been gripped by the tragic realities of no less a personality than the Chief Justice of Nigeria himself becoming the accused person in a corruption trial since details of the petition against him by a Civil Society Organisation first became public about a fortnight ago.
“Although the allegations in the petition are grievous enough in themselves, the security agencies have since then traced other suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars to the CJN’s personal accounts, all undeclared or improperly declared as required by law.”
He added, “Perhaps more worrisome is the Chief Justice of Nigeria’s own written admission to the charges that he indeed failed to follow the spirit and letter of the law in declaring his assets, citing mistake’’ and forgetfulness’’ which are totally unknown to our laws as defences in the circumstances of his case.”
The President argued that Onnoghen ought to have resigned before now, having admitted mistakes.
He noted, “One expected that with his moral authority so wounded, by these serious charges of corruption, more so by his own written admission, Mr Justice Walter Onnoghen would have acted swiftly to spare our judicial arm further disrepute by removing himself from superintending over it while his trial lasted.”
But a SAN, Yusuf Ali, stated that the National Judicial Council remained the body empowered by the Constitution to suspend the CJN.
He said, “The Constitution is clear on who can remove the CJN and in what circumstance. No person, individually, can remove the Chief Justice of Nigeria, no matter how highly placed.
Ali added, “Nigeria, we hail thee! I see this as the beginning of some events, unfolding events whose end is not in sight. But at the end of the day, I know that the rule of law will triumph. It was the late Gen Saliu Ibrahim who said the Nigerian Army had become an army of anything goes. Nigeria is becoming anything goes; the totality of our country is becoming anything goes. God save all of us.”
A SAN and professor of law, Yemi Akinseye-George, described the CJN’s suspension as a coup against democracy.
Akinseye-George said, “If it is true, I think it is a misguided action; it’s unconstitutional and it is tantamount to a coup against the Nigerian people and the Nigerian constitution. The President must quickly and immediately reverse himself; he has no power to do it.
“If it is true that he has done it, the court must rise up and defend the integrity of the constitution; the Nigerian Bar Association must rise up, demanding that this unconstitutional and illegal act be reversed with immediate effect. Otherwise, we should say bye-bye to democracy and bye-bye to the constitution.
“I know and I am confident that our judges know the right thing to do, just as the Court of Appeal did by rightly ordering the Code of Conduct Tribunal to steer clear of that case until the substantive matter in the court has been resolved. So, in the same way, I expect that before the end of next week, the court will nullify it; just as the court nullified the purported removal of Atiku Abubakar when he was Vice-President; when the President attempted to remove even a member of the executive, let alone attempt to suspend the Chief Justice of Nigeria. The judiciary is not an appendage of any arm of the government. The President has no power under the constitution to suspend the Chief Justice of Nigeria. It’s unheard of, it’s unconstitutional, it’s an abuse of office and it is an impeachable offence. The President himself stands impeachable not only by the National Assembly but also by the people of Nigeria.”
Another SAN, Chief Ferdinand Orbih, also condemned the suspension of Onnoghen, describing it as unlawful, having not followed the procedure enshrined in the Constitution.
Orbih said, “The President does not have the power to remove the CJN in the manner he has done it because Section 292 of the Constitution is very clear on how the CJN, and other heads of court can be removed from office. In the case of the CJN, the President of the Court of Appeal, Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, President of the National Industrial Court, what you need to do is to go to the Senate. The Senate, on an address supported by two-thirds majority can now advise the President to remove the CJN from office either by reason of infirmity or breach of code of conduct or for misconduct.
“When the Constitution has laid down a procedure for the performance of a particular act, any deviation from the laid-down procedure is a nullity. Whether there is a political undertone or illegal undertone, what has been done is unconstitutional, irrespective of the motive.”
Similarly, Chief Ifedayo Adedipe described the CJN’s suspension by the President as scary for the nation’s democracy.
Adedipe said, “I find it scary; I can’t believe this is happening. As far as I know, we have a constitution and that constitution does not anticipate what is happening. If you have to suspend the CJN, I think it should be on the recommendation of the NJC. That he (Justice Onnoghen) is the chairman of the NJC does not detract from the powers that the NJC has to handle this situation.
