Nation on edge as Buhari suspends CJN Onnoghen
By Emmanuel Aziken, Emma Amazie, Innocent Anaba, Henry Umoru, Ikechukwu Nnochiri, Joseph Erunke, Dapo Akinrefon, Johnbosco Abgarakwu, Dirisu Yakubu, Peter Duru and Chris Ochayi THE nation’s democratic order was on edge yesterday after President Muhammadu Buhari suspended Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of the country, hours before the embattled head of the judiciary was to commence his 2019 election duties. Justice Walter Onnoghen and President Buhari Agbakoba drags AGF to court over CJN’s trial Justice Onnoghen was to inaugurate the Election Tribunals to arbitrate disputes arising from the General Election today. President Buhari in suspending Onnoghen said he acted to save the judiciary which he said was becoming infected by the alleged corruption he claimed arose from the alleged improper declaration of assets by the Chief Justice. He specifically said he acted on the orders of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT. He immediately swore in Justice Tanko Mohammed from Bauchi State as the acting Chief Justice of the Federation. The action was immediately flayed by politicians, groups, civil society activists and lawyers who said that the president had usurped the powers of the National Judicial Council and the Senate. The Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, in a strongly worded statement described it as a constitutional coup and called on the National Assembly to immediately intervene to save the nation’s democracy. A rare exception was Prof. Itse Sagay, the chairman of the Presidential Committee against Anti-Corruption, who said the action was long overdue. He said the NJC had no role to play in the matter. The development followed assertions earlier yesterday by Onnoghen that he had not resigned from office as was alleged in some social media reports on Thursday. In denying the claim, the CJN had caused a statement to be issued that he would, today, in the exercise of his powers, be inaugurating the election tribunals to adjudicate in the 2019 election cases. Not long after that, President Buhari flanked by security chiefs, ministers, and the national chairman of the All Progressives Congress, APC, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole at the Presidential Villa, announced the suspension of Onnonghen from office. In a prepared address, he said: “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 Organization 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. 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. “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 removig himself from superintending over it while his trial lasted. “Unfortunately, he has not done so. Instead, the nation has been treated to the sordid spectacle of a judicial game of wits in which the Chief Justice of Nigeria and his legal team have made nonsense of the efforts of the Code of Conduct Tribunal to hear the allegation on merit and conclude the trial as quickly as possible considering the nature of the times in which we live. “Whether deliberately or inadvertently, we have all seen the full weight of the Chief Justice of Nigeria descend on the tender head of one of the organs of justice under his control. There is simply no way the officers of that court, from the Chairman to the bailiffs, can pretend to be unaffected by the influence of the leader of the Judiciary. “Not only the trial court but others have been put on the spot. Practically every other day since his trial commenced, the nation has witnessed various courts granting orders and counter-orders in favour of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, all of them characterised by an unholy alacrity between the time of filing, hearing, and delivery of judgment in same. “The real effect has been a stalling of the trial of Justice Onnoghen, helped along by lawyers who insist that these orders, whether right or wrong are technically valid, and must be obeyed till an appellate Court says otherwise. No doubt, that it is the proper interpretation, but is it the right disposition for our nation? “Nigeria is a constitutional democracy, and no one must be or be seen to be, above the law. Unfortunately, the drama around the trial of the Chief Justice of Nigeria has challenged that pillar of justice in the perception of the ordinary man on the street. “For it is certain that no ordinary Nigerian can get the swift and special treatment Justice Onnoghen has enjoyed from his subordinates and privies in our Judicature. “In the midst of all these distracting events, the essential question of whether the accused CJN actually has a case to answer has been lost in the squabble over the form and nature of his trial. This should not be so. “If Justice cannot be done and clearly seen to be done, society itself is at risk of the most unimaginable chaos. As a Government, we cannot stand by wailing and wringing our hands helplessly but give our full backing and support to those brave elements within the Judiciary who act forthrightly, irrespective of who is involved. “As you are all aware, the fight against corruption is one of the tripod of policies promised to Nigerians by this administration. Needless to say that it is an existential Policy which must be given adequate attention and commitment by all the three arms of government. “The efforts of the Executive will amount to nothing without the cooperation of the Legislature and especially the Judiciary. “It is no secret that this government is dissatisfied with the alarming rate in which the Supreme Court of Nigeria under the