Governors of the South-South geopolitical zone on Sunday urged the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, to ignore the summons issued to him by the Code of Conduct Tribunal to come and defend the false assets declaration charges levelled against him.
This is as eminent lawyers and other prominent Nigerians including the Senate President, Bukola Saraki and the Speaker, House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, Chief Afe Babalola (SAN) and Femi Falana (SAN), condemned the Federal Government for instituting the charges against the CJN. They warned against rubbishing the judiciary.
Among other things, they said the haste with which the Federal Government acted on the petition against Onnoghen was suspicious.
But as the governors were holding their meeting in Abuja, militants from the Niger Delta issued a statement where they threatened to shut down all oil wells in the region if the Federal Government failed to withdraw the charges against the CJN.
The governors after the emergency meeting held at the Bayelsa State Governor’s Lodge, Abuja, said the CJN should shun the summons.
Present at the meeting included the Governor of Bayelsa State, Seriake Dickson; Nyesom Wike, (Rivers State); Ben Ayade, (Cross River); and Udom Emmanuel, (Akwa Ibom). Delta and Edo states’ governors were absent at the meeting.
Dickson, who read the communique, said while they were not opposed to a genuine fight against corruption, such an action must always be anchored on the rule of law.
He said, “We call on the CJN to ignore this so-called court summons from the CCT and the provocative call for his resignation in some quarters.
“While we are not opposed to a genuine fight against corruption, such an action must always be anchored on the rule of law.”
He stated that the action would not only undermine confidence in the judiciary, it would also erode confidence in the electoral process in view of the pivotal role that the judiciary plays in the process of electoral adjudication.
The governors, Dickson said, considered the step to arraign the CJN as directly aimed at humiliating the nation’s highest judicial officer and a prominent son of the geopolitical zone.
Onnoghen’s trial, he noted, “is totally unacceptable to us as it is reflective of the endless story of the marginalisation and intimidation of the South-South.”
He cited the removal of a former acting Director General of the Department of State Services, Mathew Seiyefa, and his replacement with a northerner to back his claim.
Dickson said the action against the CJN further reinforced the perception that the Buhari administration had no regard for the rule of law and the sentiments of Nigerians in general and those of the people of the Niger Delta in particular.
He alleged that the Buhari administration had a penchant for flagrant disobedience of and disregard for legitimate and valid court orders.
The governor said they expected Buhari to know that democracy could not survive without respect for the constitution, strict adherence to the rule of law, and separation of powers.
Dickson said, “The meeting deliberated on the recent happenings at the Supreme Court involving the Chief Justice of the Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen and resolved that the action against him constituted a setback to the gains of the nation’s democratic experience of 20 years.
“We note that under Section 158(1) of the 1999 Constitution, the National Judicial Council has ample powers to deal exhaustively with matters pertaining to allegations of misconduct and discipline of judicial officers.
“Specifically, the NJC has the powers and clear procedures for investigating allegations, and recommending appropriate sanctions or disciplinary measures against judicial officials as a matter of first instance before any further step.
“The judicial pronouncements in the cases of FGN Vs Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court (January 9, 2018) and Justice Ngajinwa Vs FGN 2017 at the CCT have given validation to the express provisions of the constitution on this issue.”
He added, “We note that the attempt to drag the CJN to the CCT is also a grave and dangerous escalation of the assault on institutions of state including the National Assembly and the Judiciary.
“We strongly believe that the regrettable development at the Supreme Court at this critical time, when preparations for the general elections are wobbling (with serious concern about INEC and security agencies) is capable of causing avoidable anxiety, tension and possible breakdown of law and order in the country.
“We affirm President Buhari should know that the continuous assault on critical institutions of state is a defining feature of a dictatorship, and that the President is obliged to live up to his word that he is a born-again democrat, as he assured Nigerians in 2015.”
N’Delta militants threaten to shut down oil wells over CJN’s trial
But the Coalition of Niger Delta Agitators on Sunday warned that it would begin to attack oil wells in the oil-rich region if President Buhari failed to reverse the harassment of Onnoghen.
The various militant groups said they were shocked to learn about the planned arraignment of the CJN over allegations of false asset declaration.
A statement issued via electronic mail by the coalition alleged that Onnoghen was being persecuted because he was from the Niger Delta, adding that the petition was plotted by the Presidency to forcefully remove Onnoghen as the CJN and replace him with a northerner.
The statement was signed by John Duku of the Niger Delta Watchdogs and Convener, Coalition of Niger Delta Agitators; Ekpo Ekpo of the Niger Delta Volunteers; Simply Benjamin (Bakassi Strike Force); Osarolor Nedam (Niger Delta Warriors); Henry Okon Etete (Niger Delta Peoples Fighters); and Asukwo Henshaw (Bakassi Freedom Fighters).
It stated, “In the first instance, President Muhammadu Buhari was not disposed to Justice Onnoghen’s appointment to this position, which was why he refused to confirm the appointment after so many months of serving in an acting capacity. It was during the period of his sickness while in Britain that the (then) acting President – Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, confirmed the appointment.
“We wish to also recall that in August last year, Mr Matthew Seiyefa of Bayelsa State, who was the most senior and most qualified officer at the time was appointed to the position of acting Director-General of the Department of State Services by Prof. Osinbajo, only to be replaced with a retired and junior officer to Seiyefa, Mr Yusuf Bichi, by President Buhari as soon as he resumed duties.