“Ordinarily, if you are going to discuss a matter involving the CJN at the NJC, he would be asked to step aside while somebody else would preside and then a decision will be reached.
“In my humble opinion, I think the power exercised by the President by suspending the Honourable Chief Justice of Nigeria will appear not to have been vested in him by the constitution; particularly so when the matter is in court and just yesterday (Thursday), the Court of Appeal ordered a halt of the proceedings before the Code of Conduct Tribunal. I would have thought the court would be allowed to finish its task but we’ve seen what the government wanted to do. And what makes this scary is that the petition that provoked all these made reference to the imminence of the general elections, which would appear to have been the motivating factor. It is unfortunate.”
Similarly, the Nigerian Bar Association has demanded the immediate reversal of the suspension of Onnoghen and his replacement with Mohammed as the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria.
In a statement by its President, Mr Paul Usoro (SAN), the NBA described Buhari’s action as a coup against the Nigerian judiciary.
Usoro said, “The Nigerian Bar Association unequivocally rejects and condemns this attempted coup against the Nigerian judiciary and evident suspension of the Nigerian Constitution by the Executive arm of the Federal Government.
“The action of the Executive portends a slide into anarchy and complete deconstruction of the rule of law and due process. It amounts to an absolute breach of the Constitution and the usurpation of the powers of the Senate and the National Judicial Council.
“It is unfortunate that the Executive branch of government purports to suspend the CJN on the basis of an alleged ex parte order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal – the same tribunal that, to the knowledge of the Executive, had, only the previous day, Tuesday, January 22, 2019, adjourned its proceedings till Monday, 28 January 2019 and has before it a motion on notice that has yet to be argued, seeking the same relief as were contained in the purported ex parte application, to wit: the suspension of the CJN, amongst others.”
It added, “We call on the Federal Government to avert the looming constitutional crisis precipitated by its ill-advised action. In particular, the Nigerian Bar Association demands the reversal of the purported suspension of Honorable Mr Justice Walter Onnoghen.
“We also call on the National Assembly to assert its constitutional authority and powers and prevent this slide into chaos and erosion of the rule of law.”
President Buhari’s decision to suspend Onnoghen, was in contravention of a court order restraining the President, the Code of Conduct Tribunal and the Attorney-General of the Federation from removing Onnoghen, Saturday PUNCH has learnt.
According to court documents obtained by our correspondent on Friday, Justice I. E Ekwo of a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja on Monday restrained all parties from suspending or removing the CJN.
The order was sequel to a suit filed by the Action Peoples Party with number FHC/ABJ/CS/67/2019.
The judge granted, “an order of interim injunction restraining the 1st (President), 2nd (AGF) 4th (Justice Ibrahim Mohammed), 5th (CCB) and 6th (CCT) whether by themselves, officers, agents, servants, privies or otherwise, however, described from removing the third defendant (Onnoghen) as the Chief Justice of Nigeria pending the determination of the motion on notice.”
Buhari, however, went ahead to suspend the CJN, relying on an order of the CCT.
The acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Muhammed, will on Saturday (today), swear in members of the National Assembly, governorship and state assembly election petition tribunals, Saturday PUNCH has learnt.
The election petition tribunals will be expected to handle disagreements that may arise from the conduct of the elections which will begin in three weeks.
Born on December 31, 1953 at Doguwa, Giade, a local government area in Bauchi State, Justice Muhammad attended Ahmadu Bello University where he received a bachelor’s degree in Law in 1980.
He later obtained a master’s degree and doctorate from the same university in 1984 and 1998 respectively.
More facts emerged in Abuja on Saturday on why Buhari could not wait for the court to determine the fate of the CJN.
Onnoghen, it was gathered, was billed to inaugurate judges that will adjudicate over the conduct of the 2019 elections in the country.
The suspended judge had fixed Saturday (today) for the inauguration of the election petition panels.
Details of tomorrow’s election panels to be sworn in, according to a dependable sources at the Supreme Court are 250 judges.
The source said, “There are a total of 250 members who would sit on the election panels. The panels comprise National Assembly Election Petition Tribunals, Governorship Election Petition Tribunals, and State Assembly Election Petition Tribunals.
“His sudden removal was aimed at either stopping the event or removing some judges on the lists. That is what will happen.”
