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Suspension of Onnoghen: all you need to know

President Muhammadu Buhari has just sworn in a new Chief Justice of Nigeria after suspending current CJN, Walter Onnoghen.

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

It is not clear if the president has such powers to suspend the CJN.

Mr Buhari said he removed Mr Onnoghen based on an order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal dated January 23, 2019.

The new CJN is Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed from Bauchi State.

He was sworn in by Mr Buhari Friday afternoon inside the council chamber of the State House, Abuja.

The swearing was done after the president signed the new Executive Order 007.

JUST IN: President @MBuhari signs the Executive Order No. 007 of 2019 on the Road Infrastructure Development and Refurbishment Investment Tax Credit Scheme, at the Council Chambers, State House, Abuja. pic.twitter.com/pkGc4Xyng3

— Bashir Ahmad (@BashirAhmaad) January 25, 2019

Justice Mohammed was driven into the forecourt of the president’s office at about 4:30 p.m. in a black Mercedes Benz C240 with number plate GWA:900FA.

The constitutionality or otherwise of the president’s action has sparked intense discussions among Nigerians with some commentators saying the country may have a constitutional crisis on its hands.

Mr Onnoghen had earlier today announced a plan to swear in members of the various 2019 election petition tribunals on Saturday, January 26.

The CJN said this through his media assistant, Awassam Bassey, on Friday.

Mr Onnoghen also described as absolute falsehood, the media reports that he resigned his office, following current allegations against him.

In a statement sent to PREMIUM TIMES by Mr Bassey on Friday, the CJN urged Nigerians to disregard the rumour and added that he was still performing his role as CJN.

“There’s absolutely no truth in the rumours making the round that the Hon. Chief Justice of Nigeria, His Lordship Hon. Mr Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, GCON, has resigned his office. It is fake news!

“The Hon CJN was in the office all through yesterday (Thursday) and sat in court. As part of his duties, the Hon CJN will be swearing in members of the 2019 National Assembly, Governorship & State Assembly Election Petition Tribunals tomorrow (Saturday 26th January 2019),” the statement said.

Mr Onnoghen is facing trial over alleged false asset declaration brought against him by the Code of Conduct Bureau.

The Attorney General, Abubakar Malami, has also requested that Mr Onnoghen resigns from office, following the various allegations.

The case, currently ongoing at the CCT was adjourned till January 28.

But the Court of Appeal on Thursday ordered the tribunal to suspend sitting, pending the discharge of current applications before it.

The Court of Appeal will give its verdict on the matter on January 30.

The appeals were brought by Mr Onnoghen who wants his trial halted, citing lack of merit.

Why I suspended CJN Onnoghen

President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday announced the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen, citing an order from the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).

Mr Buhari also announced the appointment of the next most senior judge at the Supreme Court, Tanko Mohammed, as the new acting CJN.

In his speech announcing the suspension, Mr Buhari made reference to false assets declaration charges against the chief justice.

“Although the allegations in the petition are grievous enough in themselves, the security agencies have since then traced other suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars to the CJN’s personal accounts, all undeclared or improperly declared as required by law,” the president said.

Below is the full speech of the president while suspending Mr Onnoghen.

President Buhari exchanging handshake with Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed after the Later's inauguration as Chief Justice of Nigeria
President Buhari exchanging handshake with Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed after the Later’s inauguration as Chief Justice of Nigeria

ADDRESS BY HIS EXCELLENCY, MUHAMMADU BUHARI, PRESIDENT OF THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA, ON THE SUSPENSION OF HONOURABLE JUSTICE WALTER NKANU SAMUEL ONNOGHEN AS CHIEF JUSTICE OF NIGERIA AND SWEARING IN OF ACTING CHIEF JUSTICE, 25TH JANUARY 2019

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Fellow Nigerians,

A short while ago, I was served with an Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal issued on Wednesday 23rd January 2019, directing the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen from office pending final determination of the cases against him at the Code of Conduct Tribunal and several other fora relating to his alleged breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers.

2. The nation has been gripped by the tragic realities of no less a personality than the Chief Justice of Nigeria himself becoming the accused person in a corruption trial since details of the petition against him by a Civil Society Organization first became public about a fortnight ago.

