President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday suspended the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Honourable Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen and swore-in the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, Honourable Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed as the Acting Chief Justice of the Federation.
In a ceremony at the Council chamber of the Presidential Villa, President Buhari noting that he was served with an Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) issued on Wednesday 23rd January 2019, directing the suspension of Justice Onnoghen from office pending final determination of the cases against him at the tribunal and several other fora relating to his alleged breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers, explained that he had to comply immediately in line with his administration’s “avowed respect for the Rule of Law.”
According to the President, his government has been “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, adding that the suspension would provide some “degree of relief for the battered sensibilities of ordinary Nigerians whose patience must have become severely over-taxed by these anomalies.”
“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,” he said.
Speaking on the allegations of Justice Onnoghen failing to declare his asset following accusation by a Civil Society Organisation, President Buhari stressed that “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.”
“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.
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.”
“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.”
Accusing the suspended Chief Justice of influencing corrupt practices in the judiciary deliberately or inadvertently, the President said: “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, adding that not only the trial court, but others have been put on the spot” but that 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.
According to him, “no ordinary Nigerian can get the swift and special treatment Justice Onnoghen has enjoyed from his subordinates and privies in our Judicature.”
“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,” President Buhari said.
“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?”
In further justifying the action of the executive in the case of Justice Onnoghen, President Buhari while lamenting that 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, noted that Nigeria is a constitutional democracy and no one must be, or be seen to be, above the law.
“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.”
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.”
Temidayo Taiwo-Sidiq is a Journalist, Political Analyst and Satirist with major interest in Nigerian Politics, Governance and Sports.