By Soni Daniel, Abuja
As various interest groups converge on Abuja, the nation’s capital to protest for or against the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, the federal government has said that the embattled justice and not President Muhammadu Buhari should be blamed for his misfortune.
The minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, gave the position at the world press conference in Abuja on Monday.
Mohammed said that having admitted that he made a ‘mistake’ by ‘forgetting ‘ to declare his assets as required of him as a public officer in Nigeria, CJN Onnoghen should have simply stepped aside once he realised he had erred in that regard.
The minister said it was also wrong for the embattled justice to have dodged services by the Code of Conduct Tribunal and refused to appear before it, having known that it was the same court that has exclusive power to try him for the offence.
Mohammed drew attention to the ruling given by Onnoghen in 2013 in which he declared that it is only the CCT that has the exclusive right to try offences bordering on assets of public officers and no other court in the land.
The minister said: “It is unfortunate that in the ensuing debate, the talk about due process has overshadowed the talk about the substance. Procedure cannot or should not trounce substance. That brings me to the role of the National Judicial Council (NJC). Some have argued that the Justice Onnoghen issue should have been referred to the NJC to handle. They would have been right if Justice Onnoghen had been accused of professional misconduct, which is what is within the purview of the NJC. The allegations against Justice Onnoghen go beyond professional misconduct. It is the alleged breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers. And only one body is statutorily empowered to deal with this: The Code of Conduct Tribunal.
“Interestingly, Justice Onnoghen himself has elucidated on this. In various judgments, he upheld the provisions of the law concerning the CCT. In one particular judgement he delivered on July 12, 2013,
Justice Onnoghen held that the CCT had EXCLUSIVE JURISDICTION (emphasis mine) to deal with all violations contravening any of the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau. Let me put this in a layman’s language: All breaches of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers must be handled by the Code of Conduct Tribunal. Pure and simple. In other words, Justice Onnoghen’s judgement held that the provisions expressly ousted the powers of ordinary regular courts in respect of such violations.”
“In a case between Ismaeel Ahmed and Nasiru Ahmed, Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), Chairman of the Kano state chapter of the party, and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which has been reported by the media, Onnoghen, while interpreting Paragraph 12 of the Fifth Schedule of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) as regards CCT’s jurisdiction held that, “…the said paragraph 12 provides as follows: ‘Any allegation that a public officer has committed a breach of or has not complied with the provisions of this Code shall be made to the Code of Conduct Bureau.”
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“The judgement, which was delivered at the Supreme Court with suit number ‘SC.279/2012’ before Justices Onnoghen and others, also held that the provisions of the law are clearly unambiguous. Justice Onnoghen said that the provisions are, “so construed literally meaning that any breaches of any provisions of the said 5th schedule or matters of noncompliance with any provisions of the Code shall be made to the Code of Conduct Bureau that has established its Tribunal with the exclusive jurisdiction to deal with any violations of any provisions under the Code.”
“Is anyone still in doubt that the CCT is the right court to try the alleged breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers levied against Justice Onnoghen? Is it not clear that challenging the jurisdiction of the CCT to try him is an abuse of court process by Justice Onnoghen?
“As for those who argued that the CCT is wrong in ordering Justice Onnoghen’s suspension, are they aware that Justice Onnoghen himself disagreed with them? In the judgement I referred to earlier, he wrote:
“The Tribunal to the exclusion of other courts is also empowered to impose any punishments as specified under sub-paragraphs (2) (a), (b) & (c) of paragraph 18 as provided in sub-paragraphs 3 and 4 of paragraph 18 while appeals shall lie as of right from such decisions to the Court of Appeal.” In essence, the CCT is right to have directed Justice Onnoghen’s suspension, and the President did the right thing by acting on the orders of the CCT. Needless to say that in many of the cases of professional misconduct against judges that Justice Onnoghen has presided over at the NJC; judges have been suspended while still undergoing trial!