Nigerians have continued to react to the big incident of the suspension of the head of the Judiciary of the country, Justice Walter Onnoghen by the President, Muhammadu Buhari.
Some 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.
In defence of his action, 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, The Punch reports.
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. The law is clear on how the CJN can be removed and even how he can be suspended. It is the NJC that can suspend a serving judge or justice.”
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.”
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