By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
The Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, on Tuesday, urged the Federal Government to withdraw the non assets declaration charge it entered against the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT.
The legal body, in a statement that was signed by its National President, Mr. Paul Usoro, SAN, asked FG to terminate further hearing of the matter at the tribunal and allow the National Judicial Council, NJC, to determine Justice Onnoghen’s fate.
The plea came ahead of the scheduled resumption of proceedings on the six-count charge the FG preferred against Onnoghen.
The Mr. Danladi Umar-led three-member tribunal had on January 28, ordered the suspended CJN to ensure that he appeared before it on Wednesday to enter his plea to the charge.
The tribunal relied on provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, to insist that it would not hear any of the applications that are pending before it, until the defendant appeared in person for arraignment.
However, the NJC, at the end of its emergency meeting on Monday, said it would on the same Wednesday, reconvene to take a decision on corruption allegations against Justice Onnoghen.
Consequently, the NBA which is the umbrella body of lawyers in the country, implored FG to allow the NJC which is the organ with the constitutional powers to discipline erring judicial officers, to conclude its probe on petitions against the suspended CJN.
Besides, the NBA noted that the CCT boss had in his response to a query from the Federal Judicial Service Commission, FJSC, contended that he is only answerable to the Presidency.
It argued that the position of the CCT Chairman made it imperative for FG to respect the doctrine of separation of powers by withdrawing the charge and following the due process of the law.
“The Nigerian Bar Association again urges the Executive arm of the Federal Government of Nigeria to discontinue this Charge against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honorable Mr. Justice Walter S N Onnoghen, GCON, for the following reasons, amongst others:
“First, as widely reported, one of the two petitions against the CJN that is currently before the National Judicial Council is an exact replica of the petition that motivated the CCT Charge. The second petition was reportedly presented by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission a FGN agency.
“We commend the FGN for adhering to due process by submitting the EFCC petition to the NJC for consideration. In like manner and in adherence to the law and due process, we urge the FGN to discontinue the CCT Charge and allow the NJC consider the initial petition which, as widely reported, has already been responded to by the CJN.
“Second, the Chairman of the CCT, Hon. Danladi Umar, in his response to a petition that was written against him and which was forwarded to him by the
Federal Judicial Service Commission, states emphatically that he and his Tribunal are answerable and report only to the Presidency, by law and practice. He is absolutely correct.
“An insistence, in the circumstance, on the CJN, the head of an independent arm of the FGN, standing trial before a Tribunal that is under the Presidency and is answerable only to the Presidency mocks the concept of and completely erodes the independence of the judiciary and the constitutional separation that should exist between the three arms of the FGN.
“It is precisely for this reason that our Constitution created the NJC and we are pleased that the FGN has warmed up to the utilization of that due process, as illustrated by the submission of the EFCC petition to the Council.
“Third, and complementary to the two points afore-stated is the fact that the spectacle of having our CJN, while still holding that title, in the dock before the CCT or any other Court, truly diminishes all of us, not least the Executive arm of the FGN.
“The NJC process allows an initial determination to be made on the petitions against the CJN and if His Lordship is found liable or wanting howsoever, appropriate sanctions would be imposed by the NJC including recommendation for his dismissal or retirement.
“In that event, he would no longer hold the office or title of CJN and could be prosecuted for any criminal infraction before the CCT or any other Court. An insistence on the CCT prosecution paints a picture of persecution of the CJN by the Executive and such a spectacle in no way ennobles the FGN Executive arm and/or its officials. Such a scenario should be avoided by all means.
“Given these non-exhaustive considerations and facts, we press on the Executive arm of the FGN to please discontinue the Charge against the CJN when the matter comes up before the CCT tomorrow, Wednesday, 13 February 2019.
“We respectfully urge full compliance with due process by FGN in this matter by allowing the NJC process to take its course in respect of the two petitions against the CJN –a step that has already, commendably, been embraced by FGN in respect of the EFCC petition”, the statement read.