It was gathered that judges that would make the panels had arrived Abuja, with the hope that they would be inaugurated on Saturday.
Opposition political parties have described Buhari’s suspension of the CJN as a judicial coup that must be resisted by all lovers of democracy.
The first national spokesman of the Coalition of United Political Parties, Imo Ugochinyere, said this in a statement made available to journalists in Abuja.
Ugochinyere said Buhari had by his action overthrown constitutional order.
He therefore called on the Senate to begin the process of removing the President from office.
He also called on lawyers and others to begin to boycott courts in protest against Onnoghen’s suspension.
The statement reads, “Buhari has finally overthrown constitutional governance. This factionalisation of the judiciary will not stand. As far as the law of the land is concerned, Onnoghen remains the CJN. We will not recognise any other person who may be occupying that office illegally. Justice Tanko Muhammed is an usurper. The NJC must sack him. Lawyers must ignore him as long as he remains on that seat.
“Onnoghen’s illegal removal was aimed at stopping the swearing-in of members of the 2019 General Elections petition tribunal.
“We have been vindicated on our earlier alarm that Buhari wants to appoint pro-APC CJN to help use the judiciary to affirm APC candidates in the 2019 pre and post election litigation.”
It also reads, “We hereby call on lawyers, judges and judicial staff to down tool immediately. This is the last battle and it must be won. The NBA should immediately call out all lawyers. All courts must be shut now while nationwide protest against this impunity should also commence.
“The CJN must remain in office and disregard this announcement as the President has no power to suspend him.
“The Senate should reconvene now and start impeachment process against the President for acting against the provision of the Constitution he swore to uphold.”
The presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, Atiku Abubakar, on Friday described the suspension of Onnoghen by Buhari an anti-democratic act.
He stated that he rejected it entirely and called on Onnoghen and the judiciary to resist with every legal and constitutional means that they could muster.
He said, “This brazen dictatorial act is the latest action in the ongoing rape of our nation’s hard-earned democracy by those who dined with anti-democratic forces, and is symptomatic of the increasing desperation that President Buhari and the cabal pulling the strings have as February 16, 2019 draws near.
“The fact that the unlawful suspension of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen was announced just as it became public knowledge that the CJN was constituting the election petition tribunals is not lost on discerning Nigerians and the international community.
This act of desperation is geared towards affecting the outcome of the 2019 Presidential elections. Indeed, it is not just the CJN that has been “suspended,” it is the Nigerian Constitution that has been infracted and, in effect, suspended, under the guise of the suspension of the CJN.
“I want to seize this opportunity to call for unity amongst the judiciary. Do not let the Muhammadu Buhari’s administration divide you. Do not let this government turn you against yourselves. The judiciary is the last hope of the common man and the defender of our democracy.”
Senate President, Bukola Saraki, has asked President Muhammadu Buhari, to immediately reverse his decision to suspend the CJN.
The Senate President described the suspension of Onnoghen, by Buhari, as a coup against democracy.
Saraki, in a statement personally signed by him on Friday, stated that the suspension was another act of desperation by President Buhari.
He said, “By unilaterally suspending the CJN without following the provision of the constitution, President Buhari has sent a dangerous signal to the entire world that Nigeria is no longer a democratic nation and that we have returned to the old, jaded era of military dictatorship .
“Our constitution makes no provision for suspension of the nation’s highest judicial officer. They have different roles to play in that process. There is no condition under which the President can usurp the powers of other arms of government.
“At this point, all democratic institutions in the country, the international community and democrats across the world should rise against this blatant act of impunity. We should jointly condemn this retrogressive, uncivilized and despotic measure.”
In his reaction, the National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, Prince Uche Secondus, said the sacking of the CJN was shocking.
He said the President had shown that he (Buhari) was ready to kill democracy in Nigeria.
“Nigeria’s democracy is dying. We are in trouble. This man is gradually killing democracy that we fought for and that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Nigerians,” he said.
He stated that the President must be cautioned by Nigerians “before he killed our hard-earned democracy.”
Also, the Convener of the Coalition of Niger Delta Agitators, John Dudu, disclosed that members of the coalition would meet today (Saturday) to take a decision over the removal of the CJN.
