NBA, lawyers condemn scheduled trial of CJN Onnoghen

FILE: Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen being sworn in as CJN

Many lawyers have condemned in strong terms the recent action by Nigeria’s anti-graft agency, the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), to try the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen.

Mr Onnoghen is set to be arraigned by the Code of Conduct Bureau at the tribunal on Monday on six counts of alleged false asset declaration.

The CJN was accused by a group, the anti-corruption and research based data initiative, headed by Denis Aghanya. Mr Aghanya is a former official of President Muhammadu Buhari’s defunct political party, Congress for Progressive Change.

Following a petition by Mr Aghanya’s group, dated January 7, Mr Onnoghen appeared before the CCB on Friday and explained his stance on the allegation against him.

In copies of the charges, obtained by PREMIUM TIMES, the CJN is accused of operating multiple accounts used for the transfer of foreign currencies, including U.S. dollars, Euros and pounds.

In separate reactions, the Nigerian Bar Association and individual lawyers condemned the move and accused the executive arm of the government of desperately seeking to intimidate the judiciary.

The NBA condemned the speed of the investigation and trial of Mr Onnoghen, describing it as a validation of the fact that President Muhammadu Buhari’s federal executive has directed the current development.

“If one contemplates the fact that the CCT arraignment is scheduled to take place on 14 January 2019, we have in total a record number of 3 (three) working days between the receipt and processing of the petition, investigation, preparation of charge and ancillary processes and the arraignment!

“Such unprecedented speed and efficiency in Nigeria’s criminal justice administration! It is clear, given the rush with which this matter was conducted by the CCB, that the NJC was not privy to it and did not conduct its mandatorily required disciplinary processes
prior to the filing of the Charge before the CCT.

“As a final point, it is also difficult for a disinterested observer not to see a pattern of consistent assault by agencies of the FGN on the heads of the two independent arms of government,” the NBA said in a statement by its president, Paul Usoro.

In his opinion, a senior Nigerian lawyer, Femi Falana, described the move as a “prosecutorial misadventure,” and called on the justice minister, Abubakar Malami, to immediately withdraw the charge.

“The charge against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen ought not to have been instituted at the Code of Conduct of Tribunal in view of the case of Nganjiwa v FRN (2017) LPELR 43391 wherein the Court of Appeal held that a judicial officer who has not been investigated by the National Judicial Council and sanctioned for misconduct cannot be arraigned in any criminal court in Nigeria.

“As all authorities are bound by the Court of Appeal verdict the case should be withdrawn by the Attorney-General of the Federation without any delay because it is likely to be a prosecutorial misadventure.”

In a similar reaction, another Senior Advocate, Rotimi Oguneso, expressed shock at the development and wondered the role of the president’s legal advisers in the matter.

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“It is shocking. Honestly, I do not know who is advising the government. We are yet to know the truth about the allegations. But which country will dock its number one judge in this manner? You serve the Chief Justice with papers on Friday expecting him to be in court on Monday!! It is indecent and revolting.

“Why this time? Is it to heat up the polity? There is something called discretion. I can’t see it in what has been done,” Mr Oguneso said.

In his reaction, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mike Ozekhome, described it as an attempt to gag the CJN who is constitutionally empowered to inaugurate the presidential election tribunal, against the 2019 election.

“The trial is undoubtedly politically motivated because as head of the judiciary, the CJN will be the one to empanel the presidential election tribunal that will try cases which emanate from the elections. It is curious. Less than 40 days to the elections, the judiciary is once again being eroded and gagged.

“There are many questions to be asked: How come it took the President so long to approve the appointment of the CJN? How come they did not find this allegations since? How come they relied on the so-called petition by an NGO, dated January 7 and received January 9 to hurriedly file charges on January 11? How come they are already asking the CJN to recuse himself?

“It is clear that there is an attempt to remove the CJN. It is also clear that they are wrong. The Nigerian Justice system assumes the innocence of a person until he is proven guilty,” said Mr Ozekhome in a telephone interview with PREMIUM TIMES.

In a similar opinion, Ejeh Monday, an Abuja based lawyer, views the charge as unlawful and the allegations, baseless.

“By the authorities of Nganjiwa and Ngwuta cases, you can’t prosecute a sitting Judicial officer in any court or tribunal in Nigeria without first subjecting him to the National Judicial Council (NJC) for investigation and discipline by virtue of Section 158 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).

Also, an Abuja based lawyer, Mojirayo Ogunlana-Nkanga, condemned the planned trial of the CJN, describing as unlawful and the climax of attacks against the judiciary.

“Not in all the years that I longed and dreamt of being a lawyer have I seen the Judiciary under so much attack. It is so unfortunate that the calibre of politicians we have today especially in the executive are using the power they have to intimidate the Judiciary, the third arm of the government, which has the power to protect the country from the excesses of other arms of government.

“By virtue of Part 1 of the Third Schedule of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended, the National Judicial Council is empowered to exercise disciplinary control over Judicial Officers against whom allegations and complaints of misconduct have been made.

“Pursuant to this provision, there has been enacted JUDICIAL DISCIPLINE REGULATIONS 2017, which provides the procedures for laying a complaint and every step that will be taken therefrom.

“Furthermore, the procedure for the discipline of judicial officers was deliberately provided for under the Constitution to protect the independence of the judiciary and to uphold the doctrine of Separation of Powers,” said Mrs Ogunlana-Nkanga.

The lawyer explained that despite being the head of the NJC, the CJN is not immune to punishment within the judicial arm of govern.

“Consequently, any allegation of misconduct should have gone through the proper channel of laying the complaint and allowing the NJC to handle any such allegations,” she said.

Also, a civil society organisation, SERAP in its reaction condemned the planned trial.

“The charge against the Chief Justice of Nigeria Justice Walter Onnoghen seems to be based on shaky constitutional and legal process and makes a mockery of Nigeria’s criminal justice system. This move could hurt @AsoRock fight against corruption and should be stopped immediately,” the group wrote on its official Twitter handle.

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