The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, has accused the Nigerian media of failing to see “the big picture” in the ongoing controversy over the suspension of Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen.
President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday suspended Mr Onnoghen. He said it was in compliance with an order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), directing the suspension of Mr Onnoghen, pending the determination of the cases against him at the tribunal.
Mr Buhari also swore in an acting CJN, Tanko Mohammed, who is the next most senior judge at the Supreme Court.
The president’s action has since been condemned by many Nigerians and the international community. Many Newspapers have also written editorials describing the act as illegal.
Addressing a press conference in Abuja on Monday, Mr Mohammed said the action of the president has generated widespread reactions from within and outside the country.
He said the opposition parties even latched on to the issue by “threatening fire and brimstone and concocting all sorts of imaginary scenarios and generally muddying the waters”.
He said the main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), even suspended its electioneering campaign for 72 hours.
The minister said he called the press conference to “set the records straight and redirect the discourse.”
He said contrary to what the opposition and “their ilk” have been saying, the suspension of Mr Onnoghen is not about the forthcoming elections, neither does it signal the beginning of dictatorship.
He said Mr Buhari is an “avowed democrat, and this he has proven time and time again.”
“This administration stands firm on the rule of law,” he said without commenting on the various court orders ignored by the administration. Some of these include about six court orders granting bail to ex-National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, and another granting bail to Shiite leader, Ibraheem El-Zakzaky.
Accrding to Mr Mohammed, the real issue at play is about the country’s highest judicial officer being accused of a breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers, and the legal and moral conundrum surrounding that.
“It is about the suspicious transactions running into
millions of dollars to the suspended CJN’s personal accounts, all undeclared or improperly declared as required by law.
“It is about the Hon. Justice Onnoghen himself admitting to the charges that he indeed failed to follow the spirit and letter of the law in declaring his assets, calling it a ‘mistake’.
“And it is about him refusing to take responsibility, instead opting to put the entire judiciary on trial,” he said.
Mr Mohammed said Mr Onnoghen has been given
the opportunity of fair hearing, but has been abusing his position and the judicial process by filing “frivolous applications” and even dodging service of process.
The minister claimed that the Nigerian media, which should have led the discourse on the matter, has failed to do so.
“In fact, a section of the media has taken sides. Several newspapers have written editorials on this issue. Some newspapers have employed rather crude and obnoxious language to push forth their opinions, while others have been more tempered.
“But curiously, none has written from a perspective that shows that they understand the big picture,” he said.
The minister said the big picture he refers to is what was described by a renown British judge, Alfred Denning, who stated that “a judge should in his own character be beyond reproach, or at any rate, should have so disciplined himself that he is not himself a breaker of the law”.
On claims that the suspension of Mr Onnoghen is a
threat to Nigeria’s democracy or even the country’s existence, Mr Mohammed again quoted Mr Denning who was reported to have said that “nations fall when judges are unjust because there is nothing which the multitude think worth defending.”
According to the minister, had the section of the media that he referred to earlier understood the big picture, “they would have framed the debate differently, rather than work to inflame passion and help those seeking to muddy the waters”.
Role of NJC and CCT
The minister said in the ongoing debate generated by the suspension, the talk about the due process has overshadowed the substance.
He said the procedure cannot or should not trounce substance.
He also said many argued that Mr Onnoghen’s case should have been referred to the National Judicial Council (NJC) to handle.
He said that would have been ideal if Mr Onnoghen had been accused of professional misconduct, which is what is within the purview of the NJC.
He said the allegations against the CJN go beyond professional misconduct. He said it is the alleged breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers, “and only one body is statutorily empowered to deal with it: The Code of Conduct Tribunal.”
The minister said even Mr Onnoghen himself elucidated on this in several judgments in which he upheld the provisions of the law concerning the CCT.
“In one particular judgment, he delivered on July 12, 2013, Justice Onnoghen held that the CCT had exclusive jurisdiction to deal with all violations contravening any of the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau,” he said.
Explaining further, the minister said what Mr Onnoghen said was that all breaches of the Code of Conduct by public officers must be handled by the Code of Conduct Tribunal only.
He said Mr Onnoghen’s judgment held that the provisions “expressly ousted the powers of ordinary regular courts in respect of such violations.”
Contrary to the minister’s claims, however, several lawyers have argued that Mr Buhari has no powers whatsoever to suspend the CJN.
The lawyers make reference to relevat sections of the Nigerian constitution including Section 292 which expressly state how a CJN can be removed from office.
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