The chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Professor Itse Sagay, asked embattled Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, to submit himself for trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) over alleged official misconduct because he is not above the law.
Sagay declared that the hues and cries over the planned arraignment of Onnoghen before the CCT by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) for non-declaration of his assets were unwarranted.
The CCB has concluded arrangements to arraign the CJN before the tribunal over a six count charge bothering on operating foreign accounts contrary to the provisions of the law for officials of his status.
In an interview with “The Interview” magazine yesterday, excerpts of which LEADERSHIP took, Sagay argued that “there is no exception to the rule of law and that nobody is above the law.”
The legal icon said: “Honestly, I don’t know what the hullabaloo is about. The law is very clear about what public officers can do and cannot do under the Code of Conduct Bureau, including declaration of assets. And that is a subject that can be determined mathematically. It is either you declared, or you did not declare your assets; there is no exception.
“The rule of law doesn’t know any exception. Nobody is above the law. It can happen to me, it can happen to you if you are in public office. It is compulsory that one must declare assets. So, what has to be determined by the tribunal based on the evidence before it is whether he did declare or did not declare his assets? That’s mathematically certain,” he said.
The presidential aide continued: “So, what all the noise is about, I don’t know. I would have thought that those who have sympathy for the chief justice would have said there is nothing to worry about; the truth would come out at the tribunal and it would be established that he has nothing to answer for.
“And that would be the end of it. But there is a lot of confusion and cloud being thrown all over. There is a frenzy; I don’t understand why this is so. Are you saying that somebody who occupies high office cannot answer to a breach of the law? It doesn’t make sense to me.
“It just shows that something is wrong and those who are behind this are the elite – top elite, the Senior Advocates; all those who think that to living in a society is to gather privileges without any responsibility and if anyone of them is challenged about it, then the roof has to fall.
“My view on this matter is, let the matter come before the tribunal, let the prosecution make his case, and let the chief justice’s lawyers and himself show clearly that the case is wrong and that he is innocent. That’s it. It is very simple,” Sagay said.
On whether the National Judicial Commission (NJC) must do its investigation and recommendations before a judge is prosecuted, Sagay said that “I’ve heard that, and I think some people are trying to ridicule this country. Alright, the first point – the Court of Appeal – gave a judgment which, in effect, amended our constitution illegally by giving semi-immunity to judges; that you cannot arrest or charge or prosecute them, unless clearance is given by the National Judicial Commission.
“There is no such thing in our constitution. The only people who are covered by immunity are the President, Vice President, governors and deputy governors. What that judgment did is to amend our constitution illegally. So, relying on that, though technically correct in the sense that a court has made a pronouncement, in justice and in substance it is an illegal judgment which should really not stand the test of time. That’s number one.
“Two, my understanding of that very regrettable decision is that it is when you are charged with bad performance of your duties as a judge. If you are charged with wrong doing, with misconduct in relation to your work as a judge in the court with parties, it is then that the matter has to go to the NJC.
“This matter has to do with something totally out of judicial activities. Something that is common to all public servants: that is declaration of assets. So, it doesn’t come within that particular compass that that long and illegal judgment created.
“Either way, I don’t see that there is an argument on this issue. All he needs to do is for the CJN to tender that these are the assets I declared, these are the ones I did not declare. It is so simple!” he said.
South South Govs Kick Against Onnoghen’s Planned Arraignment
Meanwhile, governors of the South-South Zone, the CJN’s region have declared that the plot against Onnoghen “is a grave and dangerous escalation of the assault on institutions of state including the National Assembly and the judiciary.”
Rising from an emergency meeting on Onnoghen’s travails yesterday, the governors said that the planned trial was aimed at humiliating the CJN and the judiciary.
They therefore urged President Muhammadu Buhari to condemn what it called an assault on the CJN and the judiciary, coming after similar assaults on the National Assembly.
The governors stressed that the action against the Onnoghen further reinforced the perception that the Buhari administration had no regard for the sentiments of Nigerians, in particular the people of Niger Delta, and the rule of law.
The state chief executives recalled the recent removal of former acting director-general of the Department of State Services (DSS), Matthew Seiyefa and his replacement by another Nigerian of northern extraction.
The governors asked the CJN to ignore the summons from the CCB to appear before the CCT as well as the call for his resignation in some quarters, which they say was provocative.
In a communiqué after a meeting they held at the Abuja residence of Bayelsa State Governor, Henry Seriake Dickson, which was co-signed by Governors Nyesom Wike (Rivers State), Prof. Ben Ayade (Cross River), Udom Emmanuel (Akwa Ibom State) and Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State, the governors said that the action on Onnoghen constituted a setback for the nation’s democratic experience in the last 20 years.
Dickson said that Okowa who was absent at the press conference, left for another event, and was silent on the absence of the Edo State governor, Godwin Obaseki.
