An “emergency” move to save the Judiciary has begun.

The National Judicial Council (NJC) has summoned an emergency meeting of its members for tomorrow to discuss “developments in the Judiciary”.

Members are expected to arrive in Abuja for the meeting scheduled for 10am.

It was also gathered that the main agenda of the meeting is the suspension of Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), the inauguration of Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad as acting CJN and the allegation of the code of conduct violation against Justice Onnoghen.

A source said Justice Onnoghen and Justice Muhammad may be excluded from the meeting, because of their involvement in the issues to be discussed.

A source at the NJC said the suspended CJN had allegedly prevented the body from addressing the issues surrounding the charge against him when he used his power as Chairman of NJC to suspend, indefinitely, the body’s meeting earlier planned for January 15.

The source said: “I believe this meeting is meant for members to effectively look at the issues and recent developments in the Judiciary and for them to take a formal position.

“Like the acting CJN said on Saturday, the Judiciary is truly in a trying time. And it is important that the NJC takes a formal position for posterity sake.”

The embattled CJN will know his fate today on whether or not he will face trial before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).

Onnoghen’s defence lawyers have challenged the jurisdiction of the tribunal to put him in the dock on six allegations bordering on alleged breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers.

If the CCT assumes jurisdiction, the CJN has no choice but to make himself available for trial.

But if the tribunal declines jurisdiction, the case against Onnoghen will be struck out and he will be back to his seat leaving the acting CJN, Justice Tanko Mohammed, with no choice but to step down.

Also, if the CCT declares that it has no jurisdiction, the suspension of Onnoghen by President Muhammadu Buhari will automatically amount to nothing.

As at the close of work on Friday, the CCT was yet to receive the Court of Appeal Ruling which ordered it to stay action on the trial of Onnoghen.

There were strong indications last night that the Federal Government may still petition the NJC and submit a heap of evidence against Justice Onnoghen.

According to a source, who spoke in confidence, the decision of the tribunal will determine whether or not the suspension of Justice Onnoghen will subsist.

The source said: “There are two applications before the CCT but the most important is the application by the defendant (Onnoghen) through his lawyers, challenging the jurisdiction of the tribunal to try him.

“Once the CCT affirms jurisdiction, the CJN will undergo trial on the allegations against him. But if the tribunal has no jurisdiction, the Chairman of the tribunal, Justice Danladi Umar, will strike out the case against the CJN.

“And any decline of jurisdiction implies that the ex parte order which led to the suspension of the CJN will become a nullity. The tribunal will also not be able to hear the interlocutory application of the prosecution before it.”

As at press time, the CCT was yet to receive the Court of Appeal ruling which ordered it to stay action on the trial of Onnoghen.

The CCT source said: “The Court of Appeal on Wednesday restrained this tribunal from going ahead with the trial of Justice Onnoghen. We have not been served the ruling.

“If we are served the order before sitting, we will, out of respect, obey the order of the Court of Appeal and adjourn the matter to a date. But the tribunal will not adjourn sine die (indefinitely.”

The presidency opted to file an application for ex parte order to suspend the CJN in the light of the provision of Section 231(4) to enable Justice Onnoghen face his trial in CCT and attend to other related cases in court, The Nation learnt.

The section states: “If the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria is vacant or if the person holding the office is for any reason unable to perform the functions of the office, then until a person has been appointed to and has assumed the functions of that office, or until the person holding the office has resumed those functions, the President shall appoint the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court to perform those functions.”

The source said: “The suspension of the CJN is actually meant to allow him enough time to concentrate on his arraignment before the CCT and his applications before other courts, including his likely appearance before the National Judicial Council (NJC).

”Like in other jurisdictions, the CJN cannot remain in office and be attending court sessions here and there. He needs this leverage to be able to answer all the allegations against him.

“Unless the CJN is pretending, his arraignment before the CCT and other issues have distracted him in the last 10 days. He could not even attend the last Council of State meeting. The President decided to take the bull by the horns because allegations of corruption are involved.”

On the tenure of the Acting CJN, the source added: “He will be in charge for at least three months. It is not an absolute appointment.

“Go and read Section 231 (5) of the 1999 Constitution. This action was not based on sentiments at all.”

Section 231 (5) says: “Except on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council, appointment pursuant to the provisions of subsection (4) of this section shall cease to have effect after the expiration of three months from the date of such appointment, and the President shall not reappoint a person whose appointment has relapsed.”

Another source also attributed the suspension of the CJN to the abrupt postponement of the 88th meeting of the NJC by Justice Walter Onnoghen.

The source said security reports indicated that the postponement was allegedly a “plot” to prevent the NJC from allowing the government to present a petition to the council for discussion which might lead to the suspension of the CJN.

The 88th meeting was to hold on January 15.

But the NJC’s Director of Information issued a notice of postponement.

The notice said:  ”Sir/Ma, I am directed by The Honorable, The Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council, Hon. Justice W. S. N. Onnoghen, GCON to inform you that the 88th Meeting of the Council slated for Tuesday 15th, January, 2019 has been postponed to a later date to be communicated to you.

“Any inconvenience this might cause you is highly regretted. Please, accept the assurances of the high.

