By Innocent Anaba, Ikechukwu Nnochiri, Johnbosco Agbakwuru & Chris Ochayi
ABUJA — THE National Judicial Council, NJC, yesterday waded into the crisis rocking the judiciary, by directing suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, to respond to corruption allegations against him within seven working days.
NJC, which is the organ of the judiciary responsible for Appointments, Promotions and Discipline of Judicial Officers, also gave the Acting CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad, the same number of days to explain why disciplinary action should not be taken against him for submitting himself to be sworn-in by President Muhammadu Buhari as Onnoghen’s replacement.
In essence, the duo have till Thursday, February 7, 2019, or nine days from today to respond.
The legal body took the decision at the end of an emergency meeting it held in Abuja over last Friday’s suspension of the CJN by President Buhari.
Specifically, the NJC, directed Onnoghen to respond to a petition lodged against him by Mr. Zikhrillahi Ibrahim of the Resource Centre for Human Rights & Civil Education.
It was learned that the petitioner is accusing Onnoghen of being in possession of funds and properties that are way beyond his legitimate earnings.
On the other hand, NJC asked the Acting CJN, Justice Muhammad, to respond to two separate petitions entered against him by a group, the Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative, and a former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba, SAN.
Agbakoba had in his petition urged the NJC to determine the propriety of Justice Muhammad accepting to be sworn-in by the President in place of the suspended CJN, despite being aware of the implication of his conduct.
According to Agbakoba, by submitting himself to the President to be sworn-in as acting CJN, Justice Muhammad lent himself to constitutional infraction by the executive arm of government.
He recalled that Justice Muhammad was a member of the panel that sanctioned Justice Obisike Orji of Abia State for allowing himself to be sworn-in as Abia State Chief Judge by the state’s governor without recourse to the NJC.
NJC to send petition against CCT chair to FJSC
Consequently, Agbakoba, accused the Acting CJN of engaging in an act of judicial misconduct.
Meantime, the NJC, in a statement by its Director of Information, Mr. Soji Oye, said it would forward another petition filed against the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, Mr. Danladi Umar, to the Federal Judicial Service Commission, FJSC.
The CCT Chairman had on January 23, issued the ex-parte order President Buhari relied upon to suspend Onnoghen, after which he and swore in Muhammad.
A group under the platform of Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative, had urged the NJC to sanction the CCT boss for engaging in “reckless abuse” of his judicial powers.
However, the Council said the FJSC was the appropriate constitutional body empowered to deal with issues the petitioner raised against the CCT Chairman.
Onnoghen, Muhammad get copies of petitions against them
Already, the NJC, said it has furnished both Onnoghen and Muhammad with copies of the petitions against them, adding that it abridged their response time to seven days, owing to the “gravity of the matters involved.”
Before its meeting, the NJC asked both Onnoghen and Muhammad to recuse themselves although every serving CJN is statutorily empowered to preside over activities of the NJC.
In their stead, former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umaru Abdullahi, was elected to act as the Interim Chairman of the NJC, pending the resolution of the crisis. However, the Council,
said it would reconvene its sitting on February 11.
The NJC statement
The statement, read:
“The National Judicial Council held an emergency meeting today and considered four petitions filed at its secretariat. The petitions are:
“Petition against Hon. Mr. Justice W.S.N. Onnoghen, GCON by Zikhrillahi Ibrahim of Resource Centre for Human Rights & Civil Education;
“Petition against Hon. Mr. Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, CFR by Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative;
“Petition against Hon. Mr. Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, CFR by Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, OON; and:
“Petition against Hon. Danladi Yakubu Umar, Chairman, Code of Conduct Tribunal by Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative.
“Council referred the petition against Hon. Danladi Yakubu Umar to the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) which is the appropriate constitutional body empowered to deal with it.
“In line with its procedure, Council also forwarded the petitions against Hon. Justices W.S.N. Onnoghen, GCON and I. T. Muhammad, CFR to them for their responses.
“In view of the gravity of the matters involved, Council abridged the usual response period from fourteen (14) to seven (7) working days for the Hon. Justices to respond.
“Hon. Mr. Justice W. S. N. Onnoghen, GCON and Hon. Mr. Justice I.T. Muhammad, CFR recused themselves from the meeting.
“Consequently, Council elected Hon. Mr. Justice Umaru Abdullahi, CON, former President of the Court of Appeal as Interim Chairman to preside over the meeting. Council will reconvene on the 11th February, 2019.”
Onnoghen challenges suspension
Meantime, Justice Onnoghen has gone before the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal to challenge the ex-parte order the CCT issued for his suspension.
He argued in the four grounds of appeal he lodged through his team of lawyers led by Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, that the Mr. Umar-led CCT erred in law by granting an ex-parte order for his removal, even when its jurisdiction to entertain the six-count charge the Federal Government levelled against him was being challenged.
