By Eric Elezuo
When President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday, January 25, 2019, hid behind a mere order from the Code of Conduct Tribunal to suspend the Chief Judge of Nigeria, he must have known that he was heading for a constitutional precipice. That is because Section 292 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria clearly forbids him to do so. He must have known because erudite legal luminaries in his cabinet such as the workaholic Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, and the Minister of Justice/Attorney General, Mr Malami must have told, advised and hinted him the consequence. But Mr President went ahead and suspended the CJN and followed it up with the immediate appointment and swearing in of another Justice of the Supreme Court, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad.
But because the whole shenanigan took place just weeks before the much expected general elections, the actions were interpreted based on how one understood it or on which side of the divide one finds himself. It must be noted that the sacking of Onnoghen and the appointment of Mohammad assumed both political, regional and ethnic colouration. The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) spoke vehemently against it while the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) supported wholeheartedly. Some supported the action just because Buhari, their herodid it, some others reacted negatively just because their candidate, Atiku Abubakar held a press conference and condemned the act. Most of these people can hardly argue the reasons behind their stance other than it is for Buhari or it is for Atiku. And that informs number one reason both legal will not return as CJN.
An executive that understood it has messed defended its action by saying that Onnoghen was beginning to frustrate his corruption trial across the courts, thereby acting as a judge in his own case. The President’s suspension address stated clearly that Onnoghen should have resigned after he was caught red handed and he should have let his trial proceed without him on the bench. No one however remebered that the CJN had already owned up to the mistake of non declaration of asset – a situation that under law settles the matter. But the Presidency could care less. It went ahead and trampled upon the constitution.
Though no one has complained that his money was stolen nor any case of fraud established against the CJN, it is worth knowing that the following were traced to him as unclosed assets:
USD account from October, 2012 to September, 2016 — $1,922,657.00
GBP (£) account from 2012 to September, 2016 — £138, 439.00
Euro account as at September 30, 2016 — €55,154.00
Naira account from September, 2005 to October, 2016 — N91, 962.362.49
To add insult to injury, the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Units (NFIU) and other security agencies like the Department of State Security (DSS) claim to possess dossiers of Onnoghen’s illicit financial dealings and records of his phone conversations with persons intent on perverting the course of justice. These are still mere claims but very heavy.
Disciplinary action for judges rests with the National Judicial Council (NJC) and the removal of a CJN can only be successfully implemented if 2/3 of the senate support the president’s action. Buhari’s action on all of this appears premeditated and is clearly an abuse of due process.
Onnoghen, by all intent and purpose, is now a tainted man and no tainted man with allegations of corruption hanging over his head should be allowed to head the nation’s judiciary; while investigations into his activities continue apace. A lot of people believe that President Buhari should lift the suspension on Onnoghen to pave the way for his resignation. If that was the government’s initial intention; it was well achieved cause Onnoghen can no longer have the moral justification to hold an office as sensitive as the CJN.
On the part of the Ibrahim Tanko Mohammad, he willfully jumped into a pit either dug for him or not. The mere fact that he accepted to be sworn in as the Acting CJN knowing that there was a constitutional breach on the part of the government, made him culpable, and the National Judicial Council will not forget nor forgive.
More so, Mohammad had been at the forefront of sanctioning other judges who erred in like manner; the case of Justice Obisike of Abia State is still very fresh in the minds of judicial followers. He cannot hold on to the postas a precedence has already been set.
During the week, the NJC sat and recommended that both legal chiefs be queried based on the petitions against them. They were given just seven days as against the regular 14 days to turn in their responses.
Sources have informed the Boss that no matter how well the responses are crafted and presented, it is a foregone alternative that the men’s time in the active legal profession is over.
If the two judges are punished with dismissal as the case may likely be, the beneficiary will be the third most senior Supreme Court Judge, Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour of Lagos State.
Talk about providence!