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Uproar as Buhari suspends Onnoghen, installs Muhammad as Ag. CJN

…..SANS, NBA kick, insist President’s action illegal
……I am still in office, says Onnoghen

By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – Barely eight hours after the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, announced his decision to inaugurate judges that will take charge of the 2019 election petition tribunals, President Muhammadu Buhari struck by booting him out of office.

President Buhari, in a move that has drawn him flaks from within and outside the legal circles, quickly summoned the most senior jurist at the Supreme Court, Justice Tanko Muhammad to the Presidential Villa, and swore him in as the Acting CJN.

Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen and Justice Tanko Muhammad

The President anchored his decision to suspend Onnoghen from office on an order he said was issued by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, on January 23.

Earlier, Onnoghen who is currently battling to wriggle out of a six-count charge the Federal Government slammed against him before the CCT, refuted report that he had resigned his office, describing it as fake news.

In a statement that was signed by his Senior Special Assistant on media, Mr. Awassam Bassey, the embattled CJN said he would as part of his duties, swear in members of the 2019 National Assembly, Governorship & State Assembly Election Petition Tribunals on Saturday.

Onnoghen who is facing charges bordering on allegations that he failed to properly declare his assets as prescribed by the law, as well as maintained foreign bank accounts, was reacting to reports on social media platforms that he had on Thursday evening, succumbed to pressure and relinquished his position as both the CJN and Chairman of the National Judicial Council, NJC.

He urged Nigerians to disregard the rumour, saying he was in his office and also presided over cases on Thursday.

“There is absolutely no truth in the rumours making the round that the Hon. Chief Justice of Nigeria, His Lordship Hon. Mr. Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, GCON, has resigned his office. It is fake news!

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“The Hon CJN was in the office all through yesterday (Thursday) and sat in court. As part of his duties, the Hon CJN will be swearing in members of the 2019 National Assembly, Governorship & State Assembly Election Petition Tribunals tomorrow (Saturday 26th January 2019)”, read the statement that was sent by his Senior Special Assistant on Media, Mr. Awassam Bassey.

Meanwhile, wide condemnation trailed President Buhari’s action in suspending Onnoghen from office and appointing his brother jurist, Muhammad in his stead.

Senior lawyers that spoke to Saturday Vanguard described President Buhari’s action as a legal aberration, insisting that it was unconstitutional for him to remove a sitting CJN from office without recourse to the NJC.

Most of them wondered when the Mr. Danladi Umar-led CCT panel gave the order the President placed reliance on to wield the big stick against Onnoghen.

It will be recalled that the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal had on Thursday, ordered the CCY to stay further proceedings in the case FG entered against the CJN.

A three-man panel of Justices of the appellate court led by Justice Abdul Aboki, ordered the CCT to temporarily hands-off the matter till January 30, a date it fixed to deliver ruling on an appeal Justice Onnoghen lodged to challenge both the competence of the charge against him, and jurisdiction of the CCT to entertain same.

It will be recalled that the CCT had in a two to one split decision last Tuesday, adjourned till next week Monday to continue with the trial, despite four separate interim injunctions from different High Courts and the National Industrial Court, restraining all the parties from taking further steps in the matter, pending determination of legal issues sorrounding the legal propriety of the trial.

The CCT Chairman based him decision on the absence of any order from the appellate court stopping it from going ahead with the trial.

Though FG’s lawyer, Mr. Aliyu Umar, had at the last sitting, attempted to make an oral application for the tribunal to order the CJN to temporarily step aside until his trial is concluded, his effort was thwarted by Onnoghen’s lead counsel, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, who insisted that such order could not be made when jurisdiction of the tribunal is being challenged.

Meantime, among Senior Advocates of Nigeria that condemned the suspension of the CJN by President Buhari, included human rights activist and constitutional lawyer, Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN.

He said: “The alleged suspension from office of the CJN is the vilest, thieving, most despicable, ultravires, undemocratic and brazenly unconstitutional act ever carried out by any government in Nigeria, civilian or military, since 1st January,1914, when the contraption called Nigeria was forcibly contrived through the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Protectorates.

“The desperate act of a sit-tight president constitutes a direct suspension of the Nigerian Constitution and the entire democratic process. It has finally removed the remaining veneer of pretension to democratic credentials by Buhari and his all- conquering cabal.

“Welcome, Nigerians, to full blown dictatorship, absolutism, authoritarianisn and fascism. Buhari has behaved worse than what he was as a military tyrant.

“Military juntas always only suspended parts of the Constitution they did not like. But, by torpedoing the entire judiciary, rule of law and due process,including four valid High Court/Federal High Court rulings and yesterday’s ruling by the Court of Appeal, all of them staying proceedings of the phoney and funny charges levelled against Onnoghen before the CCT, Nigerians now know that we have now become an endangered specie.

