…as CCT proceedings resume
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – The National Judicial Council, NJC, has summoned an emergency meeting over the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, by President Muhammadu Buhari.
The NJC is an organ of the judiciary that is responsible for the Appointment, Promotion and Discipline of Judicial Officers.
It was in 2016, responsible for the nomination of Justice Onnoghen to President Buhari to be confirmed as the 17th CJN.
President Buhari had on Friday, suspended Onnoghen and swore in the next most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Tanko Muhammad, as the Acting CJN.
He based the decision on corruption allegations pending against Onnoghen.
The action had elicited varied reactions both within and outside the country, coming too close to a general election that will kick-start next month.
Meanwhile, Justice Onnoghen who was accused of failing to declare his assets as prescribed by the law, as well as maintaining five separate foreign accounts, had insisted that FG ought to have allowed the NJC to investigate and recommend him for prosecution.
He challenged the jurisdiction of the Code of Conduct Tribunal to hear the charge marked CCT/ABJ/01/19, contending that the petition against him, likewise the outcome of the investigation purportedly conducted on his assets declaration forms by the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, ought to have been forwarded to the NJC for proper actions to be taken.
Justice Onnoghen argued that FG failed to abide by existing judicial precedent as encapsulated in a recent Appeal Court decision in Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391(CA), to the effect that any misconduct attached to the office and functions of a judicial officer, must first be reported to and handled by the NJC, pursuant to the provisions of the laws.
He stressed that only after the NJC pronounced against such judicial officer could prosecuting agencies of the Federal Government proceed to initiate a criminal proceeding.
Placing reliance on a recent decision of the CCT on a similar charge FG lodged against another Justice of the Supreme Court, Sylvester Ngwuta, the suspended CJN’s legal team, maintained that FG’s decision to sideline the NJC, stripped the tribunal off its jurisdiction to entertain the six-count charge.
A source at the NJC told Vanguard Sunday night that the meeting billed to hold at the Supreme Court premises with the Three Arm Zone, Monday morning, will be conducted in camera.
“The meeting was earlier scheduled for last week when, but Justice Onnoghen said it should be temporarily placed on hold in view of the situation on ground”, the source added.
Though the CJN is statutorily empowered to preside over NJC meetings, it was learned last night that both Justice Onnoghen and the Acting CJN, Justice Muhammad, may not be allowed to participate in the meeting.
In a related development, the National Executive Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, has also summoned emergency meeting over President Buhari’s action against Onnoghen, which the legal body insisted was illegal.
Those summoned to attend the meeting holding at the National Headquarters of the NBA, are all its National Officers, Past Presidents, Past General Secretaries, Branch Chairmen, Branch Secretaries, Branch NEC Representatives and Chairmen and Secretaries of Sections.
Meantime, there is palpable anxiety within the judicial circles, as the Justice Danladi Umar-led three member CCT panel, resume sitting on Monday.
The tribunal which earlier declined to hand-off Onnoghen’s trial, had on January 23, granted the ex-parte order President Buhari relied upon to suspend his as the substantive CJN.
The order that was signed by its Chairman, Umar, and another member of the panel, Mrs. Julie A. Anabor, read: “It is hereby ordered as follows: That the defendant/respondent shall step aside as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman National Judicial Council over allegation of Contravening the provisions of the code of Conducts and Tribunal Act CAP C15 Laws of the Federation 2004 pending the determination of the Motion on notice dated 10th January 2019.
“That the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall take all necessary measure to swear in the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman National Judicial Council in order to prevent a vacuum in the judicial arm of government pending the determination of the motion on notice.
“This matter is hereby adjourned to the 28 Day of January 2019 for Hearing”.
FG secured the ex-parte order barely 24 hours before the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal, ordered the CCT to stay further proceedings on Onnoghen’s trial.
The appellate court also fixed January 30 to hear an appeal the suspended CJN lodged before it.
The CCT panel had initially spurned four interim injunctions from high courts and the National Industrial Court, stopping it from taking further steps on the trial.
Though the Court of Appeal has constitutional powers to exercise supervisory control over the CCT, it is not however clear if the Mr. Umar-led panel would insist on proceeding with Onnoghen’s trial.