“We hereby vehemently resist any attempt to remove the CJN from office. We therefore want to state categorically that if the Presidency failed to reverse its harassment against the CJN, we will have no other option but to mobilise all the Niger Delta fighters and commence serious actions that would shake the country and the whole world.
“We shall shut down all the oil wells in the Niger Delta. We call on all the northerners and Yoruba who own oil wells in the Niger Delta to prepare to vacate immediately.
“We also want to warn our Niger Delta brothers, who are working for Buhari to watch their back and know that we are watching them and their family members. We warn them to stop campaigning for Buhari in the Niger Delta,” the militants added.
FG’s haste shows corruption war is compromised – Saraki
Saraki in a statement in Ilorin on Sunday advised the Federal Government to follow due process in the trial of Onnoghen to avoid chaos in the nation’s judiciary.
Saraki said he believed that if the government truly had genuine reasons to put Onnoghen on trial, due process must not be compromised.
The Senate President insisted that “the Federal Government should ensure that every normal step in the process (of the trial) as provided by the law, is transparent and followed to the letter.”
Saraki said, “The haste with which this trial is being pursued leaves a lot to be desired. From last Wednesday when the so-called petition against the CJN was initiated to the period the trial is scheduled to commence has been barely three working days.
“Meanwhile, there are pending cases where some individuals (allegedly) involved (in corruption) have been indicted some months ago but no prosecution is being considered.”
Saraki maintained that the anti-corruption fight had become a case of a separate rule for the people close to the executive arm and another set of rules for the rest of Nigerians.
He said, “The fight (against corruption) has been compromised and politicised. All the subjective actions politicise the anti-graft fight. They weaken national institutions. They send wrong signals.
“The CJN is not above the law but his trial puts the entire judicial system on trial. It sends a signal to the entire world about our judiciary. It has implications for the confidence of local and foreign investors about the system of adjudication over disputes in our country.
“Thus, the matter should be handled with care, demonstrating intense transparency and strict adherence to due process.
“This trial, coming just about a month to the commencement of the presidential election, the aftermath of which the CJN and the judiciary, which he is leading are set to play crucial adjudicatory role, has already raised suspicion about the real motive.
“There are already suggestions that this plan is set to disorganise the judicial arm after constant attempts by agents of state to undermine the federal legislature.
“Therefore, the entire country and the international community will be watching closely, every step in this trial because it is definitely unusual, unprecedented and will set a record in the engagement among the three arms of government recognised in our presidential system.”
Nigeria not a banana republic, Dogara warns FG
Also, in a statement on Sunday, Dogara called for caution in the charges filed against the CJN because Nigeria is not a banana republic.
Dogara stated that while the House awaited further briefing from relevant agencies, “nevertheless, it is important that due process is followed because Nigeria is a country governed by laws and not dictates of men.”
The Speaker, who noted that the House was not less zealous in the fight against corruption, however, said “to commence a matter of that grave magnitude with a media trial is pregnant with innuendos least needed by the polity at this sensitive time.”
The statement partly read, “It is important that people in authority should exercise power with decorum and not plunge the nation to needless crises as Nigeria is not a banana republic.
“This is a matter that affects another arm of government and its head which should be treated with caution so as not to send the wrong signal that there is a political undertone or other ulterior motives to the issue.”
Trial illegal, it’ll end in prosecutorial misadventure –Falana
However, Falana asked the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Abubakar Malami, to withdraw the charges of non-declaration of assets instituted against Onnoghen.
Falana, in an interview with The PUNCH, said the charges were filed in violation of the subsisting judgment of the Court of Appeal which had shielded serving judicial officers from being investigated or prosecuted until they were disciplined by the National Judicial Council.
He said if the case was not withdrawn, it would likely end up as “a prosecutorial misadventure.”
Falana recalled that the CCT where the CJN was charged, had applied the Court of Appeal’s judgment when it on May 15, 2018, dismissed similar charges instituted against a Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Sylvester Ngwuta.
He said, “The charge against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, ought not to have been instituted at the Code of Conduct of Tribunal in view of the case of Nganjiwa v FRN (2017) LPELR 43391 wherein the Court of Appeal held that a judicial officer who has not been investigated by the National Judicial Council and sanctioned for misconduct cannot be arraigned in any criminal court in Nigeria.
“The CCT had earlier applied the same judgment in the case against Justice Ngwuta, so it cannot now overrule itself.
“As all authorities are bound by the Court of Appeal verdict the case should be withdrawn by the AGF without any delay because it is likely to be a prosecutorial misadventure.”
Don’t denigrate judiciary, Afe Babalola warns FG
Similarly, Babalola described the proposed trial of Onnoghen at the CCT as a denigration of the country’s judiciary and constitution.
Babalola, in a statement on Sunday, said the law had made the processes for the trial of judicial officers and as well their removal clear, hence the need to desist from contempt and denigration of the judiciary.
He said, “I am of the view that the constitution requires that any infraction by the said judges be firstly investigated and resolved by the National Judicial Council to the exclusion of any other body or authority.”
Babalola, who stated that the decision of the Court of Appeal in Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391(CA) “still subsists and has not been set aside,” said, “I therefore see no justification for the decision to arraign the CJN before the CCT.
“Again the point must be made clear that the constitution clearly provides for the procedure with which the CJN can be removed from office. Section 292(1)(a)(i) and 292(1)(b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as Amended) addressed it.”