3. Although the allegations in the petition are grievous enough in themselves, the security agencies have since then traced other suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars to the CJN’s personal accounts, all undeclared or improperly declared as required by law.

4. Perhaps more worrisome is the Chief Justice of Nigeria’s own written admission to the charges that he indeed failed to follow the spirit and letter of the law in declaring his assets, citing ’’mistake’’ and ’’forgetfulness’’ which are totally unknown to our laws as defences in the circumstances of his case.

5. One expected that with his moral authority so wounded, by these serious charges of corruption, more so by his own written admission, Mr. Justice Walter Onnoghen would have acted swiftly to spare our Judicial Arm further disrepute by removing himself from superintending over it while his trial lasted.

6. Unfortunately, he has not done so. Instead, the nation has been treated to the sordid spectacle of a judicial game of wits in which the Chief Justice of Nigeria and his legal team have made nonsense of the efforts of the Code of Conduct Tribunal to hear the allegation on merit and conclude the trial as quickly as possible considering the nature of the times in which we live.

7. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, we have all seen the full weight of the Chief Justice of Nigeria descend on the tender head of one of the organs of justice under his control. There is simply no way the officers of that court, from the Chairman to the bailiffs, can pretend to be unaffected by the influence of the leader of the Judiciary.

8. Not only the trial court, but others have been put on the spot. Practically every other day since his trial commenced, the nation has witnessed various courts granting orders and counter-orders in favour of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, all of them characterised by an unholy alacrity between the time of filing, hearing and delivery of judgment in same.

9. The real effect has been a stalling of the trial of Justice Onnoghen, helped along by lawyers who insist that these orders, whether right or wrong are technically valid, and must be obeyed till an appellate Court says otherwise. No doubt, that it is the proper interpretation, but is it the right disposition for our nation?

10. Nigeria is a constitutional democracy and no one must be, or be seen to be, above the law. Unfortunately, the drama around the trial of the Chief Justice of Nigeria has challenged that pillar of justice in the perception of the ordinary man on the street. For it is certain that no ordinary Nigerian can get the swift and special treatment Justice Onnoghen has enjoyed from his subordinates and privies in our Judicature.

11. In the midst of all these distracting events, the essential question of whether the accused CJN actually has a case to answer has been lost in the squabble over the form and nature of his trial. This should not be so.

12. If Justice cannot be done and clearly seen to be done, society itself is at risk of the most unimaginable chaos. As a Government, we cannot stand by wailing and wringing our hands helplessly but give our full backing and support to those brave elements within the Judiciary who act forthrightly, irrespective of who is involved.

13. As you are all aware, the fight against corruption is one of the tripod of policies promised to Nigerians by this administration. Needless to say that it is an existential Policy which must be given adequate attention and commitment by all the three arms of government. The efforts of the Executive will amount to nothing without the cooperation of the Legislature and especially the Judiciary.

14. It is no secret that this government is dissatisfied with the alarming rate in which the Supreme Court of Nigeria under the oversight of Justice Walter Onnoghen has serially set free, persons accused of the most dire acts of corruption, often on mere technicalities, and after quite a number of them have been convicted by the trial and appellate courts.

15. Since there is nothing the Executive Arm can do after the apex court of the land has spoken on any matter, several of these individuals walk free among us today, enjoying what are clearly the proceeds of the corruption which for so long has defeated the efforts of this nation to develop and prosper.

16. It is against this background that I have received the Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal directing me to suspend the Chief Justice pending final determination of the cases against him. It also explains why I am not only complying immediately, but with some degree of relief for the battered sensibilities of ordinary Nigerians whose patience must have become severely over-taxed by these anomalies.

17. In line with this administration’s avowed respect for the Rule of Law, I have wholeheartedly obeyed the Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal dated 23rd January 2019.

18. Accordingly, I hereby suspend the Honourable Mr. Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen, GCON as the Chief Justice of Nigeria pending final determination of the case against him at the Code of Conduct Tribunal.

19. In further compliance with the same Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, I hereby invite Honourable Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed JSC, being the next most Senior Justice in the Supreme Court, to come forward to take the Judicial Oath as Chief Justice of Nigeria in an Acting Capacity.