“It means that the next election is nothing more than a ritualistic outing to illegally confer life presidency (not just 4 years) on Buhari. There is no known basis, legal, constitutional or moral, to hurriedly bypass courts of law, the judicial process and court orders, to illegally remove the CJN and swear in an Acting CJN.

“The provisions of section 292(2) of the 1999 Constitution are quite clear on how the CJN can be removed from office.Aside sections 153, 158 and parts 1 and 2 of the 3rd schedule to the Constitution which provide that a judicial officer can not be removed from office until he has first been tried and dealt with by the National Judicial Council (NJC),section 292(2) makes it clear that the president can only remove the CJN from office before the age of his retirement, “acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate”.

“When did the Senate meet to donate this power to the president? NEVER. The president has illegally and unconstitutionally stripped both the judiciary and the Legislature bare of their constitutional functions,usurped their powers and enthroned maximum dictatorship over the affairs of Nigeria, like Louis X14 once did when he stood in front of parliament, beat his chest imperiously and declared ,”l’est tat c’est moi” (I am the state).

“The ill-advised action does not only assault our noble sense of humanity and dignity as decent Nigerians,it also violently desecrates the principles of rule of law as espoused by Prof A.V.Dicey and the hallowed doctrine of separation of powers as ably propounded in 1748 by the great French Philosopher,Baron De Montesque.

WHAT TO DO?

“Nigerians should brace up,come out enmasse, to protest against this illegality. We are back to full Abacha era, as OBJ rightly noted three days ago in his patriotic letter to Nigerians.Nigerian lawyers and the NBA should shut down all courts in Nigeria until the CJN is returned to his seat.

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“This was achieved even under military dictatorship in Pakistan,when former Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf illegally removed from office,the then Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry on 11th March,2007.

“All the lawyers went on strike,from 15th March, 2007, shut down the courts and protested on the streets for months,until a panel of 7 members of the Supreme Court sat and held that the removal was illegal and reinstated the Chief Justice.Nigerian lawyers should act now.

“The NASS should also shut down in protest and allow Buhari and his cabal have their jolly ride over cowed, hapless, vanquished and conquered Nigerians. There is no more democracy in Nigeria.It is as dead as dodo.

“The coming presidential election is but a mere charade to confer legitimacy on a pre-rigged,on-the-spot rigged and post-rigged election.

“The pretentious chicken has finally come home to roost.This recent act is a big standalous shame on the Buhari government,assuming it still knows anything called shame.

“It has tainted it with the paint brush of odium, obliquy and international derision.The international community should weigh in immediately to prevent Nigeria from burning”.

Another SAN, Mr. Mohammed Abeny, said: “He (Buhari) lacks the constitutional powers to suspend the CJN. He should go and read the constitution on how the CJN can be removed or suspended. He has to go through the NJC and the NJC will make a recommendation to that effect to him. If the CJN have been found to have committed any infraction, such infraction must be of a serious one against the constitutional powers vested in him.

“Then there must be a matter against him before the NJC which they are investigating. He cannot do anything against the CJN without the approval or recommendation of the NJC. What he has done is illegal, it is unconstitutional, it is unheard of and it has never happened.

Similarly, another SAN that pleaded not to be mentioned, said: “This is something that is unheard of. We are not privileged to know at what point the CCT gave the directive to the president for the suspension.

“Was the directive given before the Court of Appeal ordered stay of proceedings. Even at that, I think there was an application to the CCT to the effect that it should place him on suspension, I am not aware that the application was taken.

“So for the president to have said that he acted on the directive of the CCT is a bit strange and a matter of concern, against the backdrop of the fact that the CCT has not taken that application before it.

“And again, the court of appeal has given orders staying the proceeding before the CCT, so I should have thought that there should not be a basis for the CCT to have directed that he should be placed on suspension. This development calls for concern”.

Likewise, a rights activist and constitutional lawyer, Mr. Jideobi Johnmary, said: “What happened has cast a pall of darkness over Nigeria’s Constitutional democracy which must be deprecated by all who mean well for Nigeria’s future democracy.

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“The impunity with which President Buhari and his minions have carried on in desecrating our Constitution is rather outrageous and despicably confounding. Such show of elevated impunity and condescending arrogance will precipitate a state of anomy and has all the potentials of bringing an organised society to a ruinous end.

“It is on record that the Code of Conduct Tribunal never made any order warranting or approving of the President’s action of suspending the Honourable the Chief Justice of Nigeria which in all ramifications lack in constitutional foundation.

“I am not aware of such application having been argued or granted by the Code of Conduct Tribunal”.

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