Editorial: Buhari’s Mea Culpa over CJN Onnoghen’s Suspension

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The bizarre manner in which Justice Walter Onnoghen, Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) was “suspended” and removed from office by President Muhammadu Buhari is yet another vindication that Nigeria is a country with deeply dysfunctional institutions where impunity and absurdity reign supreme. Against the backdrop of the 2019 presidential elections, the removal of Onnoghen should not be taken on its face value, as it appears to be part of a well-orchestrated ambush and witch-hunt of persons perceived to be standing in the way of Buhari’s re-election. This blight on the toga of Nigeria’s floundering democracy is indeed lamentable, signposting as it does; the institutionalization of dictatorship and the abusive use of state power for partisan political advantage that has become the official currency of governance. It is a mockery to Nigeria and all her pretenses to being a democracy. It is an assault on the rule of law that is unacceptable and a huge disservice to Nigeria. A trend in which the President sees himself above the law portends to dictatorship.

The claim by President Buhari that he acted ex cathedra, upon the recommendation of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), where Onnoghen faces charges of alleged non-declaration of assets and operating domiciliary accounts, is not only outrageous, it is outlandish and laughable. For the avoidance of doubt, Onnoghen’s suspension violates the law, most notably; Section 36 of the 1999 constitution, which confers on accused persons the rights of fair hearing and presumption of innocence until proven guilty. It should also be noted that by the provisions of Paragraph 20 (b), Part 1 of the 3rd Schedule, the National Judicial Council (NJC), established by Section 153 (i) & (ii) of the Constitution is clear and unambiguous that the NJC shall “exercise disciplinary control over” all judicial officers, including the CJN and neither the CCT nor the President has any discretion in the matter. Buhari must be reminded in clear terms that power is transient and that he not only holds power in trust for the people, he must exercise it within the limits of the law. No nation can progress in the absence of rule of law; where all are equal before the law.

Speaking on the suspension of the CJN, Buhari insisted that Onnoghen’s suspension was not borne out of politics or personal issues. “A short while ago, I was served with 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 fora relating to his alleged breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers. “In line with this administration’s avowed respect for the Rule of Law, I have wholeheartedly obeyed the Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal dated 23rd January 2019. Accordingly, I hereby suspend the Honourable Mr. Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen, GCON as the Chief Justice of Nigeria pending final determination of the case against him at the Code of Conduct Tribunal.”

This mea culpa is self-serving and mischievous for a man with a high penchant for disregarding court orders, notably in the cases involving the former Nigeria’s security adviser, Sambo Dasuki. Buhari is obviously lying and this is pathetic. It is shameful for the President to hide behind the subterfuge of a petition by an obscure civil society organization -Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative (ARDI) to justify illegality. The rigmarole over the meaning of “suspension” and “dismissal” does not change the ultimate goal – removal of Onnoghen as CJN; which is what the president wanted anyway. Does the President really think Nigerians are fools? Who is Buhari fooling? The President should come up with more credible excuses and stop insulting the intelligence of Nigerians!

We make bold to say without equivocation that the President is wrong. Buhari acted ultra vires by not availing himself of the Constitution and extant provisions that the CJN can only be removed from office upon recommendation from the NJC with approval by the Senate. Even assuming as Buhari argues that “the Chief Justice of Nigeria’s own written admission to the charges that he indeed failed to follow the spirit and letter of the law in declaring his assets, citing “mistake” and “forgetfulness” which are totally unknown to our laws as defences in the circumstances of his case,” Buhari still violated Public Service Commission Rules 04302-04306 and 04402 relating to suspension from office pending investigation of allegations of misconduct because only the Federal Civil Service Commission can invoke those disciplinary powers.