He said that under Section 158(1) of the 1999 Constitution, the NJC has ample powers to deal exhaustively with matters pertaining to allegations of misconduct and discipline of judicial officers.
“Specifically, the NJC has the powers and clear procedures for investigating allegations, and recommending appropriate sanctions or disciplinary measures against judicial officials as a matter of first instance before any further steps.
“The judicial pronouncements in the cases of FGN Vs Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court (January 9, 2018) and Justice Ngajinwa Vs FGN 2017 at the CCT have given validation to the expressed provisions of the constitution on this issue.
“We note that the attempt to drag the CJN to the CCT is also a grave and dangerous escalation of the assault on institutions of state including the National Assembly and the judiciary.
“We believe that the President, Muhammadu Buhari, has a constitutional responsibility and huge moral obligation to defend our democracy,” Dickson said.
“Therefore, we consider this step, which is directly aimed at humiliating the nation’s highest judicial officer and a prominent son of the region, as totally unacceptable as it is reflective of the South South story of endless marginalisation and intimidation. The unceremonious removal of former acting director-general of the Department of State Service, Mathew Seiyefa and his replacement is still very fresh.
Similarly, the President General of Umbrella organisation of Ndigbo, the Ohanaeze, Chief John Nnia Nwodo, warned the federal government against heating up the polity by the needless action it’s taking against the CJN.
He said that several legal opinions did not support the action and therefore should not have been contemplated at all.
Nwodo, in a signed statement he issued yesterday, said that Ohanaeze received with shock and disappointment, the decision of the federal government, acting through the CCB to prosecute the CJN.
He noted that legal opinions abound that the action was premature and ill-conceived following an extant Court Of Appeal decision which interpretted the procedure for prosecuting judicial officers.
“This procedure has not been followed. The fact that the National Judicial Council has been ignored is not just illegal but suggests deliberate court shopping and a predetermined objective.
“Second, the fact that one of the issues being canvassed by the CCB before the CCT is for an order of the CCT for the Chief Justice of Nigeria to step aside from his exalted office pending the conclusion of the trial contrary to the procedure for his removal from office as provided by the Nigerian constitution exposes the aim of the prosecution,” Nwodo said.
Charges Against CJN Will Debase Rule Of Law – NBA, Others
Also yesterday, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and other prominent lawyers warned that the charges filed against Onnoghen have grave implication on “our laws and the judiciary as an arm of independent government.”
NBA president, Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN), in his response to the matter, said that the federal government chose to deviate from the laid down and explicit provisions of the law as expounded in Nganjiwa vs FRN (supra).
He said: “Could it be that it was misadvised? Or is this a naked show of power and force by agencies of the federal government? And why embark on the media trial of the CJN? This, unfortunately, is a predilection of the governmet’s prosecuting agencies with the possible exception of the Federal Ministry of Justice. As the NBA pointed out in its International Anti-Corruption Day statement that was issued on December 9, 2018 ‘media trial of persons charged with corrupt practices’ . . . amount to corruption itself”.
Usoro said that orchestrated media trial degrade and corrupt the justice administration system quite apart from the incalculable damage that it does to persons who may ultimately be discharged and acquitted.
“In point of fact, it is corrupt practice to use as license or hide under the cover of the fight against corruption to recklessly destroy the names, characters and reputations of persons who have not been found guilty of corrupt practices by competent courts and who may ultimately be pronounced innocent of such charges.
”These media trial must, alongside the on-going desecration and assault of the judiciary, cease forthwith. There are two final issues that we must touch upon in this statement, albeit, briefly. First, could it possibly be a coincidence that the current assault on the judiciary is taking place only weeks to the 2019 national elections?
“Apart from the conduct itself being wrongful and deplorable, its timing is condemnable. FGN will find it difficult to convince any reasonable person that its assault on the CJN and by extension the judiciary is not aimed at emasculating that arm of the government and intimidating our judges ahead of the 2019 national elections.
“It is also difficult for a disinterested observer not to see a pattern of consistent assault by agencies of the FGN on the heads of the two independent arms of government, to wit, the legislature and the judiciary, starting with the prosecution of the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, before the CCT and now, the ill-fated prosecution of the CJN before the same CCT,” he lamented.
A Senior Advocate, Jubril Okutepa, said that whosoever advised that charges be filed against the CJN before the CCT had done incalculable damages and fatal blow to the Buhari administration.
According to him, the person may be a saboteur and an enemy of the country, and should have his brain examined.
Another lawyer, Mojeed Ajao, described the move by the federal government as dangerously political and tendentious.
Ajao said that the steps were more political than honest, stressing that “there is an attempt to destroy the judiciary or gag it; and in the latter situation, to hector it into submission. I personally say no to this!”
APC Defends Trial, Knocks PDP
Also yesterday, the governing All Party Progressives Congress (APC) chided the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for rising in defence of Onnoghen over the decision of the federal government to charge the chief jurist for corruption.