oversight of Justice Walter Onnoghen has serially set free, persons accused of the most dire acts of corruption, often on mere technicalities, and after quite a number of them have been convicted by the trial and appellate courts. “Since there is nothing the Executive Arm can do after the apex court of the land has spoken on any matter, several of these individuals walk free among us today, enjoying what are apparently the proceeds of the corruption which for so long has defeated the efforts of this nation to develop and prosper. “It is against this background that I have received the Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal directing me to suspend the Chief Justice pending final determination of the cases against him. “It also explains why I am not only complying immediately but with some degree of relief for the battered sensibilities of ordinary Nigerians whose patience must have become severely over-taxed by these anomalies. “In line with this administration’s avowed respect for the Rule of Law, I have wholeheartedly obeyed the Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal dated 23rd January 2019. “Accordingly, I hereby suspend the Honourable Mr. Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen, GCON as the Chief Justice of Nigeria pending final determination of the case against him at the Code of Conduct Tribunal. “In further compliance with the same Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, I hereby invite Honourable Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed JSC, being the next most Senior Justice in the Supreme Court, to come forward to take the Judicial Oath as Chief Justice of Nigeria in an Acting Capacity. “Fellow Nigerians, we can only stand a chance to win the fight against Corruption, and position our dear nation for accelerated development when we stand together to contend against it.” Present at the meeting were the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, the Director-General, Department of State Service, the Director-General, National Intelligence Agency, NIA, Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, Chairman, of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, national Chairman of the All Progressives Congress, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, that of Education, Adamu Adamu, Foreign Affairs, among others. Buhari has suspended the constitution — Ozekhome Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN in his reaction yesterday flayed the action as akin to the suspension of the constitution. He said: “The alleged suspension from office of the CJN is the vilest, thieving, most despicable, ultra vires, undemocratic and brazenly unconstitutional act ever carried out by any government in Nigeria, civilian or military, since 1st January,1914, when the contraption called Nigeria was forcibly contrived through the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Protectorates. The desperate act of a sit-tight president constitutes a direct suspension of the Nigerian Constitution and the entire democratic process. “It has finally removed the remaining veneer of pretension to democratic credentials by Buhari and his all-conquering cabal. Welcome, Nigerians, to full-blown dictatorship, absolutism, authoritarianism, and fascism. The provisions of section 292(2) of the 1999 Constitution are quite clear on how the CJN can be removed from office. Aside sections 153,158 and parts 1 and 2 of the 3rd schedule to the Constitution which provide that a judicial officer cannot be removed from office until he has first been tried and dealt with by the National Judicial Council (NJC), section 292(2) makes it clear that the president can only remove the CJN from office before the age of his retirement, “acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate”. When did the Senate meet to donate this power to the president? NEVER. Another lawyer, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode on his part called on the National Assembly to immediately commence impeachment proceedings against the president upon his violation of the principle of separation of powers. He said: “For a President in a democracy to suspend the CJN is 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. “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. CUPP says it is a judicial coup -The Coalition of United Political Parties, CUPP, described the suspension as a judicial coup. The coalition said the president “has finally overthrown constitutional governance” with his action, vowing not to recognize any other person outside Onnoghen as CJN. Addressing the media Friday evening, in Abuja through its 1st National Spokesperson, Ikenga Ugochinyere, the coalition alleged that the president’s action was aimed at stopping Onnoghen from swearing in members of the 2019 General Election petition tribunal, billed for today in Abuja. It said the president’s action had vindicated its 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 litigations. The coalition called on lawyers, judges, judicial staff to shut down the courts to protest the development just as it asked activists and lovers of democracy to “troop out and fight the coup against democracy.” Constitutional Crisis Foisted By Desperation – Southern And Middle Belt Leaders Southern and Middle Belt Leaders, yesterday, faulted the suspension saying it would lead to a constitutional crisis. In a statement titled: Constitutional Crisis As Buhari Illegally Suspends CJN, the leaders faulted the President over the decision saying: “this is a constitutional crisis foisted by desperation and