By Ikechukwu Nnochiri, Levinus Nwabughiogu & Henry Ojelu
•It’s plot to cow judges ahead of elections — NBA
•Due process shouldn’t be short-circuited in move to try CJN — Saraki
•Tread with caution, Dogara tells FG; •FG heating the polity — Ohanaeze
•CSOs ask FG to withdraw charges against CJN
•Onnoghen’s case may overshadow NJC’s meeting—Member
• Afe Babalola, Owonikoko, Adegboruwa react
•Niger Delta agitators threaten oil production
ABUJA—The Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, has accused President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration of deliberately intimidating judges in a bid to emasculate the judiciary before the 2019 general elections.
This is even as Senate president, Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki, advised the Federal Government to ensure that its plans to put on trial the CJN, Walter Onnoghen does not cause chaos in the judicial system and that due process was not compromised.
The NBA in a statement signed by its National President, Mr. Paul Usoro, SAN, decried what it described as a “pattern of consistent assault” on both the Judiciary and the Legislature by agencies of the Federal Government.
While condemning plans by government to arraign the CJN before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, over alleged failure to declare his assets, the NBA warned that continuing attacks on the justice sector must stop.
It wondered why the federal government decided to deviate from the laid down and explicit provisions of the law as expounded in the case of Nganjiwa v FRN, by slamming a criminal charge against the CJN without recourse to the National Judicial Council, NJC.
The statement read: “The Nigerian Bar Association unequivocally condemns this assault, intimidation and desecration of the Judiciary by FGN agencies and demands that it be stopped immediately.
“In Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391(CA), the Court of Appeal made it very clear that any misconduct attached to the office and functions of a judicial officer must first be reported to and handled by the National Judicial Council (“NJC”) pursuant to the provisions of our laws.
“Only after the NJC has pronounced against such judicial officer can the prosecuting agencies of the Federal Government proceed against him.
‘’As the court pointed out, these requirements of the law are anchored on the overriding principles of separation of powers between the executive, the judiciary and the legislature and on the need to preserve, promote and protect the independence of the judiciary.
“Our respective liberties and the rule of law are best protected and preserved if the judiciary remains independent and shielded from intimidation and assault by the other arms of the government.
“In Nganjiwa v FRN (supra), the Court of Appeal made reference to Rule 3 of the Revised Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers of February 2016 (“Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers”)and held that the said Rule 3 “makes provision in relation to fidelity to the Constitution and the Law.
“The provisions in regard to assets declaration as they apply to all public officers including the CJN are contained in both the Constitution and the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act 1991, the enabling law that establishes both the Code of Conduct Bureau (“CCB”) and the CCT.
“The fidelity which judicial officers therefore owe “to the Constitution and the Law” pursuant to Rule 3 of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers encompasses compliance with the provisions relating to assets declarations as contained in the Constitution and the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.
“Any infraction in that regard by a judicial officer, as the Court of Appeal rightly held, constitutes a misconduct by the judicial officer and becomes the subject matter for discipline by the NJC as a condition precedent to any possible prosecution of the judicial officer by any of the FGN’s prosecuting agencies.
“Why has FGN decided to embark on this anomalous course of charging the CJN before the CCT without first presenting whatever facts it purportedly has against His Lordship to the NJC for its deliberation and determination?”, the NBA queried.
Besides, the NBA noted that the petition that triggered the action against the CJN was received, investigated and charges drafted by the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, within 24 hours.
“If one contemplates the fact that the CCT arraignment is scheduled to take place on 14 January 2019, we have in total a record number of 3 (three) working days between the receipt and processing of the petition, investigation, preparation of Charge and ancillary processes and the arraignment!
“Such unprecedented speed and efficiency in Nigeria’s criminal justice administration! It is clear, given the rush with which this matter was conducted by the CCB, that the NJC was not privy to it and did not conduct its mandatorily required disciplinary processes prior to the filing of the Charge before the CCT.
“We still wonder why the FGN chose to deviate from the laid down and explicit provisions of the law as expounded in Nganjiwa v FRN (supra). Could it be that it was misadvised? Or is this a naked show of power and force by agencies of the FGN? And why embark on the media trial of the CJN?
“This, unfortunately, is a predilection of the FGN’s prosecuting agencies with the possible exception of the Federal Ministry of Justice. As the NBA pointed out in its International Anti-Corruption Day Statement that was issued on 09 December 2018 “media trial of persons charged with corrupt practices amounts to corruption itself.
