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Showing posts with label Commentary. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

April 09, 2019

The rise and fall of Justice Walter Onnoghen

The immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen was to clock the mandatory retirement age of 70 on December 22, 2020. He was to direct the affairs of the nation’s judiciary till the last month of next year. But last Friday, information filtered to the newsroom that the cerebral CJN had voluntarily resigned his office. Why did he throw in the towel? In this brief report, Ise-Oluwa Ige of Blueprint Newspaper chronicles the events that led to the epochal decision.

Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen did not get to the top of the judiciary ladder easily. It was by dint of hard work and destiny. Born on December 22, 1950 at Okurike Town, Biase L.G.A. of Cross Rivers State, he attended the Presbyterian Primary School, Okurike Town between 1959 and 1965. He later proceeded to Accra, Ghana to attend Odorgorno Secondary School, Adabraka, Accra, Ghana between 1967 and 1972 for his West African Examination Council (WAEC) Exams. He was at Accra Academy, Accra Ghana between 1972 and 1974 for his WAEC (A-Levels) before proceeding to the University of Ghana, Legon, Ghana between 1974 and 1977 to obtain his Bachelor of Law Degree (LL.B (Hons)) and graduated with 2nd Class Upper Division. He attended the Nigerian Law School, Victoria Island, Lagos between 1977 and 1978 for his B.L certificate.

His professional career began at the Lagos State Ministry of Justice where he was a pupil counsel between 1978 and 1979. He left the ministry into private practice. Specifically, in 1979, he was a partner in the law firm of Effiom Ekong & Company, Calabar . He was there till 1988 when he established his own chamber in Calabar–Walter Onnoghen & Associates. He operated the chamber for about two years when he was appointed into the Cross River high court bench in 1989. He was there till 1988. During the period, he also served in various capacities.
For instance, he was appointed and he did serve as the Chairman, Cross Rivers State Armed Robbery and Fire Arms Tribunal between 1990 and 1993; Chairman, Judicial Enquiry into the Crisis between Student of the University of Calabar and Obufa Esuk Orok Community in Calabar in 1996 and Chairman, Failed Bank Tribunal, Ibadan Zone in 1998.
In 1998, Justice Onnoghen was elevated to the Court of Appeal where he served till 2005 before his elevation to the Supreme Court of Nigeria. He was appointed into the Supreme Court bench by the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo. He is also a Fellow of the Chattered Institute of Arbitrators. Hon. Justice W.S. Nkanu Onnoghen had attended several conferences and seminars around the world. He is a member of the Body of Bencher and Life Bencher.
By tradition, he was to take over from the outgone Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed being the next most senior justice of the Supreme Court after Mohammed J. but that was not to happen easily. Although the National Judicial Council (NJC) headed by Justice Mahmud Mohammed recommended his name to the government of President Muhammad Buhari, the approval delayed so much in coming to the extent that his appointment became a subject of debate in various circles.

It would be recalled that shortly before Justice Mohammed retired from the apex bench as the CJN, the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, had, in a blitzkrieg manner, arrested some serving judicial officers including two justices of the Supreme Court over corruption related offences. Huge monies were recovered in the residences of some of the judges. There were rumours at that time that Justice Onnoghen’s name was on the list of judges to be arrested but that the government of the day exercised caution for the fear that Nigerians could read political meanings into the operation. Although his emergence as the successor of Justice Mohammed was turbulent, Justice Onnoghen became the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) by workings of fate.
And he started work as soon as his appointment was confirmed. He was to stir the ship of the third arm of government till December 22, 2020 when he would have clocked the mandatory retirement age of 70 years.
But in January 2019, few months to the general election, trouble started for the number one judicial officer in the country.
It was a weekend. It started as a rumour. There was a piece of unconfirmed news in the social media that the Federal Government had concluded arrangements to arraign Justice Walter Onnoghen before the Code of Conduct Tribunal over assets declaration related offences. Bloggers who had professional training in journalism were afraid to join the trail. How could number one judicial officer who occupies such exalted seat be turned to an accused person (a defendant)? But following calls for confirmation, the information, in hours, spread like a bush fire in the harmattan!
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But before the news hit the Internet, a group operating as Research and Data Based Initiative headed by one Denis Aghanya had on January 7, 2019, started the fireworks: It had fired a petition to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) alleging that the Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen failed to fully disclose his assets before he assumed office as required by law and that while holding office, he also maintained foreign accounts contrary to law.
In less than a week after the petition was submitted, the Bureau had concluded its investigations, prepared a charge against Justice Onnoghen and got the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) to fix a date for the trial of the CJN.
The speed with which the investigation was done at a time when the country was preparing for general election made many Nigerians to read meanings into the intention of the Federal Government. In fact, the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), said the plans by Buhari government to prosecute Justice Onnoghen was political to perpetuate itself. The political party, at a point, took it upon itself to fight the battle for Onnoghen and pleaded with the international community to intervene.
As events got hotter and polity unsettled, so many lawyers including the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) blamed Buhari government and saw the unfolding events as desecration of the judiciary while few others however blamed Onnoghen and those supporting him.
Amongst the crowd of public commentators stood out a Lagos lawyer, Mr Jiti Ogunye who did not take sides. In an interview with this reporter, he lashed out at both the Federal Government and those in the camp of Justice Onnoghen over the plans to prosecute the serving CJN.

