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Only the law must rule

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Onnoghen

A few days ago, President Muhammadu Buhari, in a brashness sign-posting a curious arrogance of power in a democracy, gave an unprecedented turn to the melodramatic trial of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), when he unilaterally suspended Onnoghen and in his place hurriedly swore-in Justice Tanko Muhammed as the new Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria.

The purported suspension of the incumbent and appointment of another without due input from the institutions set up by the Constitution, notably the National Judicial Council (NJC) and the Senate, is unconstitutional.

Such an act is not only unknown or unacceptable to law, it is capable of causing disaffection amongst Nigerians and heating up the polity.

The strangeness and undemocratic nature of both the suspension of the CJN and appointment of another in an acting capacity is illustrated by the gross violation, albeit respectively, of Section 292 (1a) and Section 231 (1 and 2) of the Constitution both of which require the unqualified involvement of the three arms of government in the exercise of such actions.

By this gesture of circumventing the law, the president acted in a dictatorial manner that is reminiscent of the jackboot impudence of the military era. This is unacceptable and must not stand.

For sure, the charges against Onnoghen are grave and should he be found culpable, ought to earn him his rightful place in jail.

Indeed, had he any consideration for the honour of his station, he ought to have recused himself from the apex court to allow unfettered investigation and prosecution of the charges. But not doing so does not confer on the head of the executive arm of government the right to suspend him from office.

What President Muhammadu Buhari has done amounts to a dubious act of seeking to climb the moral high ground using the ladder of illegality.

For those who have been following the development between the executive and judiciary lately, the nation was aghast when the CJN was arraigned on January 14 by the Federal Government before the CCT over a six-count charge contained in a petition filed by a civil society group, Anti-Corruption and Research Data Based Initiative (ARDI).

To the shock of citizens, the civil society group had accused Onnoghen of corrupt enrichment and false declaration of assets.

Despite public criticism that the sudden trial of the CJN did not follow due process, the trial went on speedily.

But late last week a ruling of the Court of Appeal ordered the CCT to halt the trial pending the determination of Onnoghen’s application that the CCT lacked jurisdiction to try him.

While that was still being absorbed, Buhari suspended Onnoghen and appointed a successor based on a strange Order from the same tribunal, which is not a judicial body.

Besides being a landmark test of this administration’s sincerity in its anti-corruption drive, Buhari’s flagrant violation of the law is a measure of his understanding of the essence of the rule of law.

It also raises questions about the value of intentions, motives and sentiments in the quest for justice and enquires whether justice is said to be properly dispensed when the goal of those intentions or motives are perceived to be higher than the interest of the rule of law.

Since January 7, 2019, when the whistle was blown against Onnoghen, many informed persons suspected that the whole process of petition filing, arraignment and trial seemed to have been fraught with procedural inadequacies.

It is common knowledge that prior to the appointment of any high-ranking public officer, the Directorate of State Security, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) will carry out checks on the person to be appointed.

The CJN’s reported alibi, carelessness in filing his assets declaration properly, would have strengthened the executive demand for his stepping down for trial but that edge was lost to the curious procedural errors and indeed violation of the laws too by the office of the Attorney General of the Federation.

It is noteworthy that as has become peculiarly Nigerian, those who want to give the trial an ethno-political colouration have continued to ask why it is only when a southerner assumed this position that certain allegations would begin to fly. They are even citing the protracted process of Onnoghen’s nomination and unprecedented humiliation of acting for three months before confirmation as evidence of bad motives against him.

This, of course, does not exculpate him of the charges, which he must answer.

The quest for due process in the trial of the CJN is not about the man Onnoghen himself. Like any other public officer, he is not above the law and cannot be above the law. What matters is the rule of law and its observance in truth, letter and spirit.

The law can’t be what lawyers or anybody else say it is. It is what the court says it is. So, the executive arm prosecuting this case should have allowed the law to shape the suspension of the CJN and the process of his succession.

Those who do not want the executive arm to wait for courts’ verdict on the point at issue should note that the suspension of the CJN by an order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal amounts to using an organ of the executive to remove the head of the judiciary, after all. How would institutions and even the nation be built in such complicated and unjust process?

Barring the probability of a witch-hunt or some form of scape-goatism, the CJN should obey the law.

He should avoid any privileged attempt to deploy incomprehensible technicalities to obviate the law. And this is why his unnecessary postponement of the meeting of the National Judicial Council that would have deliberated on the way forward on this matter was a morally unacceptable.

However, that the CJN has questions to answer or has not felt the need to recuse himself from office in the face of such grave moral questions on his person is no licence for dictatorship or constitutional breaches on the part of the executive arm.

By his frantic moves and frenetic vigour over this matter, the president willfully boxed himself into awkward position in a democracy.

Sadly, this illegal onslaught on the judiciary further discredits the ambitious anti-corruption drive of this administration and gives ammunition to those who see it as a ruse.

It is very sad that this is happening in Africa, a continent in dire need of exemplars of strong institutions.

More appalling is the fact that the incipient constitutional crisis has demonstrated that there is a deficiency quotient in the understanding of the rule of law both by the ruling elite and the conclave of lawyers who selectively invoke that principle only in relation to their personal or ethnic interests.

Let it be known by all that justice and rule of law are ends in themselves. That they are intrinsically linked to the proper ordering of the society is a truth that coheres with right reason.

The rule of law entails the understanding that the law is the supreme guide in the running of the state and it is no respecter of persons. Its supremacy as a guide is hinged on its appeal to the dictates of reason.

The dictates of reason are devoid of base considerations. They are profound rules of action emanating from collective intellects purged of primordial or selfish sentiments.

It is for this reason that the rule of law should not be trifled with, as it seems the president has done, especially as justification for correcting a wrongdoing.

It is against the spirit and sanctity of the law for one to use the illegal in order to correct even the immoral or the illegal.

The voice of reason should prevail on the resolution of this crisis of confidence in the polity.

The relevant institutions in this regard, notably the NJC and the Senate, should convene immediately to resolve the current impasse.

The president should be well advised to reverse his suspension to give way to due process for the rule of law to prevail even as Onnoghen faces his charges.

This is to prevent a dangerous precedent whereby the head of one arm of government can just wake up and use a fancy body to announce suspension of the head of another arm without recourse to the requirements of the Constitution.

Democracy can only get stronger in Nigeria if things are done properly and the law rather than man is allowed to rule.


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