The manner of the recent planned trial of Nigeria’s Chief Justice (CJN) Walter Onnoghen by the Federal Government has once again demonstrated the country’s challenges with entrenching democratic norms, according to SBM Intelligence.
Coming a few weeks before the general elections, the move has expectedly drawn mixed reactions across the country, with intelligent report describing it as outright witch-hunt and intimidation by the executive arm of government against the judiciary at a level totally unseen in Nigeria’s democratic history.
“A few weeks to an election season which many are increasingly seeing as a referendum on Nigeria’s democratic practices, the country once again advertises its challenges with entrenching democratic norms,” SBM Intelligence said in a report, Monday.
Veronica Igube, data analyst at SBM Intelligence, told BusinessDay by phone that the way the current executive is interfering is totally unseen and against the rule of law because there is a process.
Igube explained that arraigning the CJN at this critical period, few weeks before the general elections, is painting a bad picture for the executive and the international community is watching.
“Even if he was at fault of not declaring, there is always a process. It’s all a whole media trial that they are doing, just like they did in 2016 with those judges they harassed which was also wrong,” Igube said.
“It’s sad that first they did a drama with the legislature which didn’t work out fine, and now the next is to hit on the Judiciary which might skew lots of votes to the opposition. The Judiciary is the last hope of the people. So when people perceive that the Judiciary is being oppressed by the executive, it might lead to chaos,” Igube told BusinessDay.
Onnoghen’s trial was stalled on Monday due to his absence in court. Onnoghen was expected to appear before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), Abuja, to answer to a six-count criminal charge bordering on alleged non-declaration of assets as well as operating a domiciliary account.
The tribunal adjourned the matter till January 22 for the arraignment of Onnoghen and the hearing of all applications relating to the matter.
However, a Federal High Court in Abuja on Monday stopped the Federal Government from arraigning Justice Onnoghen before the CCT.
The President Muhammadu Buhari administration has recorded many firsts as far as the prosecution of public figures is concerned. High-profile individuals that have been docked for corruption-related cases since the present administration assumed office in 2015 include Bukola Saraki, Senate president, Paul Usoro, president, Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), among others.
But the planned arraignment of Onnoghen has drawn wide reaction from many quarters. The timing of the action, coming a month to the 2019 general election, and the speed with which the case was handled, are a source of worry to analysts.
“There is an established line of laws, legal directives and judicial precedent, including a 2017 Court of Appeal case (Nganjiwa v The Federal Republic of Nigeria) which states that a judicial officer who has not been investigated by the National Judicial Council (NJC) and sanctioned for misconduct cannot be arraigned in any criminal court in Nigeria,” said SBM Intelligence in its report.
Recall that in December 2017, the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division, struck out the corruption charges filed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFFC) against a judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa. The appellate court ruled that no serving judge in Nigeria can be investigated or tried in any court or tribunal, except after he had been subjected to the investigatory and disciplinary processes of the National Judicial Council (NJC). Relying on Section 158 of the 1999 Constitution, it ruled that only the NJC had the powers to try judicial officers for any misconduct while in office.
But the present attempt to subvert this established process by the Federal Government, SBM Intelligence said, will undoubtedly increase the tension between the executive and judiciary under this administration. The Cross River State native’s predecessor in office, Mahmud Mohammed, was not only a northerner, but Onnoghen was also the first southern holder of the position since Lagos-born Justice Ayo Gabriel lrikefe in 1987 – a stretch that covers eight consecutive northern chief justices. Adding fuel to this notion, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed, a Bauchi native, is next in line to Onnoghen and will be the direct beneficiary of the latter’s ouster, coupled with the fact that the petition was spearheaded by a former aide to the President.
SBM Intelligence’s findings follow a consensus of legal opinions, including six legal practitioners it consulted in preparing the report.
“This administration started on a bang when Department of State Security operatives invaded the homes of some of the country’s most senior judges in 2016. That action, roundly condemned at the time, has not yielded any successful prosecution,” it said.
SBM Intelligence noted that Onnoghen was hardly President Buhari’s favoured choice for the role because going back to November 2016, the president delayed the current CJN’s appointment for three months under circumstances that led to speculation that he favoured a northern appointee.
“That suspicion has hardly been dispensed with since,” it said.
The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) stipulates the conditions upon which a Chief Justice of Nigeria can be removed from office.
Specifically, Section 292 (1) (a) (i) of the Constitution states that a judicial officer can be removed on three grounds: inability to discharge the functions of office or appointment, which could arise from infirmity of the mind or of body; misconduct or contravention of the Code of Conduct.
“A judicial officer shall not be removed from office or appointment before his age of retirement except in the following circumstances: (a) in case of: (i) The Chief Justice of Nigeria….by the President acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate… praying that he be so removed for his inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment (whether arising from infirmity of mind or of body) or for misconduct or contravention of the code of conduct,” the section reads.
The import of the constitutional provision is that 73 senators are needed to remove the head of the Judiciary. However, political commentators say this would be a tall order considering the fact that both the Presidency and the Upper Legislative Chamber have been at loggerheads since 2015 after Saraki emerged Senate president against the wish of his former party, the All Progressives Congress (APC).
The face-off reached a crescendo late last year during the president’s presentation of the N8.83 trillion 2019 budget to a joint session of the National Assembly when he was booed by lawmakers on live television.
Also, Section 292 (1) (b) provides that the CJN can be removed by the President, acting on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC).
Although he is expected to recuse himself if any petition is filed against him as chairman of the Commission, the fears of those in the Presidency pushing for his removal is that they may not get fair hearing from NJC, as Onnoghen still wields a lot of influence.
The raiding of homes of some senior Nigerian judges by operatives of the DSS in 2016 is still fresh in the minds of NJC members, as the anti-Onnoghen politicians are scared that the body would take its own pound of flesh if it is petitioned.
OWEDE AGBAJILEKE, Abuja, & DIPO OLADEHINDE