Apportioning blames to both parties, Ogunye said “the charge against the CJN was filed by the Federal Government (the prosecution) on a weekend which ordinarily is not a working day. The Code of Conduct Bureau or Tribunal was so busy at the weekend that it started releasing the processes filed to the media with information on what it was going to do the following Monday, thereby generating adverse publicity for the judiciary.
“Between Saturday and Sunday, the media were awash with what the CCT had pushed out. So, by Monday, all the lawyers, 47 of them, all Senior Advocates besieged that court which I also called a mockery of legal representation.
“This is because the impression was created that lawyers were in solidarity; that they didn’t want one of their own to go in for it; that lawyers are the problems of Nigeria. All of these are in the social media. The comedy of error continues.
“By that Monday (January 14), we saw how with frenetic speed, two actions had been instituted by those in support of the defendant (the CJN) both at the National Industrial Court and the Federal High Court seeking to restrain the CCT from entertaining the charge against CJN.
“So, an action was filed on a Monday, it was processed on the Monday, it was assigned on that Monday to a judge and was also heard that Monday and an order was also given on the same Monday. And at the NIC, there was also a reported case where a party, not the CJN, now went there.
“The NIC is an industrial court. For you to have locus standi there, you must either be a union, an employer or an employee. The case that was there, who filed it? A group. It was not the CJN himself. Can you see the comedy of error I am talking about here? So, it is the judiciary that is being subjected to ridicule here. That is why we are calling on both sides not to result to desperate actions,” Ogunye observed.
It emerged that what President Muhammadu Buhari-led government wanted was to remove the Chief Justice Onnoghen from office for two reasons: that he had breached the constitution which he swore to uphold and that he had got himself involved in the murky water of politics and was no longer a fit and proper person to sit in judgment over cases.

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The fight to remove Onnoghen by the executive on the one hand and the struggle to discredit the Buhari government by Onnoghen’s camp on the other hand were going forth and back. But when it became clear that those in support of Onnoghen were bent on frustrating its plan, the President of Nigeria , Muhammadu Buhari, suspended the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Nkannu Samuel Onnoghen from office on Friday, January 25, 2019, and immediately administered, at the Aso Villa, the judicial oath of office on the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, next in rank to him, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammed as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria without allowing the National Judicial Council (NJC) to play a role.
Following that act, the president delivered a 25-paragraph address, wherein he gave reasons for his action.

In the speech, the president explained he was swiftly executing a court order (exparte) that is, a one sided order procured without notice to, and the knowledge of the “suspended” CJN or his lawyers) of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), made and dated the 23rd day of January, 2019.
The order mandated him to suspend the CJN from office, pending the final determination of his trial at the CCT, and swear in the Justice of the Supreme Court next to him in rank, as an acting CJN.
The president further explained that sequel to the filing of corruption related charges against the CJN by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) before the CCT and the commencement of his “trial “ for gross violations of the provisions of the Code of Conduct for public officers, as stipulated in the Constitution of Nigeria, the CJN, instead of resigning his position took steps to frustrate his trial.
The CJN had been accused in the charges of receiving into and retaining in many banks’ accounts huge sums of money in foreign and local currencies, without disclosing them in his asset declaration forms and documents submitted to the CCB.

Jiti Ogunye, in an unsolicited legal advice to both parties, advised President Buhari to reverse the suspension of Justice Onnoghen while the CJN himself should resign his office as a way forward.
According to him, “the CJN is facing an indefensible and shameful allegation of corruption against him, an allegation which warrants that he resigns from office, without waiting for his suspension from office by the Executive Branch of Government.
“But if the truth must be told, the reasons for the action of the Executive are beyond the fight against corrupt practices in the Judiciary.
“The constitutional path to be charted to legally suspend or remove a CJN from office is luminously delineated by the Constitution.
“By virtue of Section 292(1)(a)(i) of the Constitution, the CJN cannot be removed from his office or appointment before his retirement age (or suspended from office while the real intention is to secure his removal ) except by the President, acting on an address supported by two thirds majority of the Senate.
“The NJC, by virtue of paragraph 21(b) of Part 1 of the Third Schedule to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 ( as amended ) recommends to the President the removal from office of certain category of judicial officers including the CJN , and exercises disciplinary control over them. Problematic? Of course, yes.
“This is because regulators are being impracticably saddled with the power to regulate themselves. But that is the path for the removal or suspension of the CJN from office as provided by the Constitution!
“Section 18, Part 1 of the Fifth Schedule to the Constitution defines the power of the CCT. In particular, Section 18 (2) stipulates the punishments which the CCT may impose upon conclusion of trial. They are: (a) vacation of office or seat in any legislative house as the case may be; (b) disqualification from membership of a legislative house and from the holding of any public office for a period not exceeding ten years; and (c) seizure and forfeiture to the State of any property acquired in abuse or corruption of office .
“Instructively, the CCT is not vested with any power under the Constitution or the Code of Conduct Tribunal Act to order the Executive Branch of Government to suspend a public officer who is undergoing trial before it, from office, pending the conclusion of trial, as the CCT has purportedly done.

