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NJC to the rescue

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Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad

It can’t but be troubling when one notes how simple and straightforward issues are made complicated. The argument over Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen affair has been fierce. It is in the nature of argument that on a given subject, there will be some people for and a host of others against. It becomes worrisome, however, when there is a relentless effort at obscuring what is self-evident truth. From quarters you expect enlightenment, the obscurity is compounded; it is all heat, no light. The result is a justifiable groundswell of suspicion of ulterior motives.

As I did say in my first intervention on the subject two weeks ago, the government bungled the whole matter which it should have resolved with some tact and wisdom. But it was looking for a big fish less than a month to crucial elections to show-case as its giant success leap in the fight against corruption, with less than doubtful expectation of laudatory ovation from a society with a huge appetite for scandals. This is without deep thought about the image implication for the country, that we may all have been diminished.

After missing the first step, and we insist that in our determination to renovate the master bedroom we must pull down the whole house so we can rebuild, we must follow all the necessary steps so that the inhabitants do not come to harm and the valuables are not destroyed.

The main complaint against CJN Onnoghen is that he under-declared his assets before the Code of Conduct Bureau. He admitted the claim. As someone vast in law, he thought there was nothing more to it, because the law says: “Provided that where the person concerned makes a written admission of such breach or non-compliance, no reference to the Tribunal shall be necessary.” What is left undeclared is heavy. Friends of the government and possibly its advisers undoubtedly believe that given the humongous sum of money in assorted foreign currencies, the non-declaration must have been deliberate and that the assets were being hidden. They are suspecting that they must have been proceeds from illegitimate earnings. The protective shield contained in the clause in Section 3 of the Code of Bureau and Tribunal Act, of 2004 must be unveiled, hence the Chief Justice being dragged to the Tribunal. The tribunal adjourned until last Monday, 28 January rising from its sitting of 22 January. But the government pulled a fast one before the adjournment case. On what he described as the order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, President Buhari suspended the Chief Justice.

This brought a new twist and muddle to the whole saga. Questions began to fly in several directions: does the President have the power to suspend the Chief Justice of Nigeria? Is he the senior prefect in a government that is supposed to have three equal co-ordinate arms? The Senate has joined the fray from its own end. It has approached the Supreme Court for interpretation of the law. According to the provisions of the law, complaints are to lie before the National Judicial Council in matters concerning judicial officers. That law is specific. It is the body which is charged with looking into complaints of misconduct and sundry infractions of the law by a judicial officer, and to determine appropriate discipline. This is to safeguard the independence and dignity of the judiciary. Their decision is to be communicated to the President for Federal matters, and to governors at the state level. The President is required to forward the recommendation to the Senate which upon mustering two-thirds majority gets back to the executive to go ahead with the decision of the Judicial Council. In other words, the Constitution requires the input of other arms of the government on the discipline of judicial officers whether at the state or federal level. It cannot be a unilateral action by the executive. In the wisdom of the framers of the Constitution, Nigerians should not live in a situation in which a governor or President can just wake up and finding himself in a bad mood order that a person to be beheaded. Moving from one stage to another is what is universally called the rule of law. In the process guilt is convincingly established.

This is the process President Buhari short-circuited. Irritated that lawyers were wasting time, as evinced in his address, he asked the Chief Justice to go on suspension and asked the next senior Justice to take over. Employing technicalities and looking for loopholes is part of the legal practice. It is all in the search for justice. President Buhari’s temperament which cannot bear the slow pace of the rule of law is well known. It dates back to his first coming as Head of State in 1984. At the time it was the accused he expected to prove his innocence rather than the other way round. Normally it is prosecution that is expected to establish guilt. It is amazing that he would succumb to the temptation to send the Chief Justice on suspension. In view of the closeness of the leader of the NGO who filed the complaints to him, the suspension can only be seen as working to the answer. Ordinarily a breach of the law is a breach of the law. A can of worms is the same in the pantry of a king or in the bowl of a beggar. Allowing due process would probably have led to the same action. So jumping the gun is unwise. The action close to the elections renders it more suspect.

What due process is all about is to avoid a miscarriage of justice. There was the report recently of a man who had been sentenced to death. He was in jail for more than 30 years, insisting he was innocent of the murder charge for which he was convicted. The authorities asked that his case be reopened only to find that he was in truth innocent of the crime that almost took his life. Even in cases a murderer is caught red-handed, the law requires that person be tried by going through due process. Two ladies are at the moment facing trial accused of killing their husbands; one is a lawyer the other wife of the son of a former PDP chair.

The huge sum of money and foreign currencies said to have been found in Justice Onnoghen’s account and which is freely being circulated has given rise to unsavory speculations that these could only have been proceeds of corruption, for they are far in excess of his known legitimate income. We do not yet know. For now, they are in the realm of speculation. Public functionaries who live in government quarters are known to take housing loans more in preparation for their retirement. They build in choice areas and let out the property while in service. In no time accruals from the rent accumulate to a level sufficient to build another house. They leverage on what they already have to obtain loans from banks and build more. Property developers can be called in to develop the property. If a smart guy has two of such buildings at Lekki or Victoria Island, what it will amount to is anybody’s guess. Is it possible or is it not that judicial officer who moves from being a DPP to become a judge takes to poultry farming in his backyard, or raises a herd of cattle in his country home as a hobby, and upon becoming a high ranking officer hands it over to a trusted professional in a blind trust? These are possibilities that will necessarily constrain jumping to conclusions. It is, therefore, the law courts that can establish the verity of sources of suspicious funds. In the case of Justice Onnoghen, it is the judicial Council.

We have the National Judicial Council to thank for speedily intervening and returning everyone to the starting block. Justice Onnoghen and Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad are given seven days to respond to complaints against them and that against CCT judge, Umar, to the Federal Judicial Service Commission. That is how it should be.


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