“Indeed, those orchestrated media trials degrade and corrupt the justice administration system quite apart from the incalculable (but obviously intended) damage that it does to persons who may ultimately be discharged and acquitted.
“In point of fact, it is corrupt practice to use as license or hide under the cover of the fight against corruption to recklessly destroy the names, characters and reputations of persons who have not been found guilty of corrupt practices by competent courts and who may ultimately be pronounced innocent of such charges.
“These media trials must, alongside the on-going desecration and assault of the judiciary, cease forthwith.
“There are two final issues that we must touch upon in this Statement, albeit, briefly. First, could it possibly be a coincidence that the current assault on the judiciary is taking place only weeks to the 2019 national election? Apart from the conduct itself being wrongful and deplorable, its timing is condemnable.
“FGN will find it difficult to convince any reasonable person that its assault against the CJN and by extension the judiciary is not aimed at emasculating that arm of the government and intimidating our Judges ahead of the 2019 national elections.
“In our afore-referenced International Anti-Corruption Day Statement, the NBA had deplored “conducts that qualify as political non-accountability, absence of transparency and impunity in public service. The FGN’s conduct in this instance qualifies, among others, as “impunity in public service.
“As a final point, it is also difficult for a disinterested observer not to see a pattern of consistent assault by agencies of the FGN on the heads of the two independent arms of government, to wit, the legislature and the judiciary, starting with the prosecution of the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, before the CCT and now, the ill-fated prosecution of the CJN before the same CCT.
“The impression must not be created that the agencies of the Executive arm of the FGN are interested in destabilizing and laying prostrate the other arms of the Government and in the process eliminating and destroying any and all voices of dissent and checks and balances.
“That is not desirable for the democracy that we strive to build neither is it good for the image of the government. We urge restraint on the part of Government and demand that the CCB follow due process in proceeding against the CJN by complying with Nganjiwa’s Judgment (supra) and other similar judicial precedents.
“This continuing attack on the justice sector must cease forthwith. FGN and its agencies must desist from debasing the rule of law.’’
Meanwhile, the Senate president, Senate President, Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki, yesterday advised the Federal Government to ensure that its plans to put on trial the nation’s chief judicial officer, Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen, does not cause chaos in the judicial system and that the due process is not compromised.
Saraki in a statement in Ilorin, noted that he believed that if the government truly had genuine reason to put the incumbent Chief Justice of Nigeria on trial, it should ensure that every step in the process was transparent and the normal process as provided by the law was followed to the letter.
Saraki in the statement signed by his media aide, Mr. Yusuph Olaniyonu, said a situation where the petition which triggered the trial was submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) on Wednesday, January 8, and by January 10 on Friday, the Chief Justice was presented with it for his reply only for the charges to be drafted that same day and filed in the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, for the trial to commence tomorrow.
According to him, the haste with which the whole thing took place already indicates unnecessary haste and short-circuiting of the process of fair hearing.
“It is important for the government and members of the public to know that as somebody who has travelled this route before, we should refrain from any media trial and political players should avoid abusing the judicial process in order to achieve what they could not get through normal political contests.
‘’Everybody who is being tried should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. That is the underlining principle of our justice system.
“The proposed trial of the CJN has once again opened up the debate on the transparency and neutrality of the fight against corruption. The haste with which this trial is being pursued leaves a lot to be desired.
‘’From last Wednesday when the so-called petition against the CJN was initiated to the period the trial is scheduled to commence has been barely three working days, whereas there are pending cases where the individuals involved have been indicted some months ago but no prosecution is being considered,” Saraki said.
While noting that the anti-corruption fight had become a case of a separate rule for the people close to the executive branch and another set of rules for other Nigerians, the Senate president stated that the fight had been compromised and politicized.
He said: “All these subjective actions politicize the anti-graft fight. They weaken national institutions. They send wrong signals. The CJN is not above the law but his trial puts the entire judicial system on trial. It sends a signal to the entire world about our judiciary.
‘’It has implications for the confidence of local and foreign investors about the system of adjudication over disputes in our country. Thus, the matter should be handled with care, demonstrating intense transparency and strict adherence to due process.
“This trial, coming just about a month to the commencement of the presidential elections, the aftermath of which the CJN and the judiciary he is leading are set to play crucial adjudicatory role, has already raised suspicion about the real motive.
‘’There are already suggestions that this plan is set to disorganize the judicial arm after constant attempts by agents of state to undermine the federal legislature.
“Therefore, the entire country and the international community will be watching closely every step in this trial because it is definitely unusual, unprecedented and will set a record in the engagement among the three arms of government recognized in our presidential system.
