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Anxiety As NJC Decides Onnoghen, Muhammad’s Fates Today

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As the National Judicial Council (NJC) sits today to decide the petitions set to oust the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen and the acting CJN, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad from office, AHURAKA YUSUF ISAH writes that the decisions reached by NJC will either make or mar the judiciary.

Today, the National Judicial Council (NJC) will meet to decide the fate of two of the highest judicial officers in the country. It is an emergency meeting of the apex body for the nation’s judiciary to sit on the responses of the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen and the acting CJN, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad. They were directed by the NJC, to within seven days submit their defenses against petitions forwarded against them by some stakeholders and bodies. The NJC had adjourned to meet today to take decisions on those petitions based on the responses of the duo.

This emergency meeting is very unusual, it is the first of its kind, perhaps the first meeting of the council in which its chairman or deputy chairman would not be presiding, and it is a meeting borne out of the doctrine of necessity. It is a meeting to call a spade a spade, and it will definitely make or mar the judiciary.

According to the statement signed by the council’s spokesperson, Soji Oye, on January 29, 2019, “the National Judicial Council held an emergency meeting today and considered four (4) 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’’, Oye stated.

The petition against Justice Onnoghen would most probably have to do with reason for standing trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).

On January 11, 2019, the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) filed a six-count charge against the Onnoghen before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) over alleged failure to declare his asset upon assumption of office as provided for in Section 15 (1) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act C15, punishable under Section 23 (2) (a) (b) and (c) of the same Act. Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami (SAN) had also disclosed that he submitted a petition against Justice Onnoghen.

This is after Malami had on January 14, 2019, directed the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) to freeze the accounts of Justice Onnoghen subject to ‘Investigation and Prosecution Pursuant to Presidential Executive Order No 6 of 5th July, 2018 on the Preservation of Assets Connected with Corruption’. The order, according to AGF is to forthwith restrict normal banking operations on certain accounts belonging to Onnoghen pending final determination of the case against him at the CCT.

From excerpts of Mr. Olisa Abakogba’s petition against ag. CJN which he released to the media after he submitted it to NJC, it could be discerned that his grouse was about why the jurist stepped forward to be sworn in by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 25, 2019 after announcing the suspension of Justice Onnoghen from office.

President Buhari said he relied on exparte order of the CCT and suspended Justice Onnoghen from office and also swore-in Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad as acting Chief Justice of Nigeria based on the same.

The order partly read: “It is hereby ordered as follows: That the defendant/respondent shall step aside as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman National Judicial Council over allegation of Contravening the provisions of the Code of Conducts and Tribunal Act CAP C15 Laws of the Federation 2004 pending the determination of the Motion on notice dated 10th January 2019.

“That the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall take all necessary measure to swear in the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman National Judicial Council in order to prevent a vacuum in the judicial arm of government pending the determination of the motion on notice.

“This matter is hereby adjourned to the 28 Day of January 2019 for Hearing. Issued at Abuja under the Hand and Seal of the Honorable Chairman and Member of this Honourable Tribunal this 23th Day of January 2019 by Hon. Danladi Y. Umar, Hon. Chairman, and Mrs. Julie A. Anaember II.”

The case Abakogba and other people are making is that Justice Tanko Muhammad’s stepping forward to be sworn-in was against extant rule of the NJC which was invoked on March 4, 2018 when the council recommended the compulsory retirement of the suspended Chief Judge of Abia State, Justice Theresa Uzokwe as well as recommending the compulsory retirement of Justice Obisike Orji, who it held was illegally appointed by Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State to take over as Acting Chief Judge of the state after Justice Uzokwe was suspended from office for engaging in judicial misconduct.

Of course, Justice Tanko Muhammad stepped forward to be sworn-in by President Buhari on the order of the court which makes the general principle of in pari materia, with Justice Obisike Orji of Abia state case or similar cases inapplicable. Besides, there would be vacuum in the judiciary leadership, thereby creating constitutional crisis in the country without swearing him in as acting CJN.

There are plethora of court decisions which make it mandatory to obey court orders irrespective of the court that issues the order and status of persons the order is against or compelling. The late Justice Ikechi Francis Ogbuagu (JSC) for instance, said in the case of Oba Aladegbami v. Oba Fasanmade (1988) 3 NWLR (Pt.81) 131; (1988) 6SCNJ. 103; it is now settled that a court Order must be obeyed even if such Order, is perverse, until such a time that the Order is set aside by a competent court.

In Kolawole v. A.-G., Oyo State (2006) 3 NWLR (Pt.966) 50, the court held that: “And the judgements of the Election Tribunal and Election Appeal Tribunal remain valid and subsisting and the whole world including the appellant is bound to obey the decisions unless and until same are declared a nullity by a court of competent jurisdiction, per TABAI JCA (as he then was).

Besides, in Oba Amos Babatunde & Ors. v. Mr. Simon Olatunji & Anor (2000) 2 NWLR (Pt. 646) 557 at 572, the Supreme Court per Achike, JSC forcefully restated the principle when he held, “To, therefore, disobey an order of the court on the fancied belief that the said order is null for any reason whatsoever – even if it subsequently turns out that the order in fact is proved to be null-is a risky and unadvisable decision because, until the said order is finally determined to be null and void by the court, the order subsists in the string attaching to it unmitigated. Therefore, sheer commonsense as well as prudence demands that every order of the court should be accorded due respect and no attempt made to flout the order on the flimsy reason that it is null and void.”

Therefore, those proposing that Justices Onnoghen and Justice Muhammad should be eased out the same time in order to create stability in the judiciary are only out to hoist national religious, ethnic and regional dirty politics in the judiciary. The governing of judiciary in Nigeria, the ease of succession to CJN seat would never be the same again, it would haunted by this politics of religion, ethnic and region for a long time to come. The allegations against each of the duo are polls apart. They are never in contest for the seat of the CJN.

If NJC feels that the allegations of corruption submitted before it against Onnoghen is lacking in merit, let the council say so. The council can then proceed with option of allowing the courts to determine once and for all the final fate of Justice Onnoghen. But by opting for such an option, it should remember that on November 3, 2016, it suspended seven judges facing trial for allegations of corruption, including bribery and perversion of justice.

The Judges are: Inyang Okoro (Supreme Court), Sylvester Ngwuta (Supreme Court), Adeniyi Ademola (Federal High Court, Abuja), Kabir Auta (Kano High Court), Mu’azu Pindiga (Gombe High Court), Mohammed Tsamiya (Court of Appeal, Ilorin), and Justice I. A. Umezulike (Chief Judge of Enugu State).

This followed the raid of the Department of State Services (DSS) operatives at the homes of seven judges on October 7 and 8 on allegations of corruption, including bribery and perversion of justice.

In a statement signed by Soji Eyo (Esq) at the end of its 79th Council meeting led by Justice E. O. Ayoola, a retired Supreme Court Justice, and the head of the transparency and anti-corruption policy implementation committee stated that the move was to ensure transparency and eliminate corruption in the judiciary.

The statement reads: “Council has decided that judicial officers shall not be standing trial for alleged corruption and be performing judicial functions at the same time.

“Council, however, decided that it would ensure that judicial officers who are been investigated for alleged high-profile criminal offences do not perform judicial functions until their cases are concluded.

“Section 6 of the National Judicial Council policy aims at putting in place multifaceted strategies and guidelines that would ensure transparency and eliminate corruption in the judiciary.” 

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