By Eric Elezuo
No one would be wrong if he says that the timing of the removal of the Chief Judge of Nigeria, Mr. Walter Nkanu Onnoghen was well planned and cunningly executed. This is because the unpopular decision came barely hours after the National Assembly declared a recess to enable its members concentrate on the campaigns for the February 16 General Elections. The Federal Government has chosen the time to strike knowing the recovery will be slow and agonizing.
Consequently, the furore that has gathered and still gathering over the unceremonious removal may take a longer time to settle, and that is if it ever settles at all.
President Muhammadu Buhari has shocked the nation on Friday when he presented a 20 point text detailing the offences that would warrant the immediate removal of the embattled CJN, who has since Friday January 11, 2019 become endangered specie to the government of the day. His offence: failure to declare personal assets.
The CJN was accused of maintaining domiciliary account with an unnamed bank comprising of different foreign currencies.
He was therefore made to face a six-count charge bordering on wrongful declaration of assets and possession of bank accounts in foreign currencies, which contravened the code of conduct for public office holders.
But the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN) among other legal entities and the Nigerian public rose in defence of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, stating that the embattled judge “acted rightly in not appearing before the CCT on the day so summoned”.
The body expressed concern that the issue of wrong declaration of assets faced by the CJN has been politicised, hence preventing “an objective discussion of the relevant issues calling for determination”.
The trial which kicked off on Monday, January 14, has gone back and forth with nothing concrete to show for it. As the CCT continually issued threats, the defence team of the CJN also received restraining orders. Obviously, the case was heading to nowhere, and the Federal Government was sure that whatever achievement they had intended would come to, and so the ‘unconstitutional’ sacking and immediate replacement.
By the action, President Muhammadu Buhari, and by extention the Federal may have contravened a court order restraining the President, the Code of Conduct Tribunal and the Attorney-General of the Federation from removing Onnoghen,
According to reports, Justice I. E Ekwo of a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja had on restrained all parties from suspending or removing the CJN.
The order was sequel to a suit filed by the Action Peoples Party with number FHC/ABJ/CS/67/2019.
The judge granted, “an order of interim injunction restraining the 1st (President), 2nd (AGF) 4th (Justice Ibrahim Mohammed), 5th (CCB) and 6th (CCT) whether by themselves, officers, agents, servants, privies or otherwise, however, described from removing the 3rd defendant (Onnoghen) as the Chief Justice of Nigeria pending the determination of the motion on notice.”
Buhari, however, went ahead to suspend the CJN, relying on an order of the CCT.
Buhari’s action, the excuses he proffered in his speech notwithstanding, seem to many observers as premeditated, considering the fact that he never wanted to confirm him as the substantive CJN as at the time he was due.
Onnoghen was finally sworn in as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) by President Buhari on Thursday, November 10, 2016 after the intervention of the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo while the president was away.
While many has condemned the act as witch hunt, it is imperative to recall Constitutional lawyer, Sebastine Hon’s (SAN) assertion as the arraignment first hit the media space
He said: “While I know that the Chief Justice of Nigeria does not enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution, I see this move by the Federal Government as dangerously political and tendentious.”
“Suddenly, we woke to see a petition leaked to the informal or social media, allegedly received by the Code of Conduct on 9th January, 2019.
“Suddenly, we are told charges have been filed against the CJN. Suddenly the Presidency is reportedly asking him to step aside! Was he interrogated or interviewed and his own reactions obtained?”
In the same vein, the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar; the Coalition of Political Parties (CUPP) and other top politicians in separate statements alleged that the charges against Onnoghen “is a move by the Muhammadu Buhari-led All Progressives Congress (APC) government to rig the 2019 general elections”.
With the reaction of many Nigerians from all strata of existence, it seems that Buhari has finally bitten more than he can chew. The days ahead will unravel quite a great number of cans of worms.
The All Progressives Congress (APC), the party of the president, is however, rooting for him and applauding his guts in sacking the CJN.