20. Fellow Nigerians, we can only stand a chance to win the fight against Corruption, and position our dear nation for accelerated development when we stand together to contend against it.

Thank you and may God bless our country.

PDP, CUPP reject suspension

Some opposition parties have rejected the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen.

President Muhammadu Buhari suspended Mr Onnoghen on Friday and immediately swore in the next most senior judge at the Supreme Court, Tanko Mohammed, as the acting CJN.

The 1999 Constitution says a sitting CJN can only be removed from office by the president after at least two-thirds majority members of the Senate support such a move.

But Mr Buhari said he acted on an order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal.

PREMIUM TIMES earlier reported the presidential candidate of the PDP, Atiku Abubakar, criticising the suspension. He said Mr Buhari’s action was a desperate plot to subvert Nigeria’s democracy days into an election in which Nigerians are set to vote him out of office.

The PDP through a statement by its spokesperson, Kola Ologbodiyan, rejected “the attempts by President Buhari to foist an illegal Chief Justice on the nation while the substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen is still in office.”

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“PDP says Nigerians must reject the incendiary move by the President to forcefully suspend our constitution, annex the judicial arm of govt & open the nation up for full-blown totalitarianism to achieve his self-succession bid, having realised that he cannot win in the 2019 election.”

The party urged Nigerians to disregard the suspension and the latest appointment.

“There can be no two Chief Justices of Nigeria. Our constitution is clear on how a CJ is appointed and removed as such does not lie on the prerogative of the President. As such, we urge all Nigerians and the international community to recognize only Justice Onnoghen as the CJN.”

The Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP), in a statement by one of its spokespersons, Ikenga Ugochinyere, described the development as a judicial coup which must be resisted.

“This brazen dictatorial act is the latest action in the ongoing rape of our nation’s hard-earned democracy by those who dined with anti-democratic forces, and is symptomatic of the increasing desperation that President Buhari and the cabal pulling the strings as February 16, 2019 draws near.

“As far as the law of the land is concerned, Onnoghen remains the CJN. We will not recognise any other person who may be occupying that office illegally. Justice Tanko Muhammed us a usurper. The NJC must sack him. Lawyers must ignore him as long as he remains on that seat.

“The CJN can be removed from office either if he has been convicted or if under section 291 and 292 of the Constitution, the Senate affirms a request by the President to remove him by two-thirds majority vote. Buhari has dared Nigerians.”

CUPP also urged the CJN to stay put in his office. It said the president has no power to suspend him.

“The Senate should reconvene now and start impeachment process against the President for acting against the provision of the Constitution he swore to uphold.”

The presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Donald Duke, also condemned the suspension.

The former Cross Rivers State governor who spoke through his twitter handle on Friday, condemned the presidency for “blatant and arrogant display of power exhibited.

“While I’m glad the Appeal Court upheld my constitutional right to contest for the office of president of our country, I’m shocked at the blatant and arrogant display of power exhibited by the administration in the removal of the CJN and shamefully, Justice Tanko Mohammed accepts to be sworn in.

“They attempted removing the head of the legislative arm now it’s the judiciary. Atiku is NEXT. Wait and see.”

The Court of Appeal on Thursday reinstated Mr Duke as the SDP flag bearer after it overturned a lower court’s jedgment which affirmed Jerry Gana as the candidate.

It should be recalled that the Nigerian Bar Association also described the suspension of Mr Onnoghen as an outright coup and a step towards anarchy and demanded its immediate retraction.

The NBA rejected Mr Onnoghen’s replacement by Ibrahim Tanko and called on President Buhari to immediately reverse the suspension to avert a constitutional crisis.

Fani-Kayode, El-Rufai, Ozekhome, others react to suspension

Femi Fani-Kayode, a senior member of Nigeria’s main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), on Friday called on the National Assembly to commence impeachment proceeding against President Muhammadu Buhari.

Mr Fani-Kayode, a former federal minister, said Mr Buhari has now removed all doubts that he is “a fascistic monster” for suspending the Chief Justice of Nigeria without clear constitutional basis to do so.

The president on Friday afternoon suspended Mr Onnoghen, who has been facing false asset charges for two weeks. He said the judge had become a taint on the judiciary and he was compelled to take radical measures to ease him out of office.