A government source said: “The Federal Government will submit a petition and heaps of evidence against the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen next week.

“When the NJC takes its decision, the law will then run its full course on Onnoghen. Nigerians will then have the opportunity to have the details of the allegations of corruption against His Lordship, Hon. Justice W. S. N. Onnoghen, GCON.”

“There was an ambush somewhere to block the wheel of justice by preventing the NJC from sitting. No responsible government will allow that,” the source added.

As at press time, there were indications that the Federal Government may still submit a petition and evidence against Justice Onnoghen to the National Judicial Council (NJC).”

The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, (SERAP) has sent an open petition to the Next-In-Rank to the Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC), Acting CJN Justice Tanko Mohammed, urging the NJC “to immediately take over from the Code of Conduct Tribunal the case of Onnoghen”.

A statement by SERAP Senior Legal Adviser, Ms Bamisope Adeyanju said it had asked NJC to set up a committee to “investigate the allegations of breach of constitutional asset declaration requirements against him.”

The organisation also urged the NJC to “ask Justice Onnoghen to step aside from his role as Chief Justice, pending the outcome of your investigation into the allegations against him.”

“Also, if following your investigation, the allegations against Justice Onnoghen are established, the NJC should refer the case to appropriate anti-corruption bodies for prosecution. Similarly, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammed should recuse himself from the process, as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria.”

The organisation asked the NJC to “consider the issue of appointment of Justice Muhammed with a view to ensuring strict compliance with constitutional provisions. The NJC should take the recommended action within five days of the receipt and/or publication of this letter, failing which SERAP will take appropriate legal action to compel the NJC to take action on the case.”

The petition said: “The urgent intervention by the NJC would remove the allegations against Justice Onnoghen from the vicissitudes of political controversy, and a clear and present danger to the independence and authority of the judiciary. It would also help to reverse the country’s increasing movement toward anarchy or despotism.”

”It is in time like this that the NJC must be most vigilant and alive to its constitutional duties, if it is not to permit a diminution of our treasured constitutional rights.”

A copy of the petition was sent to Mr. Diego García-Sayán, UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.

It added:  ”Neither knee-jerk reactions by politicians nor abuse of the legal and judicial process by the government and some senior lawyers would be acceptable to break the constitutional logjam. The NJC ought to be concerned with the gravity of allegations against Justice Onnoghen.”

“This matter has inevitably thrown our country into a judicial-cum-constitutional crisis which, if not urgently addressed would lead to political crisis that would seriously put at risk Nigeria’s fledgling democracy, consequently exacerbating the declining respect for human rights at all levels of government.”

“The NJC should not and cannot stand-by while the authority and independence of the judiciary are diminished to the point at which the citizens lose confidence and trust in its ability to render justice to those in need.”

“SERAP is concerned that the politicisation of our judiciary poses the greatest threat to the independence of the judiciary, to Nigeria’s fledgling democracy and would”, if not urgently addressed lead to denial of access to justice to the most marginalised and vulnerable section of the population.”

“The politicisation of the judiciary by politicians would endanger Nigerians’ fundamental human rights and the country’s international human rights obligations, and consequently, the fundamental principles of our constitutional democracy.”

“It is the responsibility of the NJC to ensure the preservation of our constitutional values and to prevent the politicization of the judiciary and politicians from running roughshod over sacred judicial functions, and consequently, the rights of citizens.”

“Nigerians deserve a judiciary capable of serving as essential bulwark of constitutional government, a constant guardian of the rule of law, and owing fidelity to no person or party. Unless the NJC acts as requested, the mandates, ability and authority of the judiciary to act as a check on the political branches of government and to protect citizens’ human rights would be drastically curtailed.”

“The allegation that Justice Onnoghen failed to declare his assets as required by the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 (as amended) and the arbitrary response by the Federal Government have thrown our judiciary into a crisis, with politicians seemingly taking full advantage of the crisis, resulting in the politicisation of the judiciary.”

SERAP expressed concerns over the politicisation of the allegations against Justice Onnoghen.

A statement by SERAP Senior Legal Adviser, Ms Bamisope Adeyanju, said: “Many politicians have failed to consider the matter through a constitutional lens and have in fact made statements that may be considered prejudicial to the cause of justice, the interests of the judiciary and Nigeria.”

“As the Senate prepares to sit to discuss the matter, the situation is likely to be even more politicized, especially at the time of election when politicians jostle for position, power, and relevance. Any intervention by the Senate is likely to be politically motivated and would not satisfactorily break the logjam.”

“Many Nigerians would see the suspension of Justice Onnoghen as outright intimidation of the judiciary in the hope of making it more deferential to certain politicians, as judges prepare to hear flood of election petitions that are expected to follow the general elections in February and March 2019.”

“Suspending the Chief Justice of Nigeria by an ex parte order obtained via an apparently flawed legal and judicial process is an absurdity too gross to be allowed to stand. It suggests the constitution is no longer the supreme law of the land.”

“Furthermore, SERAP is concerned that the allegations of violation of asset declaration provisions by Justice Onnoghen have created a palpable and rising distrust of the judiciary by the citizens, a distrust that may be exacerbated by the politicization of the judiciary by politicians across party lines.”

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