The starting point is to examine the proposed charge(s) against His Lordship. The suspended CJN is alleged to have maintained foreign accounts and domiciliary accounts in foreign currency; His Lordship is alleged to have failed to declare his assets in violation of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers.
The second step is to examine the provisions of the law as it relates to the charges against the suspended CJN.
Now, Schedule V, Part 1, of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended provides in paragraph 11 thereof as follows:
11.1. “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, every public officer shall within three months after the coming into force of this Code of Conduct or immediately after taking office and thereafter –
- At the end of every four years; and
- At the end of his term of office, submit to the Code of Conduct Bureau a written declaration of all his properties, assets, and liabilities and those of his unmarried children under the age of eighteen years.
11.2. Any statement in such declaration that is found to be false by any authority or person authorised in that behalf to verify it shall be deemed to be a breach of this Code.”
The same law provides that no public officer shall maintain any foreign account. The third step is to enquire whether these constitutional provisions apply to the Chief Justice of the Federation and the answer can only be ifound in the law.
Schedule V part ii of the 1999 Constitution as amended provides for the categories of persons recognised by law as public officers. These include:
- “Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justices of the Supreme Court, President and Justices of the Court of Appeal, all other judicial officers and all staff of courts of law.”
It is thus without much ado that one can safely submit that the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, His Lordship Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen is a Public Officer. His Lordship is also bound by the provisions of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers as contained in the Constitution of the Federal Republic.
The fourth step is to examine the law as to what step could be taken by the Federal Government, through the Attorney General of the Federation when there is a breach or an alleged breach of any of these provisions.
Paragraph 12 of part 1 if the fifth schedule to the 1999 constitution provides:
- “Any allegation that a public officer has committed a breach of or has not complied with the provisions of this Code shall be made to the Code of Conduct Bureau.”
Now, what the Presidency has done is nothing but complying with the law. Indeed, by virtue of the Interpretation Act, the President has the right to suspend any public officer from office. Then one wonders why the hullabaloo? Those who oppose the step being taken by the Federal Government have advanced basically three arguments. First, they claim that the independence of the judiciary is paramount. They have, however, forgotten to differentiate between the person of Mr. Hon. Justice Onnoghen as a Nigerian who is not above the law and who could commit offence; a Nigerian who is not immuned and who is not better than many others His Lordship had tried and sentenced. The proponents of independence of the judiciary have failed, whether by commission or ommission, to see that the office of the CJN is what is meant by judicial independence and not the person in the office. They have refused to appreciate the necessity of subjecting every person to equal treatment before the law, knowing that failure to do so portends great risk to our commonwealth.
The second reason being put forward by defenders of His Lordship, Hon. Justice Onnoghen is that the timing of the arraignment is suspect. According to them, the proposed charge is akin to an attempt by the ruling political party to compromise Election Petitions. This argument, is untenable. An offence can only be reported and tried whenever discovered. The suspended CJN must be prepared to face and stand trial. And the burden is on His Lordship to prove his innocence as Paragraph 11.3, Part 1 of Schedule V of the 1999 Constitution deems a defendant not guilty until the contrary is proved.
11.3. “Any property or assets acquired by a public officer after any declaration required under this Constitution and which is not fairly attributable to income, gift, or loan approved by this Code shall be deemed to have been acquired in breach of this Code unless the contrary is proved.
Admittedly, the premise upon which the third argument is based is true but the conclusion drawn therefrom is false. The premise of the argument is that the Federal Government cannot remove the CJN without following due process, that is through the NJC. Yes, that is the law and it has received judicial backing in the case of NGANJIWA v. FRN, However, the conclusion drawn by those against the prosecution of Hon. Justice Onnoghen is not tenable. The CJN cannot be removed except by recommendations of the NJC. His Lordship can, however, be prosecuted by the Code of Conduct Bureau and a conviction by the Code of Conduct Tribunal can be a basis for NJC’s recommendation for removal.
Let us allow the rule of law and not the law of rulers to prevail. Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen is just another Nigerian who should subject himself to laws that govern all Nigerians. We wonder why some people are even crying more than the bereaved. After all, Hon.Justice Onnoghen himself has admitted that he ‘forgot’ to make full declaration. But the question is whether the reason is an excuse in law.
The Forum of Presidential Candidates and Political Parties for Good Governance believes strongly that President Muhammadu Buhari’s suspension of Hon.Justice Onnoghen as CJN is proper and timely. Majority of Nigerians have now realised that but for the pre-emptive move by the President, Onnoghen would have proceeded to constitute the Election Petition Panels. No wonder some interested elements are shocked that their game plan has been punctured. Desperate disease needs a desperate treatment. President Buhari acted in the overall interest of the masses of Nigeria.
So much is required from the judiciary since they hold the power of life and death. Judges are therefore expected to live above board and be incorruptible. It would have been unfair to Nigerians to have someone who is carrying a clear baggage of corruption on his head to continue to preside over a sensitive arm of government like the judiciary, just because some elements would wish to use legal technicalities to cover up or moderate an obvious misdeed.
Gentlemen of the Press, one of the Holy Books says you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. Now that the good people of our great country, Nigeria, are aware of the ROT in the judiciary, let no SAN bamboozle or hoodwink us into allowing the mess to continue.
Therefore, as responsible actors in Nigeria’s political system, we have come to the following conclusions:
- That the offence allegedly committed by Hon.Justice Onnoghen is not judicial that could have warranted the intervention of NJC.
- That the constitution recognises the holder of the office of CJN as the 1st public officer in Nigeria.
- That the suspension of the CJN cannot be equated with removal as envisaged in the constitution. The suspension by the President does not, therefore, require the input of the NJC and the National Assembly.
- That we do not believe the action taken by the President will have any negative effect on the forthcoming general elections.
- That we urge the iNational Assembly, as it reconvenes, to view the President’s action as non partisan or motivated by any mundane consideration, but taken purely in the best interest of Nigeria.
- That politicians and interest groups should desist from misinforming the people on the patriotic move by the President.
Nigerians and the international community should appreciate the need for the bold action by our government and give the needed support to ensure that the country evolves an unblemished and egalitarian society where all citizens are treated equally and fairly, irrespective of their status.
Thank you for your attention.