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), urging the NJC “to immediately take over from the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) the case of Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, with a view to setting up a committee to investigate the allegations of breach of constitutional asset declaration requirements against him.”
The organisation also urged the NJC to “ask 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 Onnoghen is 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, dated January 26, and signed by SERAP’s senior legal adviser, Bamisope Adeyanju, said: “The urgent intervention by the NJC would remove the allegations against 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.”
According to SERAP, “it is in times like these 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.”
The petition, copied to Mr. Diego García-Sayán, UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, 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 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 is 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 politicisation 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 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 politicization of the judiciary.
“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 politicised, 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 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 election in February and March 2019.
“Suspending the CJN 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 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.
“The allegations against Onnoghen unless properly and constitutionally resolved would continue to undermine his ability to faithfully discharge and perform his judicial duties as Chief Justice. At a time of judicial-cum-constitutional crisis, the NJC should not and cannot abdicate its constitutional responsibilities to intervene in this matter.
“Judges have the responsibility to uphold the rule of law as an effective check on the political branches. But the judiciary cannot continue to play its traditional role as the guardian of the constitution until the Onnoghen’s matter is constitutionally and satisfactorily addressed.”
“A catalogue of legal errors and flagrant abuse of the judicial and legal process by the government of President Muhammadu Buhari and some lawyers culminated in the purported order on the suspension of Onnoghen as CJN and the supposed appointment of Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammed as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria by President Buhari.”