By Joseph Otteh
On January 12, 2019, the Code of Conduct Tribunal signified that it had slated January 14, 2019 for the trial of charges brought by the Code of Conduct Bureau against the incumbent Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, who is accused of violating the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act. According to the Code of Conduct Tribunal, the charges were filed on January 11, 2019 and border on alleged failures of the CJN to declare his assets/update assets declaration since his appointment as Justice of the Supreme Court/Chief Justice of Nigeria.
This prosecution, for the records, is unprecedented. No CJN before now has been charged in a court of law for any offences. Chief Justice Onnoghen is head of the Nigerian Judiciary and whenever a government moves against the head of a Judiciary, if the lessons of history teach us something, it is often a red flag.
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Without going into the merits of the alleged charges against the Chief Justice, Access to Justice is very concerned about the unnerving circumstances surrounding how the case was stringed together by the accusers and the motives of the government seen through its response to the complaints. There is extraordinary evidence of back-stage collusion between government and the protagonists of the complaints (evidenced, for example, by the unprecedented haste with which the Code of Conduct Bureau has acted on the petitions), and well-founded fears that the prosecution is politically-motivated and is targeting strategic influence over how an incumbent Chief Justice exercises the roles of that office in the upcoming elections.
Everything about how this case was orchestrated and put forward smells foul – the alleged links between the petitioners and the President, the amount of personal information of the Chief Justice made available to the petitioners, the implacable haste with which the Code of Conduct Bureau acted on the petitions, giving no reasonable time to conduct credible forensic investigations into them – all point to one conclusion – the pursuit of an agenda to remove Chief Justice Onnoghen from office, whether temporarily or permanently in preparation for whatever may be the fallouts from the 2019 elections, than to redress whatever infractions the Chief Justice may have allegedly committed.
Apparently, that agenda has the backing of the echelons of power. The motive is corrupt from the word go and will pitch many of those who want to see a more transparent judiciary against the move. Overall, this prosecution will be cast as an invidious effort to undermine judicial independence and interfere with the adjudication of election cases, which, really, is what it appears to be, more than anything else.
Access to Justice urges the Code of Conduct Bureau to back-track now, and back-off a pointless and ill-fated prosecution. The Code of Conduct Bureau should fight corruption with everything it has, not sparing the Judiciary, but the fight, to be credible, must be legitimate and not crooked or complexioned by a partisan political agenda. Politicizing the struggle against corruption has done, and will possibly continue to do much damage to the pursuit of the goal.
This case – like those before it – is also a wake up call for the Judiciary. Nigeria’s judiciary has made a very poor job of safeguarding the rule of law and pursuing a people-centred philosophy of law and justice; it has been, overall, to borrow from the words of a judgment, more executive-minded than the executive. But there are no lasting comforts with the executive, and, when the stakes are high enough, judges are also expendable people. Our judiciary has sold itself short over the course of many years, and is now paying the price.”
Otteh is Convener, Access to Justice.