The senate yesterday filed a case at the Supreme Court challenging the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Mr. Walter Onnoghen by President Muhammadu Buhari.
It would be recalled that Onnoghen who is facing a six-count charge at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) for alleged non-declaration of assets was suspended last Friday by Buhari.
Immediately, he swore in Justice Tanko Mohammed as acting CJN pending the determination of the case against Onnoghen at the CCT.
The president claimed to have been guided by “an Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal issued on Wednesday 23rd January 2019, directing the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen from office pending final determination of the cases against him at the Code of Conduct Tribunal and several other for a relating to his alleged breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers,”
However, the senate in the suit marked SC.76/2019, asked the court to declare the suspension of Onnoghen without support of two-thirds majority of the senate as a violation of section 292(1)(a)(i) of the constitution.
The suit also asked the apex court to issue an order restraining the two defendants in the suit – President Buhari and the attorney-general of the federation, Mr. Abubakar Malami – from continuing or repeating the violation of the constitution and disregarding the power of the Senate in respect to the suspension of the CJN.
The senate prayed the court to declare that the suspension, by the President, of Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen from his office as Chief Justice of Nigeria on or about January 25, 2019, without an address calling for the removal, supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate is in violation of section 292(1) (a) (i) of the constitution and therefore null and void.
It also asked for an order “rescinding or setting aside the suspension of Honourable Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen from his office as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and restoring him to the said office.”
In addition, it prayed for “an order restraining the defendants from continuing or repeating the violation of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and disregarding the powers of the Senate at the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
Arguing the matter yesterday, counsel for the senate, Mr. Paul Erokoro faulted the president’s decision to suspend Onnoghen base on an ex parte order made by two of the three members of the CCT where Onnoghen had been charged with non-declaration of assets.
The CCT order had directed the CJN to step aside from office pending the conclusion of his trial and ordered the President to swear in the next most senior Justice of the Supreme Court the acting CJN.
But Erokoro argued that the President could not on the directive of the CCT suspend the CJN without two-thirds majority of the senate or appoint Mohammed as the acting CJN without senate’s confirmation.
It was gathered that the senate’s legal option was taken last Sunday, January 28 at the meeting of senate principal officers held at Saraki’s residence in Maitama, Abuja.
The principal officers believed to have been at the meeting and who supported the idea along with Saraki were the deputy senate president, Senator Ike Ekweremadu; the senate leader, Senator Ahmed Lawan (Yobe North); deputy senate leader, Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah (Kebbi South); chip whip, Senator Sola Adeyeye (Osun central); and deputy whip, Senator Francis Alimekhena (Edo North).
Others were the senate minority leader, Senator Abiodun Olujimi (Ekiti South); deputy minority leader, Senator Emmanuel Bwacha (Taraba South); minority whip, Senator Philip Aduda (FCT) and deputy minority whip, Senator Emmanuel Paulker (Bayelsa Central).
Umar adjourns Onnoghen’s Trial sine die
Meanwhile, the chairman of CCT, Mr. Danladi Umar, yesterday adjourned Onnoghen’s arraignment indefinitely pending the decision of the Court of Appeal in an appeal brought before it by Onnoghen.
A two-man panel of the tribunal led by Umar, said the adjournment was in compliance with the Court of Appeal order made on January 24, which put the trial on hold till Wednesday January 30.
“In view of the order of the Court of Appeal and out of respect for the Court of Appeal, this matter is hereby adjourned sine die pending the decision of the Court of Appeal in the matter”, the tribunal held in a short ruling yesterday.
The CCT had on January 22 adjourned to yesterday for hearing on the motion filed by Onnoghen, challenging the tribunal’s powers to hear the charge against him.
At the resumed hearing yesterday, Umar and another member, Mrs. Juli Anabor sat, while the third member of the panel, Mr. Williams Atadze, was however absent.
Atadze had given a dissenting ruling on January 22 holding that the tribunal ought to defer to the orders of the Federal High Court, FCT High Court and the National Industrial Court on the grounds that a valid order of court must be obeyed until it was set aside.
When the matter was called, counsel to the federal government, Mr. Musa Ibrahim, drew the tribunal’s attention to the Appeal Court’s order and applied for adjournment pending the ruling of the Court of Appeal slated for January 30.
The defence counsel, led by Chief Kanu Agabi, however, did not oppose the request for adjournment but complained bitterly of the challenges being faced by defence in obtaining the records of the tribunal.
Another defence lawyer, Chris Uche, SAN, who was mandated by Agabi to speak with journalists outside the court, disclosed that the defence was already probing the circumstances in which the tribunal issued the ex parte order directing the president to suspend the CJN, pending the determination of the charge against him at the CCT.
He said the defence was surprised on how the order was made, served and implemented even when the matter was already adjourned till January 28 for hearing of all pending motions.
APC senate caucus dissociates self from senate’s Supreme Court suit
The All Progressives Congress (APC) caucus in the senate distanced itself from the suit filed by the senate at Supreme Court challenging Onnoghen’s suspension.
This was contained in a press statement signed by the senate leader, Senator Ahmed Lawan.
“It has come to the notice of the Senate APC caucus that the Senate has approached the Supreme Court for the interpretation of the suspension of Justice Walter Onnoghen by the President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.
“For the records, the senate never met to take such resolution and at no time mandated anyone to approach the Supreme Court on this matter on its behalf. Consequently, the senate APC caucus dissociates itself from the said request for the legal interpretation of the suspension,” he said.
We recognise Onnoghen as CJN -NBA
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) said on Monday that it would only recognise Onnoghen as the CJN and directed its members nationwide to boycott the courts on Tuesday and Wednesday (today and tomorrow) in protest against Onnoghen’s suspension.
Rising from its emergency meeting of the national executive committee comprising its branch chairmen and past presidents and the executive committee of the association yesterday, the NBA said due process was not followed by Buhari in suspending Onnoghen and swearing in Muhammed in acting capacity.
Among other decisions reached at the meeting, the NBA set up a committee led by former presidents of the association, Chief Wole Olanipekun and Abubakar Mahmud, to liaise with lawyers serving in the Buhari administration with a view to finding a solution to the problem.
Suspension bares no semblance of dictatorship –FG
Reacting to the condemnation of the suspension of Onnoghen, the minister of information and culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed said the CJN’s suspension is not a signal to the beginning of dictatorship in the country.
Speaking at a press conference in Abuja, Mohammed said:
“Contrary to what the opposition and their ilk have been saying, this is not about the forthcoming elections neither does the suspension of the CJN signal the beginning of dictatorship.
“President Buhari is an avowed democrat, and this he has proven time and time again. This administration stands firm on the rule of law.
“This whole issue is about the country’s highest judicial officer, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, being accused of a breach of the Code of Conduct for public officers, and the legal and moral conundrum surrounding that. It is about the suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars to the suspended CJN’s personal attacks, all undeclared or improperly declared as required by law.
“It is about the Hon. Justice Onnoghen himself admitting to the charges that he indeed failed to follow the spirit and letter of the law in declaring his assets, calling it a ‘mistake’. And it is about him refusing to take responsibility, instead opting to put the entire judiciary on trial.”
He said Onnoghen was given fair hearing but he abused his position and the judicial process by filing “frivolous applications and even dodging service of process”.
“In fact, a section of the media has taken sides. Several newspapers have written editorials on this issue.
“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.
“Contrary to the cacophony of voices that have been muddying the waters, the CCT was acting within its powers in ordering the suspension of Justice Onnoghen as Chief Justice of Nigeria, and President Muhammadu Buhari was right in carrying out the order.”