Onnoghen: Lawyers blast NJC for ‘slow response’ to crisis

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

Nigerian lawyers under the aegis of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADL) have berated the National Judicial Council (NJC) for alleged lack of urgency in the consideration and resolution of crises in the judiciary.

The group expressed its displeasure with the council in a statement made available to PREMIUM TIMES on Thursday in reaction to the ongoing crisis in the Nigerian Judiciary.

The statement signed on behalf of the group by Jiti Ogunye, a Lagos-based lawyer, also decried the role of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in the crisis.

The crisis reached a head last week when President Muhammadu Buhari suspended the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, from office. Mr Buhari said he acted on an order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal before which Mr Onnoghen was arraigned the previous week for alleged breach of the Code of Conduct Act.

On Tuesday, the NJC at an emergency meeting directed Mr Onnoghen and Tanko Muhammed, the man Mr Buhari appointed acting CJN, to respond within seven days to some petitions written against them.

Speaking on the ongoing crisis, the NADL condemned the investigation of both the suspended CJN and acting CJN by the NJC.

It said the council should have acted earlier and decisively at its Tuesday meeting to avert a constitutional crisis.

“The NJC and its members would not have sacrificed too much for Nigeria and the Judiciary, if it had elongated its sitting, accelerated its proceedings and conducted an expedited hearing and fast track determination of the petitions.

“The petitions could have been reacted to in one day, the focal issues being whether the suspended CJN fully and faithfully declared his assets, and if not why; and whether the Acting CJN offered himself for appointment, and if so why?

“Thus, a verdict in the form of recommendations to the Executive Branch of Government (the President) could have been rendered in three (3) days.

“By extending the petitions resolution period, the NJC, wittingly or unwittingly, is elongating the nightmare of the legal profession community in Nigeria and the people of Nigeria.

“The adjournment of the NJC Meeting to 11th February 2019, four (4) days to the conduct of the Presidential and National Assembly Elections, will further generate an avoidable state of paralysis, uncertainty and acrimony in the Judiciary, in the legal profession and in the polity.”

The group also criticised the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) for its “lopsided disposition” to the controversy surrounding the CJN.

“NADL condemns the leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association for its handling of the CJN Onnoghen charge and suspension issue.

“In its statements, pronouncements and resolutions, the NBA Leadership has restricted itself to flaying the action of the Executive Branch of Government, mouthing hackneyed phrases about rule of law, due process, independence of the judiciary, separation of powers and adherence to constitutional principles, without paying equal attention to ethical demands in a legal profession that prides itself as honorable, and giving necessary attention to the issue of integrity and credibility in the Judiciary and how to effectively combat cases of corrupt practices in the legal profession, Bar and Bench.

“By this lopsided disposition, the NBA Leadership has helped in portraying Nigerian lawyers as supporters of infamous conduct in the Judiciary, before the Nigerian people, especially non-members of the legal profession.”

The group, however, commended the Court of Appeal for striking out the request for stay of proceedings of the CCT, made by Mr Onnoghen.

It said the court’s ruling was “in affirmation of the inviolability of Section 306 of the Administration of the Criminal Justice Act, which prohibits stay of criminal proceedings; and in obedience to and fidelity with the decision of the Supreme Court in Olisa Metuh v. FRN, 2017, 11 NWLR, Pt. 1575, 157.”

NADL called on political power holders and interest groups to stop politicising the crisis. I said the “clash of power” is between the Executive and the head of the Judiciary.

“It is not a clash of power with the entire Nigerian Judiciary. Even if it was assumed that it was a clash of power between the Executive and the Judiciary, the Legislature is not, at this stage, involved in the dispute to warrant the rumored bid of the Senate or National Assembly to trigger the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court under Section 232 of the Constitution, by filing an action in the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

“The statements being made ‘from the throne’ by the Senate Leadership cannot be a substitute for sittings and resolutions, as the power to confirm the appointment of a CJN or to remove him from office resides in the collectivity of the Senate, and not in the Senate Leadership alone.

“In the same vein, it is very doubtful whether the Senate Leadership can institute an action in the Supreme Court under the Original Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court without a formal authorizing resolution to that effect.

“If such an action is ever permitted by the Supreme Court, the Court may render itself open to individual senators or groups of senators bringing applications to challenge the competence of such an action, which being an action akin to a representative action must have the concurrence of all the unnamed represented parties.”

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