The supposed cabal calling the shots in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) oftentimes behaves like the proverbial dog that is either destined to, or is, intent on getting lost: it absolutely refuses to listen to the horning of the hunter. How else can anyone describe the strong determination of this cabal to launch an attack on the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, for failure to declare his assets, barely four weeks to a critical presidential election? Make no mistake about it, the failure of any CJN to obey every aspect of our laws to the letter is a serious offence. No judicial officer worth his salt, how much more the CJN, should neglect or refuse to declare his assets, as provided for in our laws.
For the CJN to have failed to do this, if that is actually the case, would be an offence that should attract the type of opprobrium that it is eliciting for him in some quarters. This is because the CJN is the nation’s foremost judicial officer whose conduct in everything should be above board. He is expected to be a good example to the entire judiciary.
If he is not able to abide by the moral requirements of this his high office, that would be very unfortunate, indeed. But then, it is doubtful that it can be expedient for the President Muhammadu Buhari regime to frontally take him up on this matter at this time. Nigerians are bound to, and are already, reading charges of nepotism and a bid to get a pliant CJN who would back the president’s bid to rig the forthcoming election in this matter. The government stands to lose more in this seeming attempt to get the CJN out of office at this time, even if he is truly guilty as alleged.
There is no doubt that there has been no love lost between Buhari and Onnoghen, a situation which has been adduced for the failure of the President to send his name for confirmation as CJN, until Vice President Yemi Osinbanjo did so about two months later when Buhari was out of the country.
But since then, all appears to have quiet on that front until last week when all hell appeared to break loose over the government’s plan to arraign, and the actual arraignment earlier this week, of the CJN at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), for failure to declare his assets and for operating foreign accounts, contrary to the laws of the country.
At the arraignment, which Onnoghen did not attend, many senior lawyers were on hand to defend him and legal fireworks have been flying from all angles on, first, the propriety of the prosecution of the CJN by any agency or court in the country, and two, whether he was required to physically appear before the CCT.
As with all things Nigerian, however, attention has largely shifted from the propriety of the CJN maintaining, or not maintaining, foreign accounts into which tens of thousands of dollars were paid at different times. The issue of the alleged non-declaration of his assets is also being ignored as attempts are being made to shift the focus to the fact that Onnoghen is from the Southern part of the country, and is also a Christian. Nigerians’ proclivity for dragging religion and tribe into every matter has taken centrestage. Some voices in the country’s Niger Delta have interpreted the arraignment of the CJN as an attack on the Niger Delta, and some militant groups are already threatening fire and brimstone if the government proceeds with its moves against Onnoghen.
Even some Christian lawyers, under the aegis of a Christian Lawyers Fellowship of Nigeria, have come out with a statement condemning the arraignment of the CJN for false assets declaration and operation of foreign accounts, describing the action as an unconstitutional and naked display of power by the executive arm of the Government. The arraignment of a serving CJN is undoubtedly a novelty in Nigeria. It flies in the face of the requirement for separation of powers between the three arms of government – the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary.
Section 153 to 161 of 1999 Nigerian Constitution and many other laws relating to the disciplining of judicial officers vest that power in the National Judicial Council (NJC). Indeed, there are several rulings over the years to the effect that all matters relating to offences by judicial officers are to be dealt by the NJC which makes recommendations to the Executive arm of government on sanctions to be visited on such erring officers. Indeed, paragraph 21 (b) and (g) of the Third Schedule to the Nigerian Constitution expressly state that: “The Chief Justice of Nigeria as a judicial official and a member of the National Judicial Council (NJC) is amenable to the disciplinary control of the NJC.
Beyond the bid to make the prosecution of the CJN a sectional matter, or to attribute it to nepotism and an attempt by the president to pick a new CJN he could dictate to in the event of an electoral dispute in the court, is the more important matter of the rule of law, and the due process of the law.
From all extant provisions of our laws already severally quoted by different people on this matter, including the National Judicial Policy of April 2016 and the Judicial Discipline Regulations of March 2017, the NJC is the appropriate body to discipline the CJN. Yet, it is not clear that the allegations against the CJN were even brought before the commission at all.
Under the present circumstance, the Federal Government ought not to jump the gun with the arraignment of the CJN before the Code of Conduct Tribunal. As the Appeal Court ruled in previous cases against some justices of the Supreme Court, it is the NJC that has the constitutional right to investigate all charges against the justices and to make recommendations to the Executive arm of government.
This is one of the reasons why the cases against some senior judicial officers could not be concluded in the courts but later decided on by the NJC and their decisions implemented by the Federal Government. This is what should also happen in the present instance.
The issue, therefore, is not whether the Federal Government should proceed with its case against Onnoghen or not. It is that it is the NJC that should handle it, while the CJN recluses himself from the affair. The NJC in the past has proved itself capable of recommending appropriate sanctions for erring judicial officers and it should not shy away from doing so now if truly the CJN has offended against sections of our laws. But, the Federal Government proceeding in its case against the CJN now is not the best way to go. The arraignment of the CJN at the CCT is ill-conceived and inexpedient. It should be dropped forthwith. It is also not a time for religious and ethnic jingoists to try to make issues out of this matter. The facts of the case, whether Onnoghen has offended against the provisions of our laws or not, should speak for themselves. And the NJC should rise to the occasion and be dispassionate in adjudicating the matter.