Acting on the recommendation of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday suspended the chief justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen, from office. This was in the aftermath of Justice Onnoghen’s violation of the Code of Conduct for public officers regarding declaration of assets, and his own admission that he forgot to do so. That, in law, is not an excuse; he is learned enough to know that.
Since the news broke following a petition by a civil society organisation, the issues arising from it have continued to dominate public discourse. As expected, there has been a flurry of litigations and court orders challenging the locus standi of the tribunal on the matter and, unbelievably, not the offence he committed for which he was brought to justice.
We are surprised that there seems to be a deliberate effort by even legal luminaries to sweep the real issue under the carpet. By law, public officers — of whom Onnoghen is one, and by virtue of the fact that he is a judicial officer, actually the head of the judicial arm of government – are required to declare, at regular intervals, all they own to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB). He failed in this regard. And to preserve the integrity and credibility of the judiciary as well as his own honour, he ought not to have waited for the matter to degenerate to the level that he was forced to leave office.
Yet we are not surprised. For some time now, the temple of justice has been battling with a credibility crisis that has led to the arrest of some judges and the dismissal of others for corrupt practices.
From what was revealed by the Bureau and the Tribunal, huge amounts in foreign currencies were found in Onnoghen’s domiciliary accounts that are far in excess of what he legitimately earns as a judicial officer. In all the legal arguments so far, no one has deemed it appropriate to question the source of those funds, the reason the Code of Conduct Tribunal gave an order that he should be removed from office.
The president obeyed that court order. Since then, the argument has been that he obeyed a mere ex-parte application. Maybe. But it is also pertinent to point out that all the orders from the courts over the matter were ex-parte. And constitutional law experts insist that the suspension is morally and legally justified. Section 292 (1) of the Constitution provides for the CJN’s removal: the conditions include a breach of the Code of Conduct.
There is another argument that the National Judicial Council (NJC) ought to have been the first port of call in the procedure to remove him from office. The disgraced CJN, apparently in anticipation of the outcome of a meeting of the body on the matter, had suspended its deliberations indefinitely in his capacity as the chairman. That, in our view, is a calculated attempt to obstruct justice, a high crime in itself.
Other opinions claim that only a two-thirds vote of the Senate can remove him from office. That is a provision of the constitution. But it refers to removal from office outright and not suspension which the president has the powers to do.
Besides, there is a precedent: the case of a former president of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami, who was removed from office by President Goodluck Jonathan and eventually retired not because of any corruption-related allegation. Another example is the removal from office of the former governor of the Central Bank, Alhaji Sanusi Lamido Sanusi. At that time, all those crying wolf now over Onnoghen were conveniently silent.
This newspaper considers it amazing that the current president of the Nigerian Bar Association – he too is facing court charges for an alleged corrupt practice — is one of those noisily making a case for the CJN. It brings to the fore the decadence in the judiciary and also the Bar itself. Members of this hallowed profession, the Bar and Bench, disappointingly decide to play down the fact that they are a major plank of the society, the so-called last hope of the common man whose conduct invariably affects the society in totality.
Before now, many have blamed the president for not obeying court orders. Now he has decided to obey one and a bedlam is upon the country. In the circumstance, we are compelled to invite Nigerians to, at least, ask questions about how a civil servant, an arbiter of the law, amassed an undeclared $3m in his bank accounts and several houses, and yet he claimed to have forgotten to mention almost N1billion in his assets declaration form. How much are his legitimate earnings? Does he earn money in dollars? How much estacode does he get when he travelled overseas?
Unfortunately, countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union have joined the fray seemingly in favour of the suspended CJN. And we ask, how would they have reacted if their chief justice were to find himself in such a compromised position? If any chief justice in any of these places finds himself close to the position Onnoghen finds himself today, that chief justice would have resigned a long time ago.
All in all, we insist that corruption must be expunged regardless of who is involved, if Nigeria must survive and grow. Any decent CJN would have stepped down on such charges. But this CJN was, instead, plotting how to tamper with the course of justice by suspending the proceedings of the National Judicial Council of which he is chairman.
By acting the way he did, Onnoghen has not respected himself, he has not respected the judiciary, and he has not respected the country. He should just go.
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