Mr Buhari said he relied on an order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal asking him to suspend Mr Onnoghen from office. The CCT is an arm of the presidency, and its judges are appointed by the president.

Mr Onnoghen denied allegations of asset declaration fraud but acknowledged forgetting to declare some asset. Mr Buhari said the judge’s admission was enough to remove him from office. He said someone of his stature should not be making a claim of ignorance, which is deemed inconsequential in criminal defence.

Legal experts are divided on the matter, with many saying the president has no powers to suspend a chief justice. Some lawyers, however, argued that the president was relying on a valid court order and could also have suspended the chief justice even without a court order.

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But none of the lawyers supporting the president cited any legal power for him to discipline the chief justice. The president himself did not cite any legal basis for his action. He said he only complied with an ex-parte order of the tribunal.

It was also unclear whether the tribunal could use an ex-parte ruling to suspend the chief justice. An ex-parte is an order granted by a judge before a defendant in a suit is able to enter defence, and it is often provisional.

Mike Ozekhome, a senior lawyer, urged Nigerian judges and lawyers to shun further activities as was done when former Pakistani President Perves Musharraf removed the country’s chief justice in 2007.

“This recent act is a big scandalous shame on the Buhari government, assuming it still knows anything called shame. It has tainted it with the paintbrush of odium, obloquy and international derision,” Mr Ozekhome said.

Mr Fani-Kayode, adding his voice to a flurry of reactions that have poured in since the development was made public Friday afternoon, said the action was unacceptable. He called on the legislature to begin impeachment process against the president.

“For a president in a democracy to suspend the CJN is totally unacceptable, a clear breach of the rule of law and the Constitution and a manifest violation of the principle of separation of powers. If anyone thinks that we are practicing democracy in Nigeria that person needs to have their heads examined,” Mr Fani-Kayode said.

“I call on the Senate President and the Speaker of the House to stop playing games to show courage and to begin impeachment proceedings against Buhari.

“That is the only way to stop this man from totally destroying our country and leading us to a civil war that may never end,” Mr Fani-Kayode said.

He also alleged that Mr Buhari was plotting to declare himself the winner of the presidential elections on February 16.

Mr Buhari’s controversial action comes barely three days after former President Olusegun Obasanjo said the president was plotting to perpetuate himself in office. He said his latest tactics bore the markings of the brutal and inglorious dictatorship of Sani Abacha in the 1990s.

Okechukwu Nwanguma of the Network for Police Reform in Nigeria also condemned the president’s action and called for immediate interventions from lovers of democracy

“The action subverts the Constitution and the principle of separation of powers. It undermines the independence of the judiciary and above all puts Nigeria’s democracy in peril.

“The credibility of the 2019 election will be compromised and democracy imperiled in the absence of an independent and responsive judiciary,” Mr Nwanguma said in a statement to PREMIUM TIMES Friday night.

However, Nasir el-Rufai, the governor of Kaduna State and a key ally of Mr Buhari, said the president’s action was appropriate, praising the president for the timely intervention.

Mr El-Rufai said Mr Onnoghen has shown traits of corruption and should not be allowed to maintain a seat as the nation’s chief justice.

“SANITY NEEDS RESTORATION: About time this institutional gobbledygook and regionalization to justify admitted wrongdoing are confronted. Justice must not give way to legal gymnastics and absurd technicalities. I am solidly with PMB on this, as always!!” the governor wrote on his verified Twitter handle.

Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai@elrufai

SANITY NEEDS RESTORATION: About time this institutional gobbledygook and regionalization to justify admitted wrongdoing are confronted. Justice must not give way to legal gymnastics and absurd technicalities. I am solidly with PMB on this, as always!!Presidency Nigeria@NGRPresidentPresident Buhari this afternoon swore-in Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria. #AsoVillaToday1,55417:51 – 25 Jan 2019Twitter Ads information and privacy1,105 people are talking about this

The president removed Mr Onnoghen despite a Court of Appeal ruling halting further actions against the top jurist by the Code of Conduct Tribunal.

The Nigerian Constitution at Section 292 said a Supreme Court judge can only be removed with the concurrence of two-thirds of the Nigerian Senate, which has a total of 109 members. But the legislature has not heard any matter about Mr Onnoghen, much less take action towards his removal.

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