By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA- The Abuja Division of the Federal High Court has refused to grant an ex-parte order to stop President Muhammadu Buhari from swearing in Justice Tanko Muhammad as the substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN.
However, the court, in a ruling that was delivered by Justice Inyang Ekwo, fixed May 13 to enable President Buhari, the Attorney General of the Federation, the National Judicial Council, NJC, as well as the Federal Judicial Service Commission, FJSC, to adduce reason why Justice Muhammad, should not be declared unfit to finally take over the leadership of the judiciary.
It will be recalled that President Buhari had on January 25, appointed Justice Muhammad to replace the former CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen who was suspended from office over allegation that he breached the code of conduct for public officers by failing to properly declare his assets as prescribed by the law.
Justice Onnoghen was eventually convicted on April 18 by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, in Abuja, which found him guilty on all six-count charge the Federal Government preferred against him.
As part of his sentence, the CCT directed his removal as the CJN and head of both the NJC and the FJSC.
President Buhari had since extended Justice Tanko Muhammad’s initial three months tenure as the Acting CJN, based on NJC’s recommendation.
Nevertheless, a human rights lawyer, Chief Malcom Omirhobo, in a suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/420/2019, asked court to declare that Justice Muhammad who is currently the most senior jurist at the Supreme Court, is unfit to replace the sacked CJN, Justice Onnoghen.
Specifically, the plaintiff, prayed the court to declare that the Acting CJN, having made himself available as a tool that was used in the violation of the Constitution, especially with regards to the “illegal” removal of the former CJN, is therefore not a proper and fit person to be recommended for appointment to head the judiciary.
It is the contention of the plaintiff that the Acting CJN conducted himself in a manner that reduced the confidence of the public in the integrity and impartiality of the Judiciary.
Equally cited as Defendants in the suit were the Acting CJN himself, the Federal Government of Nigeria and the National Assembly.
Meanwhile, before hearing could commence in the matter, the Plaintiff brought an ex-parte motion to abort any plan to consolidate Justice Muhammad’s position as head of the judiciary.
The application was rejected by the court which ordered the Plaintiff to go and put all the Defendants on notice to enable them to appear and show cause why the relief should not be granted.
Stressing that the prayer could not be granted in the absence of the Defendants, the court gave them seven days upon being served with the processes, to appear and show cause why the application of the plaintiff should not to be granted.
The Plaintiff is among other things, urging the court to declare that the suspension and/or removal of a CJN from office, is a shared responsibility of the 1st Defendant (NJC), 5th defendant (Buhari) and 7th Defendant (National Assembly).
He argued that President Buhari lacked the constitutional powers to unilaterally suspend and/or removal a sitting CJN from office, as was done in the case of Onnoghen.
Besides, he prayed the court to declare that by combined interpretation sections 1(1 )(2), 231(4), 292(1)(a)(i)(b), 153(1)(i), 158(1) and paragraph 21 (a)(b) of Part 1 of the Third Schedule of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, “it is unlawful and undemocratic for the 4th and 5th Defendants (Federal Government and President Buhari), to declare the office of the CJN vacant on January 25, 2019 and consequently appoint and swear in the 3rd Defendant as the acting CJN”.
He, therefore, applied for a court order to restrain the National Assembly from confirming any appointment of Justice Muhammad as the substantive CJN.
Likewise, for, “An order, compelling the 2nd Defendant (FJSC), to select and the 1st Defendant (NJC), to recommend the most qualified Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria that is fit and proper, to the 5th Defendant, for appointment to office of the CJN, and for the confirmation of the 7th Defendant with a two-third majority vote”.
Aside praying the court to bar President Buhari from appointing Justice Muhammad as the substantive CJN, the Plaintiff, in a 65-paragraph affidavit he filed in support of the suit, stressed that unless restrained by the court, the Executive Arm of Government would continue to violate the extant provisions of the Constitution and sanctity of the judiciary.