‘’This trial definitely has implications for the principle of separation of powers and concept of checks and balance embedded in our presidential system of government.”
Reacting in a similar vein, speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, called for caution in the charges filed against the CJN.
In a statement issued by his media aide, Hassan Turaki, yesterday, Dogara said that while the House awaits further briefing from relevant agencies, it was important that due process was followed because Nigeria is a country governed by laws and not dictates of men.
He noted that the House was not less zealous in the fight against corruption but noted that to commence a matter of that grave magnitude with a media trial was pregnant with innuendos least needed by the polity at this sensitive time.
“This is a matter that affects another arm of government and its head which should be treated with caution so as not to send the wrong signal that there is a political undertone or other ulterior motives to the issue.
“As we raised our voice when the National Assembly was invaded by hooded security men last year, it is incumbent on us as the legislature to voice our concerns because we operate under a system where three arms of government are co – equal branches and enjoy a measure of independence guaranteed by the Constitution.
“As we approach the general elections, it is incumbent on the prosecutorial authorities to exercise caution and treat matters of this nature with utmost circumspection,’’ the speaker said.
Also reacting yesterday, the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room condemned the planned arraignment of the CJN before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, on non-declaration of assets allegations.
The CSOs, comprising over 70 groups working in support of credible and transparent elections in Nigeria, called on the Federal Government to immediately withdraw the six-count criminal charge it entered against the CJN.
In the statement signed by convener of the group and Executive Director of Policy and Legal Advocacy Center, PLAC, Mr. Clement Nwankwo, the CSOs urged Justice Onnoghen to resist any attempt to force him out of office.
The statement read: “Without commenting on the merits or de-merits of the allegations, Situation Room is concerned that the timing of the charges, the national and international public perception, as well as optics, of charging a Chief Justice of the country to a tribunal four weeks to the 2019 Nigeria General election, would be very damaging to Nigeria as a country and certainly damaging to the credibility of the elections.
“Situation Room is not persuaded that there is a national emergency that compels the allegations against the Chief Justice being prosecuted at this time, especially as case law exists that states a judicial officer (which includes the Chief Justice of Nigeria) must first be reported to the National Judicial Council, NJC, and the matter investigated and dispensed with, before such a judicial officer can be charged).
“Accordingly, Situation Room calls for the immediate withdrawal of the charges against Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen.
“Situation Room calls on the Chief Justice to resist any and all pressures seeking to compel his resignation at this time in the light of the charges being filed against him.
“Situation Room also calls on all government and state agencies to remain independent and steer clear of partisanship in the discharge of their responsibilities and duties to the public and the country.
“Situation Room is taking a watching brief on the proceedings at the CCB and will follow the proceedings closely.
“Situation Room also calls on all political parties, the candidates for elections and indeed agencies of government to understand that an election won on the basis of electoral abuse or wrongful use of state institutions or other abuses, can lead to widespread disputations that would question the legitimacy of any government emerging therefrom and could represent a pyrrhic victory.”
FG heating up polity, says Ohanaeze
APEX Igbo umbrella, Ohanaeze Ndigbo said it has received with shock and disappointment, the decision of the federal government of Nigeria, acting through the Code of Conduct Bureau to prosecute the Chief Justice Of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onneghen.
In a statement personal authored by Ohanaeze President General, Chief Nnia Nwodo, yesterday, noted that legal opinion abound that the action of federal government was premature and ill conceived following an extant Court Of Appeal decision which interprets the procedure for prosecuting judicial officers.
Nwodo in the statement said “This procedure has not been followed. The fact that the National Judicial Council has been ignored is not just illegal but suggests deliberate court shopping and a predetermined objective.
“Secondly, the fact that one of the issues being canvassed by the CCB before the CCT is for an order of the CCT for the Chief Justice of Nigeria to step aside from his exalted office pending the conclusion of the trial contrary to the procedure for his removal from office as provided by the Nigerian constitution exposes the aim of the prosecution.
“A perusal of some of the depositions in the charge sheet also shows a completely distorted conception of the regulations pertaining to the declaration of assets. Assets acquired after assumption of office are declared at the end of a public official’s tenure in order to present a comparison with assets declared on assumption of office.
“The Federal government is heating up the polity. Not long ago we were entertained with all sorts of interpretations of the Vice President’s powers while the President is on leave.
The GMD of the NNPC was accused of violating laws pertaining to the award of contracts, because he comes from a protected ethnic group and class, no investigation was conducted.