Dudu, in a statement, said the coalition of militants were aware that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, had maintained that President Buhari was not aware of the earlier moves against Onnoghen, but wondered why the President should take such decision.
The convener pointed out that its decision on the matter could be drastic, adding that the coalition was sad over the removal and immediate replacement of the CJN.
The Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum has also described the suspension of Onnoghen, as a coup against democracy.
It said the action was motivated by the desperation and desire to “foist the rule of the thumb” on the nation.
“Our attention has been drawn to a coup against constitutional democracy in Nigeria by President Muhammadu Buhari with the suspension of CJN Walter Onoghen this evening and swearing in a replacement.”
“This is a constitutional crisis foisted by desperation and morbid desire to foist rule of thumb. We have checked through the constitution and the President has no power to unilaterally suspend the CJN.
“Section 292 of the amended 1999 Constitution is clear that the President can only remove the CJN with two-third of Senate resolution,” the SMBLF spokesman, Yinka Odumakin said in a statement.
He described the action as a resort to self-help after the Court of Appeal had issued an order stopping the trial of the CJN by the Code of Conduct Tribunal “presided over by a man answering charges in court over corruption allegations but still in office.”
The forum stated, “The latest action is a clear suspension of the constitution and enthronement of full blown dictatorship. We reject the illegal suspension of CJN Onnoghen.”
Also, the Ijaw Youth Council has described the suspension of Onnoghen by the President as a coup on the nation’s democracy and rule of law.
IYC, in a statement signed by its President, Eric Omare, on Friday said the suspension of Justice Onnoghen and subsequent appointment of Justice Tanko Muhammed as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria was a show of desperation and the lack of respect for the rule of law.
Omare said, “This is desperation taken too far and the IYC in the strongest terms condemn this display of impunity by President Buhari. This is the height of lawlessness and the greatest threat to democratic rule in Nigeria. The IYC call on President Buhari to immediately reverse this illegal, despicable and undemocratic decision.”
A former Minister of Aviation, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, who described Buhari as a fascistic monster, said the suspension of the CJN was totally unacceptable.
He said, “When I warned my colleagues in the opposition that we were dealing with a fascistic monster in Buhari, they did not believe me, they laughed me to scorn and accused me of being an alarmist. Well I doubt they are laughing anymore.
“For a President in a democracy to suspend the CJN is totally unacceptable, a clear breach of the rule of law and the constitution and a manifest violation of the principle of separation of powers. If anyone thinks that we are practising democracy in Nigeria, that person needs to have their heads examined.
“The result of the February 16th election has already been determined and Buhari will declare himself President for life. I call on the Senate President and the Speaker of the House to stop playing games to show courage and to begin impeachment proceedings against Buhari. That is the only way to stop this man from totally destroying our country and leading us to a civil war that may never end.”
Meanwhile, the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore Fulani has lauded the suspension and replacement of the CJN over his trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal on charges of false asset declaration.
The National Secretary, Miyetti Allah, Mr Saleh Alhassan, in a telephone interview, told our correspondent that the position of CJN should be occupied by a person of unblemished character.
He said, “But for him to say he has forgotten to declare an account is enough for you to resign. I don’t think the head of the judiciary should be found wanting.
“The President has done the needful because if you are the head of the judiciary, you should be above board. So, with his background and what they have unraveled about him, he cannot be trusted to handle post-election issues without being biased because already he is compromised whichever way we look at it.
“I think any serious President would not allow such, especially one building his government on anti-corruption. You cannot be fighting corruption and one arm of the government, the judiciary, is highly compromised.”
Journalists have been barred from accessing the house of the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen.
Our correspondent who tried to gain access to the house located close to the Supreme Court was denied entry by stern-looking security men comprised of policemen and men of Department of State Services.
He was turned back by the men wearing presidential villa accreditation tag who told him his visit could not be permitted.
One of the men of the DSS, who questioned our correspondent, asked, “What is your mission here.”
Our correspondent: I’m here to observe the situation around the house of the CJN to avoid misleading report.
DSS: Are you invited?
Correspondent: I don’t need a formal invitation in this circumstance, I only come to have first-hand information.
DSS: That means you are here on sight and see. Sight and see is not allowed. Make a detour and go back.
The operative then beckoned on armed policemen to guide our correspondent out.