He therefore applied for “an order setting aside the order of the tribunal made on the 23rd of January, directing the Appellant to step aside as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and a further order that the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria takes all necessary measures to swear-in the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council.”
Onnoghen contended that “the exercise of powers over the motion ex-parte without first determining the jurisdiction of the tribunal amounted to unlawful exercise of jurisdiction and therefore void.”
A three-man panel of the Court of Appeal had on January 24, ordered the CCT to halt further proceedings before it to await the outcome of an appeal Justice Onnoghen lodged before it.
Lawyers defy NBA, attend cases at S-Court, A-Court, FHC
Meanwhile, some lawyers, yesterday, defied the two-day sit-at-home order from the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, and appeared before the Supreme Court to represent their clients.
A five-man panel of justices of the apex court presided over by Justice Mary Odili, heard and adjourned about nine cases on the cause list.
Likewise, both the Court of Appeal and the Federal High Court, Abuja conducted proceedings with lawyers in attendance, though most of the parties took fresh hearing dates.
The situation was, however, not the same at various courts of the Federal Capital Territory, where most of the judges were absent.
The atmosphere in all the courts visited by Vanguard was calm with no task force in sight to enforce the boycott order the NBA declared on Monday in protest against the suspension of Justice Onnoghen.
President Buhari had in an unprecedented move on Friday, suspended Onnoghen who was accused of failing to declare some of his assets as prescribed by the law, and swore in the most senior jurist of the Supreme Court, Justice Tanko Muhammad to take over the leadership of the judiciary as the acting CJN.
Irked by the President’s action, NBA which is the umbrella body of lawyers in the country, ordered all its members to boycott courts for two days, starting from Tuesday.
NBA, which took the decision at the end of an emergency meeting of its National Executive Committee, NEC, further constituted a three-man committee to liaise with all its members currently serving in President Buhari’s government with a view to finding a way to resolve the crisis involving Onnoghen.
Agbakoba petitions against Danladi Umar, CCT chairman, wants him de-registered
In another development, Dr Olisa Agbakoba has dragged the CCT Chairman, Mr. Danladi Umar before the NBA’s Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee, praying that Umar’s name be struck out of the Roll of Legal Practitioners in Nigeria for violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
Agbakoba in a petition against Umar addressed to the General Secretary of the NBA, yesterday, said: “On January 14, 2019, the CCT of which Mr. Danladi Umar is chairman assumed jurisdiction in a matter against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen knowing the CCT had no jurisdiction in view of CCT’s own decision in the case of Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, which also involved Asset Declaration.
“The Court of Appeal in Nganjiwa v. FRN (2017) LPELR-43391 (CA) held that allegations of misconduct against a serving judicial officer must first be referred to and handled by the National Judicial Council, NJC. It is only after the NJC had entertained and made a finding or pronouncement on the allegation against a Judicial officer and recommended to the President or Governor as the case may be, the removal of such judicial officer, and the recommendation is accepted and acted upon by the appropriate authority, that the prosecuting agencies of the Federal Government can proceed against such judicial officer to make him face the full wrath of the law.
“Mr. Danladi Umar knew the state of the law yet acted otherwise. Mr Umar’s misconduct has created a constitutional crisis and brought great embarrassment to the legal profession.
“On January 23, 2019, the CCT of which Mr. Danladi Umar is chairman issued an ex-parte order which on its face is clearly defective having not set out on record the counsel that made the application. This gives the impression the CCT may have drawn up the application on itself. This led the President of Nigeria to purportedly suspend the CJN, Justice Onnoghen and purportedly appoint an acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Mohammed, as the acting CJN.
“Mr Umar’s misconduct has created a constitutional crisis and brought great embarrassment to the Legal profession.
“The Chairman of the CCT, Mr. Umar is on trial before the Federal High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja for allegedly demanding a bribe of N10 million from one Mr. Rasheed Taiwo in 2012. The alleged demand was made in relation to a case (CCT/ABJ/03/12) involving Mr. Taiwo, an offence contrary to Section 12(1) (a) and (b) of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2003.
“The Chairman of the CCT, Mr. Umar not being a judicial officer is subject to the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee. In the light of these violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct, we pray the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee direct that the name of Mr. Umar be struck out of the Roll of Legal Practitioners in Nigeria.”
NDI, IRI call for peaceful resolution of disputes
Worried by foregoing developments, the National Democratic Institute, NDI, and International Republican Institute, IRI, have called for peaceful resolution of the impasse in the judiciary.
The two democratic institutions said in a joint statement issued, yesterday, in Abuja, that the stakeholders should resolve the disputes urgently given the proximity to the conduct of next month’s general elections.