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“Also instructive is the fact that being a quasi-criminal tribunal, the rules of procedure of the CCT is the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, a criminal procedure act, under which an ex parte or interlocutory order, analogous to an order of injunction obtainable in civil proceedings (under the civil procedure rules of our courts) may not be validly sought or granted.
“What the Executive Branch of Government has done in the circumstances, therefore, was to force the matter of the desired removal of the CJN from office.
“The Federal Government knew there were constitutional blockades against its desired removal of the CJN from office.
“It recognized that FRN V NGANJIWA, 2018, 4 NWLR ( Pt. 1609) , 301 at 341 and 349, is a caselaw obstacle. But it was determined not to be restrained or frustrated by the rule of law.
 “The suspension of the CJN should, therefore, not be cynically and mischievously tied to the quest to preserve the rule of law, as the Executive has done. What the Executive has done is an inconsiderate abuse of power.
“It erodes the independence of the judiciary. It creates a scary precedent allowing the Executive Branch of Government, acting by itself or through selected surrogates or proxies, to file a petition before the CCB and casually and interminably saunter into the CCT to obtain an ex parte order against a judge, suspending him from office, pending the determination of the charge that is filed against him or her by the CCB or the conclusion of his trial by the CCT.
“If this precedent were to become a permanent rule of law, the security of tenure that is granted to judicial officers under the Constitution will become “a tenure of insecurity” for judicial officers.
“The legal profession in Nigeria, Bar and Bench must, however, accept that in many ways, some of its members, including senior lawyers, have contributed immensely to the burgeoning of corrupt practices in the legal profession, and to the counterfeiting of the rule of law.
“While many were complaining about the haste with which the Onnoghen ouster project was being prosecuted by the Executive Branch of Government, a desperate Chief Justice Onnoghen, with the assistance of an equally desperate team of lawyers stormed two courts ( Federal High Court and the National Industrial Court ) on Monday the 14th of January , 2019 to procure orders restraining the CCT from proceeding with the arraignment or trial of the CJN.

“The cases were filed on that day, processed, assigned and heard. The case before the National Industrial Court was filed by an NGO, and not the CJN , who, in law, is the only one who has the locus standi to institute an action relating to his appointment, employment as a judicial officer or office in an industrial court.
“Being an industrial court, the primary litigants in that court are employees, employers, trade or labour unions, and employers associations. Not any busy body.
“And yet both the Bar and Bench continue to admonish against abuse of processes of our courts,” Jiti had said.

But both parties were not persuaded. The Federal Government refused to reverse the suspension of Justice Onnoghen while the suspended Chief Justice refused to resign.
Interestingly, the National Judicial Council (NJC) headed by the Chief Justice Onnoghen which has the statutory powers to hire and sanction serving judicial officers in the event they misconduct themselves could not sit to examine the government’s case against the CJN. Onnoghen had used his powers as the chair of NJC to frustrate the Council from meeting.
However, after the suspension of Justice Onnoghen from office, the NJC held an emergency meeting where the case involving the CJN was discussed. Both Justice Onnoghen and the acting CJN , Justice Tanko Muhammad were not allowed to participate in the meeting. Even the next most senior justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour who was invited to attend the meeting was politely turned back.

The Council subsequently followed the procedure by giving queries to both the CJN Onnoghen and the acting CJN, Justice Tanko who was accused to have yielded himself to the Presidency for swearing in. The Council also gave all parties the opportunities to present their cases and defend themselves.
While Onnoghen was facing the NJC panel, his trial before the Code of Conduct Tribunal which he had tried to frustrate also began.
He did not show up in court for at least four or five times until a bench warrant was issued against him and was to be arrested and produced in court by the police like a common criminal.

The tribunal is yet to give judgment in the six-count charge preferred against him.
The National Judicial Council (NJC), after hearing out both Justices Onnoghen and Tanko however, came up with its own verdict, last week, recommending compulsory retirement of Chief Justice Onnoghen to President Muhammad Buhari and appointment of Tanko as the next CJN.
As Onnoghen got wind of the NJC’s verdict, he reportedly sent his resignation letter to President Muhammad Buhari to avert his sack.
It is not yet clear if the resignation letter will be accepted.

But what is sure is that the resignation of Justice Onnoghen cannot be the end of the drama that had played out in the judiciary in the last three months now. Only time can tell.