Killing Nigerian judiciary softly – Part 2
In one of the charges, presidency alleged that before he was sworn in as Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria) he breached the code of conduct for public officers by omitting to declare a domiciliary (US Dollars) account No. 870001062650 maintained with Standard Chartered Bank of (Nig) Ltd, Wuse 2, Abuja, which is being operated since 2011 and your thereby contravened the provisions of section 15(2) read along with section 15(1) 15(1) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act Cap C15 LFN 2004 and punishable under section 23(2) (a), (b) and (c) of the same Act. Other charges were framed thus:“That you, JUSTICE WALTER NKANU ONNOGHEN, CJN, GCON being a public officer as Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria who is under a duty to declare his assets to the Code of Conduct Bureau Chief on or about 14th December, 2016, falsely declared your assets in your Declaration of Assets Form CCB 1; (after you were sworn in as Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria) by omitting to declare a domiciliary (Euro) account No. 93001062686 maintained with Standard Chartered Bank of (Nig) Ltd, Wuse 2, Abuja, which is being operated since 2011 and your thereby contravened the provisions of section 15(2) read along with section 15(1) 15(1) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act Cap C15 LFN 2004 and punishable under section 23(2) (a), (b) and (c) of the same Act”.
Meanwhile, Justice Onnoghen, on January 14, declined to appear before the Mr. Danladi Umar-led three-member CCT panel to be arraigned by the executive arm.
Instead, the CJN, through a consortium of lawyers led by a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, and a former Attorney General of the Federation, Chief Kanu Agabi, SAN, challenged the jurisdiction of the CCT to handle the case against him. He contended that Buhari’s failure to channel the petition against him, as well as the outcome of the investigation that was purportedly conducted on his assets declaration forms by the CCB, to the National Judicial Council, NJC, before it rushed the case to the CCT had rendered the charges a nullity.
The CJN further argued that FG failed to abide by existing judicial precedent as encapsulated in a recent Appeal Court decision in Nganjiwa vs. Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391(CA), to the effect that any misconduct attached to the office and functions of a judicial officer, must first be reported to and handled by the NJC, pursuant to the provisions of the laws. He maintained that only after the NJC has pronounced against such judicial officer could prosecuting agencies of the Federal Government proceed to initiate a criminal proceeding.
Placing reliance on a recent decision of the CCT on a similar charge FG lodged against another Justice of the Supreme Court, Sylvester Ngwuta, the CJN’s legal team, insisted that FG’s decision to sideline the NJC, stripped the tribunal off its jurisdiction to entertain the instant case. The same day, FG, filed a motion for the tribunal to compel Justice Onnoghen to step aside as the CJN and Chairman of the NJC, and for him to hand over to his next in command, Justice Tanko Muhammad.
On January 21, in a two to one split decision, the CCT panel, said it would proceed with the trial, despite the court orders. Dissatisfied with the decision, Onnoghen, proceeded to the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal where he secured an order that suspended further proceedings at the CCT, pending the determination of an appeal he lodged against his trial. In the appeal he lodged on January 15, Onnoghen, argued that the Mr. Danladi Umar-led tribunal erred in law when it held that the preliminary objection he filed to challenge the competence of the charge, would be heard alongside the motion FG filed for him to step-aside.
Onnoghen insisted that it was wrong for the tribunal to hear and determine FG’s motion when its jurisdiction to entertain the substantive charge was being challenged. He therefore prayed the appellate court to set-aside the decision of the CCT as contained in a ruling its Chairman delivered on January 14. Meantime, before the appeal could be heard, Justice Onnoghen, on January 18, filed the motion the appellate court, on January 24, relied upon to temporarily suspend further proceedings in the case. The Tribunal refused but railroaded to a pre-determined decision. Clearly, the whole exercise of prosecution of Onnoghen was a sham. The Appeal court kept refusing to hear the appeals of Onnoghen thereby reinforcing the allegation that Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa who heads the Appellate court was an interested party just like the duo of justice Tanko who was named acting chief justice of Nigeria and the ethically challenged chairman of code of conduct Tribunal who are all from Bauchi state.
