Stop Onnoghen’s trial now, follow due process, NBA tells Buhari

Suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen
Suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has demanded an end to the trial of Nigeria’s Chief Justice, Walter Onnoghen.

The NBA made the recent demand in a statement ahead of the scheduled continuation of Mr Onnoghen’s trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal on Tuesday.

The lawyers’ union asked the federal government to discontinue the trial and “follow the rule of law.”

Mr Onnoghen is facing trial on six counts of alleged false asset declaration.

He was charged following a petition by a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Dennis Aghanya.

In its statement, the NBA argued that only through the Senate can the presidency remove Mr Onnoghen.

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“Ahead of the scheduled resumption of proceedings at the Code of Conduct
Tribunal (“CCT”) tomorrow, 22 January 2019, the Nigerian Bar Association again calls on the Executive Branch of the Federal Government of Nigeria (“FGN”) to discontinue forthwith the prosecution of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (“CJN”),
Honourable Mr Justice Walter S N Onnoghen, GCON before the CCT,” the NBA said in the statement signed by its president, Paul Usoro.

The NBA said it was obvious that President Muhammadu Buhari’s government is bent on removing Mr Onnoghen from office, but added that the presidency can only achieve the alleged objective, through the support of the Senate.

“Having become obvious that the immediate goal of the Executive is to remove the CJN from office, we urge the Government to follow due process in attaining that goal.

“Due process is not followed when the Executive Branch of the FGN files an
Interlocutory Motion before the Code of Conduct Tribunal for the removal of the CJN.

“Such an application disparages, and assaults due process as enshrined in Section 292(1)(a)(i) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) (“the Constitution”).

“The said Section is very explicit on the due process for the CJN’s removal when it stipulates as follows:

S.292(1)(a)(i) “A judicial officer shall not be removed from his office or
appointment before his age of retirement except in the following circumstances
. . . in the case of . . . Chief Justice of Nigeria . . . by the President acting on
an address supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate.”

According to the NBA, the law does not permit the current measures adopted by the government to remove the CJN. It added that any attempt to remove Mr Onnoghen would imply that the CJN was treated order than a judicial officer.

“The Constitution leaves no room howsoever for the removal of the CJN from office, whether on a temporary or permanent basis, other than through the process afore-quoted. Being a country governed by laws, the FGN owes us a duty to comply strictly with these provisions of the Constitution for the removal of the CJN.

“We, therefore, urge the Executive Branch of the Federal Government to please retrace its steps and discontinue the entire proceedings before the CCT forthwith and follow the constitutional procedure afore-stipulated.”

The NBA reiterated its call for the NJC to be briefed about the matter so that the judicial body executes the process for the discipline of the CJN.

“With respect to the trial of the CJN before the CCT on the assets’ declaration Charge, the NBA stands by its Statement of 12 January 2019. Established judicial precedents dictate that the allegations must be referred to and handled by the National Judicial Council (“NJC”) and it is only after the NJC’s pronouncement thereon against the CJN can the FGN prosecuting agencies proceed against him before any Tribunal or Court of Law. For as long as the CJN remains a judicial officer, that process avails him and is mandatory of compliance by the FGN.

“Should the Federal Government, however, succeed in removing Honorable Mr Justice Walter S N Onnoghen, GCON as the CJN pursuant to the provisions of
Section 292(1)(a)(i) of the Constitution, there would be no need or requirement for the FGN to fulfill the NJC pre-condition ahead of his possible prosecution. With such a constitutional removal from office, Onnoghen CJN would cease to be a judicial officer and the allegations against him would not need to be determined by the NJC ahead of any possible prosecution.”

The NBA added that the federal government has only two options in the matter.

“The choice is, therefore, that of FGN to make – either to pursue the removal of
the CJN pursuant to Section 292(1)(a)(i) of the Constitution or report the alleged assets declaration infraction to the NJC for its consideration as a pre-condition for the possible prosecution of the CJN. Whichever route the FGN chooses, the CCT proceedings must abate and be discontinued.

“It constitutes an assault on due process and undermines the Rule of Law. The sponsored media trial of the CJN must also cease. Amongst others, it criminally destroys the justice sector, subverts due process and completely erodes the Rule of Law. This desecration of the justice sector must stop now, please.”

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