The party said that PDP’s resort to baseless postulations anytime issues of corruption are levelled against public officers only confirm what Nigerians already know.
In a statement signed by APC national publicity secretary, Mallam Lanre Issa-Onilu, the party accused the PDP of being sympathetic to corruption.
Issa Onilu said: ‘‘Following reports of the move to prosecute Justice Walter Onnoghen, the chief justice of Nigeria, over an alleged infraction on the Code of Conduct laws, the swift statement by the PDP condemning the purported move has again exposed the party as one with a natural inclination to rise up in defence of cases of alleged corruption.”
Saraki Asks FG To Follow Due Process
In his reaction to the development, the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, urged the federal government not to compromise due process in its bid to put Onnoghen on trial for alleged false asset declaration in order not to cause chaos in the country’s judicial system.
Saraki, in a statement he issued, said that he believes that if the government truly has genuine reason to put Onnoghen on trial, it should ensure that every step in the process is transparent and the normal process as provided by the law is followed to the letter.
He said that a situation where the petition which triggered the trial was submitted to the CCB on Wednesday, January 8 and by Friday, January 10, the CJN was presented with it for his reply only for the charges to be drafted that same day and filed before the CCT, all this taking place within three days and commencement of trial fixed for Monday, January 14 (today) already indicated unnecessary haste and short-circuiting of the process of fair hearing.
Falana Urges Withdrawal Of Case Against Onnoghen
Relatedly, human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN) yesterday urged the government to immediately withdraw the charges filed against Onnoghen before the CCT.
Falana, in a statement he issued in Lagos, said that the case should be withdrawn by the Attorney-General of the Federation without any delay because it is likely to be a prosecutorial misadventure.
He said: “The charge against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen ought not to have been instituted at the Code of Conduct of Tribunal in view of the case of Nganjiwa vs FRN (2017) LPELR 43391 wherein the Court of Appeal held that a judicial officer who has not been investigated by the National Judicial Council and sanctioned for misconduct cannot be arraigned in any criminal court in Nigeria.”
He insisted that all authorities are bound by the Court of Appeal verdict.
Also, a Lagos-based lawyer, Abiodun Owonikoko (SAN), described the charges as premature and misdirected.
He argued that Nganjiwa vs FRN is the last word on the due process to follow in properly seeking sanction against a serving judicial officer who is amenable to the disciplinary and supervisory powers of the national judicial council.
Owonikoko a said “To arraign the sitting CJN my lord, the Hon Justice Walter Onnoghen for offences that impugn his suitability to continue to occupy his office with a view to his removal is, I dare say and with no regrets whatsoever, an egregious rape on the separation of powers entrenched in our constitutional framework as nation.”
On his part, a human rights activist, Jitu Ogunye, called on the president “to direct that the charges be withdrawn forthwith for its incompetence, even as the administration continues to explore other legitimate and constitutional means to continue its fight against corrupt practices in our public life.”
He said that the allegations against the CJN may be grave, but justice cannot be served by resorting to patent illegalities.
Ogunye also argued that the prosecutorial decision that has been taken by the executive arm of government is a very grave one and that it is unprecedented in the political history of Nigeria.
He said: “Let us go down memory lane. During the blistering General Murtala Mohammed military regime in 1975, there were massive purges in the judiciary as well as in the public service. Many public servants were removed “with immediate effect” .
“During the purges, a sitting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Teslim Olawale Elias was removed as the CJN. But he was not subjected to a criminal trial. He later went on to serve as the president of the World Court.
“In the life of the Buhari presidency, the leadership of the National Assembly, the first arm of government, has been subjected to, at least, two criminal trials (Senate rules forgery case and CCT false asset declaration case).
“Following those charges and trial is now on, this charge and planned arraignment of a serving Chief Justice of Nigeria, the head of the judiciary, the third arm of government is shocking.
“Being a weighty issue, therefore, one would have imagined that the decision to put the CJN on trial with frenetic speed, following the petition against the CJN, was weighed very carefully.
“The general election is 35 days away. The CJN, the Supreme Court and the NJC will play certain statutory roles, post the elections. And even as these events unfold, these judicial authorities are playing some adjudicatory and administrative roles regarding the determination of pre-election matters (appeals) arising from contentious party primaries.
“The CJN is also the head of the judiciary. Putting him on trial while he is in office, certainly, will impact the Nigerian judiciary negatively. The portrayal here inevitably will be that the Nigerian judiciary is so corrupt that its head is put on trial. This depiction is not fair to many judicial officers whose integrity is solid and who are free of corrupt practices,” he argued,
Another lawyer, Chuks Nwachuku, said that the CJN can only be removed or indicted for breach of the Code of Conduct by the process of impeachment by 2/3 of Senate.
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