The coup against the judiciary was clinically executed and aided allegedly by the National judicial council whose control was handed over to retired court of Appeal’s president Justice Abdullahi Umaru who is a kinsman of president Buhari accused of been the brain behind the entire fiasco. As far as most Nigerians are concerned, the then chief justice of Nigeria was not given fair hearing. This much was admitted by a cowardly composed panel of court of Appeal which belatedly ruled that the code of conduct Tribunal erred in law by granting an ex parte application which purportedly dethroned Onnoghen, thus making way for the hand-picked acting chief justice of Nigeria Justice Tanko to take over.
Why was the control of NJC handed over to Justice Abdullahi who is very close to president Buhari? Why did the NJC not compel both the then embattled CJN and the hand-picked acting CJN to quit the bench since they were the major characters that symbolized the self-inflicted but externally funded crisis of confidence that has torn the judiciary into shreds? This conflict of confidence and capitulation to the external manipulation of the judiciary by the executive branch will take years to heal. Judiciary must therefore heal itself quickly. Judicial independence is an important component of modern democracy, as several researches have attested to. Judicial independence says authoritative scholars is crucial to the doctrine of separation of powers, the sustenance of the rule of law and the protection of human rights in the words of a Canadian jurist; “Judicial Independence is essential for fair and just dispute resolution in individual cases and it is the life blood of democratic constitutionalism. Without judicial independence there can be no preservation of democratic values.”
“Historically, the Act of Settlement of 1701 recognized that the independence and impartiality of the judiciary could not exclusively depend on only the personal integrity and resilience of the individual judge. …” “Accordingly, it was necessary to institutionalize the independence of the judicial system. The Act of Settlement created for the first time a basis for judicial security of tenure that was later on reinforced by legislations that guaranteed remuneration. These statutes institutionalized judicial independence.”
As established in the foregoing by both Chief Justice Lamar in Beauregard vs Canada (1986) 2 S.C. R 56, 70 and JJ Spigleman A.C the Chief Justice of New South Wales in judicial independence; Purposes and threats, 7th Worldwide common law judicial conference, London: April 2007 as reported in the 2007 All Nigerian Judges’ conference), personal independence is insufficient and incomplete unless it is accompanied by the institutional independence of the entire judicial system, so says a reputable jurist. It is imperative to assert that institutional independence refers to the fortification of the judiciary in order to ensure that its functions are not unduly influenced or defined by the other arms of government.
An independent judiciary, experts argue, requires that individual judges are independent in the exercise of their powers, and that the judiciary as a whole is independent, with its sphere of authority protected from the influence, overt or insidious, of the other arms of government. As asserted in the foregoing opinions of experts, an independent judiciary also requires protection from more systemic influences the type we alluded to in the above classical case of a sham and mob trial of the immediate past CJN who was booted out because the Presidency couldn’t get him to do their bidding.
“A fundamental aspect of this institutional independence is ensuring that the judiciary receives adequate funding. Just as salary protection is necessary to individual judges’ independence; the overall financing issues can influence the work of the judiciary as a whole. Judicial independence is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. It is the kernel of the rule of law, giving the citizenry confidence that the laws will be fairly and equally applied.” It is importantly argued that judicial independence also allows judges to make decisions that may be contrary to the interests of the other branches of government.
The way it is now the judiciary in Nigeria is sick and is controlled by persons with questionable historical ties to either the Presidency or the ruling party at the center. The Court of Appeal is worst affected with the head accused of partisanship given that both her husband and Son are staunch members of the inner caucuses of APC. Judiciary must heal itself or perish.
•Onwubiko Heads Human Rights Writers Association Of Nigeria (HURIWA)