The statement read: National Democratic Institute, NDI, and International Republican Institute, IRI, are concerned by the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria on January 25.
“The suspension comes just three weeks before the February 16 presidential and National Assembly polls and has raised doubts among electoral stakeholders about the independence of the Supreme Court and Electoral Tribunals in the upcoming general election.
“Consistent with the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, actions such as these taken so close to Election Day should be done through consensus and in consultation with all political actors so as not to be perceived as unfairly impacting the electoral process.
“The judicial branch plays a critical role in the electoral process. It is imperative that these courts are objective and that they are perceived as such by all election stakeholders,” said NDI President Ambassador Derek Mitchell. “The suspension of Nigeria’s highest judicial officer so close to the vote could undermine citizens’ confidence in the judiciary’s independence.”
“IRI and NDI call on all stakeholders to adhere to the rule of law and peaceful resolution of disputes,” said IRI President Daniel Twining. “We encourage all political actors to engage in an inclusive dialogue and implement initiatives to assure the public and political contestants that, should disputes arise from the upcoming general elections, they will be resolved fairly.”
The NDI and IRI have observed all national elections in Nigeria since the country’s return to civilian democratic rule in 1999. The two organizations have together deployed more than 200 international observer missions to various countries around the world.
The Institutes plan to jointly observe the February 16 presidential and National Assembly elections and the March 2 gubernatorial and state houses of assembly elections.
IRI and NDI conducted pre-election assessment missions in July, September, and December 2018 and issued statements of our findings with recommendations to further strengthen Nigeria’s electoral process.”
Nigeria not a colony, Oshiomhole tells US, UK, EU
Meantime, National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress, APC, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, has picked holes in the position of the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and the European Union in the crisis ravaging Nigeria’s judiciary saying that Nigeria is not a colony.
Onnoghen: CCB trial in order – Sagay
Fielding questions from State House correspondents after a meeting between President Buhari and APC senators and senatorial candidates in the forthcoming general elections, Monday night, Comrade Oshiomhole said that Nigeria is a sovereign nation and will never entertain any external interference in its internal affairs.
The US, UK and EU had in separate statements faulted the timing of Onnoghen’s suspension and urged that due process be followed to resolve the logjam.
Said Oshiomhole: “The thing is that Nigeria is not a colony. I think we all have to be careful. We must defend the sovereignty of our country. We welcome collaboration, we welcome peer review, we can compare notes, we welcome people who are interested in sharing experiences with us whenever the need arises, whether it is capacity building, making useful suggestions on how we can continue to improve on our electoral process. Those are very valuable contributions that we appreciate.
“But Nigeria is not a colony. We will not accept any foreign interference in the internal affairs of Nigeria. When they dismiss judges in Europe…judges have been dismissed in the United States when they were found guilty of corruption and the Western world cannot on the one hand, when it suits them, describe Nigeria as fantastically corrupt and when a corrupt judicial officer is being charged, people want to interfere.
“What anybody can insist on is, is anybody being framed? Is the suspended CJN guilty of the allegations made against him? Or is it something being cooked out from nowhere?
“Now, if a Chief Justice of the Federation admits that he has breached the law, if a Chief Justice of the Federation admits that he has several foreign domiciliary accounts, even though he also admits that by the nature of his office, he is not a trader, what is he doing with accounts in British pounds, US dollars and in Euros and to the extent of forgetting that he has those accounts?
“If he has such memory failure about the size of his number of accounts as to fail to declare them, you and I know that ignorance is not an excuse in law. So, why are we being hypocritical?
“And at a certain level of responsibility, it is not even about legal technicalities. It is about the moral weight, the moral burden you carry. So, nobody should make us feel as though we are at the mercy of any other country. The future of Nigeria is in the hands of Nigerians and our laws are clear. Our laws are meant to be obeyed.
“If Nigerians thought that anybody other than the president, the vice president or a governor and deputy governor have immunity, it should have been so written into the constitution. I don’t understand what the noise is about.
“Some people say even if it is true, is this the proper timing? What is the best timing to prosecute a crime? Should we suspend criminal justice pending elections.
“Then, some people say you know, because of the very unique role or rather, very delicate role the judiciary has to play in settling elections issues, that is the more reason that people are worried about the timing. My question is, given that important role of the judiciary in times like this, is that the reason why you should allow a judge who has professed to breaching laws of the land, to preside, adjudicate over issues that have to do with fairness and justice?”
On the essence of the meeting, he said, “The whole idea is for the president to have a direct interaction with the senators and the senatorial candidates of the APC to work hard and to ensure that on the basis of one man-one-vote, the outcome of the 2019 elections will be in our favour. This was an opportunity to meet with the president for the fist time also to share notes on the activities and campaigns of each of the senatorial districts.”