According to Buhari, the suspension was because Onnoghen refused to step aside while his trial lasted. This explanation stands logic and reason on its head. Although the CJN does not enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution, the president’s action is dangerously political and tendentious, raising a number of posers: how come that over a year into his tenure, and less than three weeks to the 2019 Presidential election when the CJN is expected to play a major role, setting up a presidential election tribunal, it suddenly emerges that Onnoghen had failed to declare his assets eight years ago? How come the government did not find this out in almost one and half years that Onnoghen has been CJN? How can anyone explain the supersonic rush wherein a petition written on Jan 7 is received by the CCB on Jan 9 and two days later, charges are filed and an arraignment scheduled for Monday, Jan. 14? Suddenly, the President gets a recommendation from the CCT asking him to suspend the CJN, and immediately acts to remove Onnoghen outside the constitutionally prescribed process.

Due process demands that every accused person be given the right to defend himself; why didn’t the give the CJN that right? It stretches disbelief for the President to act as a prosecutor and an inquisitor, accusing the CJN of corruption and casting banal and vituperative aspersions on his person. Hear Buhari in his own words: “It is no secret that this government is dissatisfied with the alarming rate in which the Supreme Court of Nigeria under the oversight of Justice Walter Onnoghen has serially set free, persons accused of the most dire acts of corruption, often on mere technicalities, and after quite a number of them have been convicted by the trial and appellate courts. Since there is nothing the Executive Arm can do after the apex court of the land has spoken on any matter, several of these individuals walk free among us today, enjoying what are clearly the proceeds of the corruption which for so long has defeated the efforts of this nation to develop and prosper.”

For an administration that has failed to wage the fight against; for a president who has used the anti-graft agencies to target his political opponents; and knowing how this government operates, it is hard not to conclude that the CCT recommendation to the president; itself an illegality, and the petition by the NGO that made the allegations were merely fabricated out of expediency, as an alibi to justify the suspension. What kind of leader will go to bed every night, knowing the Supreme Court; the bastion and last line of defence of Nigerian democracy was a cesspool of galling corruption and unbridled fraud? That it took a petition from an NGO for Buhari to act on such a national emergency is a betrayal of public trust which is inexcusable; even more so, as Buhari compounded his dereliction of duty by an illegality that reeks of the executive lawlessness that has become the official trademark of his administration.

True, the Nigerian judiciary is yet to rise above its many challenges and many judges have been publicly rebuked and sanctioned for abuse of office. The magnitude of corruption has made the judiciary a laughing stock, an object of ridicule and public opprobrium; as public trust in it has waned considerably. Their role as guarantor of democracy has become a huge avenue for self-aggrandizement because the powers which are supposed to be exercised judiciously have fallen prey to extraneous factors such as offer of gratification and feeling of obligation for favors received from clients. Cynics now rightly say that judges are as good as political appointees, indebted to their political godfathers and so the courts have become not the hope but the albatross of the common man.

But the suspension of Onnoghen was an act of executive brigandage and sabotage of the judiciary branch of government. An order of the CCT directing the President to suspend the CJN is unknown to the Constitution and cannot be superior to the Constitution. Such an order should have been directed to the NJC, not the President. Buhari has shown an almost surreal insouciance towards the rule of law. The reason Buhari wants Onnoghen out is a matter of common knowledge, but the illegal removal of the CJN in the twilight of a presidential election is executive lawlessness carried too far, which does little credit to the image of the President.

Presidential powers in all civilized democracies are meant to be used for the good of the nation and its people. They are not deployed to gratify the ego and whims of the President or his cronies. It is becoming too frequent for this President to target anyone who he suspects might be his opponent. Onnoghen’s suspension was nothing but a desperate and brazen show of megalomania and impunity to teach the ubiquitous, CJN a lesson, and signal to Nigerians that the man they elected as their president has put himself above the law. This is unacceptable. Buhari should purge himself of arbitrariness. The Nigerian presidency is not a military boot camp. Given his past antecedents, it seems obvious that General Buhari the soldier fired the Chief Justice of Nigeria. Buhari’s insistence that he has the right to suspend the CJN is vindictive and reduces his office to one that will go to any length to settle scores with perceived enemies. This certainly, is not part of the attributes of statesmen. The President should spare himself and the nation further embarrassment.