On Friday, President Muhammadu Buhari suspended the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen. He immediately swore in Justice Tanko Muhammad as his interim replacement in a development that had precedence in what happened over four decades ago under military rule.
The president said his action followed an order he obtained from the Code of Conduct Tribunal before which Mr Onnoghen is standing trial. The CJN is accused by the presidency through the Code of Conduct Bureau of failure to declare his asset as required of him by law.
However, the suspension is clearly extraneous to the procedure stipulated by the 1999 Constitution for the removal of judicial officers from office.
The Third Schedule, Part 1 of the 1999 Constitution stipulates how a judicial officer may be removed from office. It states:
“The National Judicial Council (NJC) shall have power to recommend to the President the removal from office of the judicial officers specified in sub-paragraph (a) of this paragraph, and to exercise disciplinary control over such officers.”
The officers listed therein are the CJN, Justices of the Supreme Court, the President and Justices of the Court of Appeal, the Chief Judges and Judges of the Federal High Court.
Therefore, Mr Buhari’s brusque suspension of the CJN is illegal, dictatorial, rude and obnoxious. It should be swiftly reversed or stoutly resisted by Nigerians.
Mr Onnoghen’s trial at the CCT arose from a petition of January 7 filed by a civil society group, Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative (ARDI), with the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB). In the petition, the group accused Mr Onnoghen of corruption and false declaration of assets.
The CCB swiftly arraigned Mr Onnoghen before the CCT on January 14. But three days later on Thursday, the Court of Appeal in Abuja ordered the Tribunal to stay action, pending the determination of Mr Onnoghen’s application challenging the power of the CCT to try him. The Court of Appeal then fixed hearing of the application for Wednesday, January 30.
But rather than comply with the order of the appellate court, President Buhari chose to rush into the execution of an order by a lower court which the superior court had ordered to freeze its proceedings.
To be sure, the allegations against Mr Onnoghen are grave. His position at the height of the administration of justice in Nigeria places on him a legal, and no less moral, duty to step aside until the allegations are cleared. This is irrespective of the credible suspicion of the motive of the government behind his trial. That the CJN would not move or even be pushed along that direction questions his moral fibre and casts a stain on the fabric of the Nigerian judiciary which he heads.
Equally disconcerting is the fact that the CJN had earlier presided over the National Judicial Council’s decision that judges charged with unacceptable conduct must be suspended from office, while such is being reviewed. However, when it came to his turn, he postponed the scheduled meeting of the NJC indefinitely to stop the Council from applying the same rule and suspending him. It was highly unfortunate that what was good for the goose did not appear good enough for the gander in Onnoghen’s case. Still, the NJC could have gone ahead in seeking to protect the integrity of the judiciary by proceeding with its meeting, as it only needed five members to do so. Yet, it did not act.
However, Mr Onnoghen’s disinclination to moral example does not temper Mr Buhari’s own reckless affront to the Constitution. His utterly condemnable action must not stand, else it hastens a descent down the slippery slope of impunity to anarchy or dictatorship.
First, the speed with which the presidency is pursuing Mr Onnoghen’s trial. The CCB arraigned Mr Onnoghen at the Tribunal within days of receiving the petition against him. This alacrity is curious of a government notorious for lethargy in all aspects of governance.
Then the timing of the trial. It began only a few weeks to the general elections in which Mr Onnoghen’s office has a crucial role. His suspension was announced just hours before he was to constitute the various tribunals to sit on petitions arising from the elections. This choice of time for the trial has strengthened the suspicion that its real object is to shackle Mr Onnoghen and keep him far away from playing the role the Constitution assigns his office in elections.
Even as obscene is the mentioned swiftness with which Mr Buhari executed the order of the CCT to suspend the CJN. The Tribunal made the order on January 23. The president put it into effect two days later. This speed of action is uncharacteristic of a government renowned for snail-speed response to important national issues.
Given the attitude of the government to court judgments, its response to the order of the CCT raises even higher the red flag of cynicism. The government has serially flouted court orders for the release of the former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, and of an Islamic cleric, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky. Both of them have been in detention since 2015.
We are alarmed that an administration long accused of selectivity in its flagship war on corruption is now moving to choose court judgments to obey. The rule of law demands indiscriminate obedience of court judgments until set aside by a higher court.
Mr Buhari’s reckless violation of the Constitution in his suspension of the CJN has pushed the nation to the edge of a constitutional crisis. It has also increased the tension surrounding a crucial general election.
By decapitating the judiciary, as it were, Mr Buhari has taken his war against state institutions to the next level. Last year, agents of the State Security Service (SSS) invaded the National Assembly in an obvious attempt to force a change in the leadership of the first arm of a democratic government.
Even the fourth estate of the realm is feeling the searing heat of government hostility and disregard for the rights of citizens. Early this year, Nigerian soldiers invaded offices of Daily Trust newspaper in Abuja, Kaduna and Maiduguri over a report by the newspapers that annoyed the Army.
There are worrisome, unmistakable signs of a gradual descent to dictatorship in Nigeria, especially in the last few years under the President Buhari administration. Unless urgently checked by the concerted efforts of the Nigerian people and lovers of democracy, the consequences will spread far beyond the shores of the country.
Already failing at addressing serious existential challenges, Nigeria is least prepared to cope with the disaster that may arise from a reversal of its modest democratic gains.
Again, we call on President Buhari to reverse his suspension of the CJN and to stand aside for the due process of law to apply on Mr Onnoghen’s alleged infractions.
Equally, Mr Onnoghen’s credibility has been seriously tainted by the revelations of vast sums of money that he conveniently forgot to declare as part of his asset and he cannot continue as CJN. He should save Nigeria the present embarrassing conundrum by resigning his appointment.
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