morbid desire to foist rule of thumb. “ The statement was signed by Chief E K Clark, (South-South); Chief Ayo Adebanjo, (South West); Chief John Nwodo (South East) and Dr. Pogu Bitrus (Middle Belt ). The statement reads: “The attention of Southern and Middle Belt Leaders has been drawn to a coup against Constitutional Democracy in Nigeria by President Muhammadu Buhari by 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 2/3 of Senate resolution. “To us what has been done is resort to self-help after the Court of Appeal issued an order stopping the trial of the CJN by the CCT presided over by a man answering charges in court over corruption allegations but still in office. “The latest action is a clear suspension of the constitution and enthronement of full-blown dictatorship . “We reject the illegal suspension and demand its immediate reversal. The suspension is null and void and of no effect whatever . “An emergency meeting of the Forum holds shortly on this total aberration. Absurdity of the Century – PANDEF PAN Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF, an umbrella body of traditional rulers, leaders, and stakeholders of the coastal states of Niger Delta, yesterday, described President Buhari’s suspension of Justice Onnoghen, as an “absurdity of the century.” National Secretary of PANDEF, Dr. Alfred Mulade, told Saturday Vanguard, “This is the absurdity of the century. It is very clear that the President Buhari-led Federal Government has decided to stand the rule of law on its head and resort to crass self-help and illegality.” “PANDEF will resist this monumental shame and recklessness,” he said. Evangelist Elliot Uko, is the founder of Igbo Youth Movement and leader South-East Democratic Coalition Buhari said he wouldn’t sign the electoral act, because it was too close to elections and might upset the polity. Buhari also refused to change the service chiefs for the same reason. Now, the same Buhari suddenly kicked out the Chief Justice, (who has the final say on the elections) just three weeks to elections. This is clearly the most brazen form of desperation ever displayed by any Nigerian leader. Buhari makes it difficult for citizens to believe in Nigeria. It’s clear for all to see, he wants to pocket the judiciary. What is he really afraid of? . Nigerians must not allow outgoing General Buhari to collapse our hard earned democracy. Onnoghen suspension: Buhari Must Be Stopped — AIED The Advocacy for Integrity and Economic Development (AIED) on its part described the suspension as a grand illegality, desecration of the garment of democracy and final stage for Buhari’s transformation to maximum dictatorship. In a statement signed by its Director of Publicity, Comrade O’Seun John, AIED stated that the action should be protested not just by every member of the Nigerian Body of Benchers but also all patriots who hold dear the continuous existence of Nigeria. “The President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, today, unveiled entirely his true personality after years of dilly dally and pretence. Buhari, this is desperation taken too far — IYC IJAW Youth Council, IYC, described the suspension as a coup against democracy and the rule of law in Nigeria, saying he lacked the powers to do so. The president, Eric Omare, in a statement, said, “The IYC received with shock the news of the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen by President Buhari and the immediate swearing in of Justice Tanko Muhammed as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria.” “This is a coup against democracy and the rule of law. Nigeria is under a constitutional democracy governed by the rule of law and the action by President Buhari lacks foundation in law. “President Buhari lacks the powers to suspend the Chief Justice of Nigeria without the recommendation of the National Judicial Council. It is even unthinkable to suspend Justice Onnoghen in the light of the multiple valid and subsisting orders of the National Industrial Court, Federal High court and the Court of Appeal barring the Code of Conduct Tribunal from going on with the trial of Justice Onnoghen. “President Buhari claimed to have acted pursuant to an order of the CCT made on 23 January 2019; however, from the records of proceedings of the CCT, it made no such order. The pending motions are still there; hence, it is surprising for the President to be relying on a non-existing order. “This is desperation taken too far, and the IYC in the strongest terms condemns this display of impunity by President Buhari. This is the height of lawlessness and the greatest threat to democratic rule in Nigeria. This is Impunity — MBMJP The Middle Belt Movement for Justice and Peace, MBMJP, has expressed worry over the issue saying that the act was dictatorial and capable of plunging the country into constitutional crisis. Convener of MBMJP, Comrade Joe Bukka who sounded the warning yesterday while reacting to news of the removal of the CJN, said the action was illegal and reminiscent of a country under jackboot governance. Bukka said, “this is strange in the history of our country, that a CJN would be removed from office without recourse to the provisions of the constitution to effect such a change. “Nigeria is gradually descending to the level of a banana republic courtesy of this All Progressives Congress, APC led federal government. “Impunity now reigns in Nigeria, and we do not know where this will lead us to, but I know for sure that if all concerned Nigerians allow this to stand, we may be in for the roughest ride in our journey as a united, peaceful country.