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Passport seizure FG pursuing vendetta against Onnoghen – Lawyers

By Eno-Abasi Sunday and Yetunde Ayobami Ojo (Lagos) and Bridget Chiedu Onochie (Abuja)
15 December 2019   |   4:14 am
As was the case when, in a questionable manner, the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) breached his right to a fair hearing, and got the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria

Walter Onnoghen

*Govt Needs To Call Itself To Order – Oguche
*Action An Absurdity In Our Model Of Democracy – Esezoobo

As was the case when, in a questionable manner, the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) breached his right to a fair hearing, and got the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen convicted for not declaring his assets, legal practitioners have taken umbrage at the former CJN’s latest ordeal, as he has been reportedly stripped of his international passport by the Federal Government.

The Appeal Court roundly condemned the Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government for the manner in which the trial of Onnoghen was conducted. It, in a judgment by the three-man bench led by Justice Stephen Adah, unanimously ruled that the CCT’s ex parte order breached the ex-CJN’s right to a fair hearing.

An internal report issued by the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), reportedly stated that Onnoghen, his wife, and daughter, who were attempting to travel to Accra, Ghana, were accosted by NIS officials and his travel documents confiscated as, “his passport, with number A50445233, was flagged because Justice Onnoghen’s name was on the watch-list. The passport is currently in custody of the NIS.”

The directive to seize Onnoghen’s passport, The Guardian understands came from the Presidency, which may still be sore over the retired CJN’s decision to challenge his conviction at the Court of Appeal, which dealt serious knocks on the government for denying the jurist fair hearing.

Legal practitioners, who spoke on the development, deplored it in strong terms describing it as vendetta, and calling on the Federal Government to rescind the decision forthwith. Human rights lawyer, Chief Mike Ozekhome, described the Federal Government’s action as unnecessary vendetta, vengeance carried too far, and an ill-advised action.

“The government should immediately rescind this ill-advised decision, which simply amounts not just to an overkill of a revered Supreme Court Justice already totally humiliated through forced removal from office, without being found guilty of any crime, it also suggests vendetta and vengeance carried too far. What is Onnoghen’s crime? 

“That he served his country faithfully, diligently and probably stepped on some sensitive and untouchable toes? That he was forced out of office without first being found guilty of any crime? That it took the Court of Appeal over two months to deliver judgment affirming his not being given a fair hearing, only after he had been humiliated out of office, a case of shutting the stable after the horse had bolted since he was seen as a clog in the wheel of the then forthcoming February 23, 2019 presidential election over, which he was expected to play a prominent role, and had to be booted out on January 29? Ozekhome questioned.

He continued: “Having inflicted these irretrievable punishments on him, can’t this government allow him peace to pick up and sew together the shredded pieces of his life’s garments? Must it extract a Shylock’s pound of flesh? Must it continuously kick a citizen already lying prostrate on the floor on the ass? To achieve what? To please and satiate the Bachannalian appetites of which unseen gods, goddesses and deities? How does a government fight and humiliate its own citizens rather than save them? What self-contradiction for the same government mouthing anti-corruption to be praising an Abacha, whose looted funds are still being retrieved from bank vaults across the globe, over two decades after his death? Mr. Government sir, please, let Justice Onnoghen be. Give him peace, I beg of you. Having not prosecuted him and get him convicted, accord him his full inalienable and fundamental rights.”

Another senior lawyer, Mr. Johnson Esezoobo, who described government’s action as one of the absurdities that we are witnessing under our own model of democracy, charged lawyers to urgently move to address the issue.

According to him: “Perhaps, this is what Chief Tom Ikimi, as Foreign Minister under the late General Abacha meant by his sermon of our home-made democracy during the nation’s outcry in the late MKO Abiola saga. A system where lawyers assist the executive to practice lawlessness and the legislature reduces itself to a spectator, docile and watching the executive raping democracy and the rule of law, not appreciating its responsibility to administer a restraint, under the instrumentality of separation of powers; a system where government goes it by outlawry that makes life uncertain; a system where government has become a security risk, and yet is arresting and detaining citizens, and barring others from movement on account of national security.”
Esezoobo added that: “The Sowore and the Onnoghen saga epitomises the base level at which our government still operates in the 21st Century, and it shows how uncivilised we are in a civilised and modern world. No reason is stated for the seizure of Onnoghen’s passport and denial of movement out of the country. 

“From the report, government has been on his trail and knew he was going to travel on that day. If it had any intelligence report on him that was (or still) of concern, why couldn’t the authorities invite and advise him to shelve his trip, or give him condition(s) to undertake the trip, for the reason(s) of the report? 

“And if they must restrict his movement at all cost, why would they not go to court for an order of restriction, or derogation as under Section 45 of the Constitution? It is certainly not our law that the executive can bar a citizen from travelling out of the country for undisclosed reasons, or for a reason that the executive decides to keep to its heart. That reduces the fundamental rights of the citizenry to mere privileges, enjoyable at the mercy of the executive,” he stated.

Mr. S.M. A. Olatunji, who maintains that Onnoghen was convicted without fair hearing described the passport seizure as “incredible.”He added: “After the Ex-CJN had been convicted based on the shady ex-parte order by the CCT, and he served the requirements of the conviction, I don’t think he should be stripped of the right to travel out of the country save same restriction was contained in the judgment of the substantive suit.”

In his reaction, a Port Harcourt-based lawyer, Mr. Fetus Oguche asked: “I thought Hon. Justice Onnoghen’s travails had ended with his having to throw in the towel and be retired? I’m just wondering how again he is constituting a threat to this government. He had been railroaded into retirement, a new CJN appointed, elections conducted and the post election litigation ended with the Supreme Court deciding in favour of the incumbent. What else do they want of this man?

“I think the idea of seizing his international passport and restricting his movement is a violation of his fundamental rights to freedom of movement. The Supreme Court has stated in the case of DSS v. Agbakoba that seizure of a citizen’s international passport, restricts him from exercising his right of ingress and egress (entry and exit), and an infringement on his/her fundamental rights. This basic right can only be encroached upon, or abridged under the due process of the Law, by an Order of Court of competent jurisdiction forbidding him to travel anywhere.

Nowhere did the CCT make any such order, and the ‘conviction’ (so-called) did not make any order restraining his movement. Indeed, the CCT lacks the competence to make such an order. So, where are they coming from? We all know the purpose of that CCT trial and the ‘subsequent conviction,’ which was quite humiliating for the former CJN and it shouldn’t extend to restricting the former CJN’s movement. If this becomes the case, then a whole lot of issues surrounding the trial must be unearthed, including his application for the enforcement of his fundamental rights, and the order for stay of proceedings pending the determination of that application.

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