Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen
  • US, UK, EU Condemn CJN’s Suspension
  • Dogara: Buhari’s action unconstitutional
  • Falana: Nigeria falling in hands of incipient fascism
  • Malami, others placed on America’s watch list
  • Presidency: This govt won’t accept foreign interference

By Our Correspondents

Global outrage has continued to trail President Muhammadu Buhari’s unconstitutional removal of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen, without recourse to due process and the provisions of the constitution, 20 days to the presidential and National Assembly elections billed to hold on February 16. Casting doubt on the credibility and fairness of the upcoming elections. From the United States, United Kingdom, The European Union, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, lawyers, civil society groups, came condemnation of the Buhari government for its unconstitutional suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria.

Leading the charge against what is now termed reckless impunity of the Buhari administration, the governments of the United States of America, the United Kingdom and the European Union, in separate statements, condemned Buhari’s unilateral suspension of Onnoghen especially against a rather poor timing.

These allies of Nigeria, expressed their concern on the development was further stoked by the growing criticisms the president’s action has continued to attract amongst prominent Nigerians, however, suggested a swift and peaceful resolution of the matter so it does not cast a pall over the February 16 elections.

International news outlets such as BBC, CNN and Associated Press, have devoted elaborate coverage to the dramatic suspension of Onnoghen by President Buhari on Friday, warning of looming chaos.

Reeling from the global outrage against it, the Presidency reacted with defiance warning that it will not accept foreign interference.

In a statement by the senior special assistant to the president on media and publicity, Garba Shehu, the Presidency said the Buhari administration is against actions capable of creating apprehension, distrust among citizens or undermining the transparency and acceptability of outcomes of the nation’s electoral process.

However, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara and a renowned constitutional lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana have also come out to condemn Buhari’s action, describing it too as unconstitutional and incipient fascism in the country

In similar breath, the United States may have placed certain individuals of interest under watch as persons likely to interfere with the process of the 2019 elections, amongst them is the current Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the federation, Abubakar Malami.

Highly placed sources in the US government told THISDAY that in furtherance of its interest in a credible poll, the government had placed a few individuals, who are believed to be operating behind the scenes and acting against the advancement of democracy in the country.

United States: Deeply Concerned by Decision to Suspend and Replace Onnoghen

However, in a three-paragraph statement yesterday afternoon, the US government through its embassy in Abuja, expressed deep concern with news of the suspension of the CJN. The statements reads: “The Embassy of the United States is deeply concerned by the impact of the executive branch’s decision to suspend and replace the Chief Justice and head of the judicial branch without the support of the legislative branch on the eve of national and state elections.

“We note widespread Nigerian criticism that this decision is unconstitutional and that it undermines the independence of the judicial branch. That undercuts the stated determination of government, candidates, and political party leaders to ensure that the elections proceed in a way that is free, fair, transparent, and peaceful – leading to a credible result.

“We urge that the issues raised by this decision be resolved swiftly and peacefully in accordance with due process, full respect for the rule of law, and the spirit of the Constitution of Nigeria. Such action is needed urgently now to ensure that this decision does not cast a pall over the electoral process.”

British High Commission: Risks Affecting Perceptions on the Credibility

The British High Commission, in its intervention said, “We have heard a wide range of credible and independent voices, including in the Nigerian legal profession and civil society, who have expressed concern over the constitutionality of the executive branch’s suspension of the chief officer of the judiciary.

“We respect Nigeria’s sovereign authority and its right to adjudicate on constitutional provisions but as friends of the Nigerian people, we are compelled to observe that the timing of this action, so close to national elections, gives cause for concern. It risks affecting both domestic and international perceptions on the credibility of the forthcoming elections. We, along with other members of the international community, are following developments closely.

“We encourage all actors to maintain calm and address the concerns raised by this development through due process, demonstrating their commitment to respecting the constitution and the impartial administration of the rule of law. We further urge them to take steps to ensure that elections take place in an environment conducive to a free, fair and peaceful process.”

European Union: Suspension has Raised Concerns about Electoral Justice

Similarly reacting, The European Union, in a statement by Sarah Fradgley, Press and Public Outreach Officer, said it was invited by the Independent National Electoral Commission to observe the 2019 general elections, but said it was “very concerned about the process and timing of the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Justice Walter Onnoghen, on 25 January.

“With 20 days until the presidential and National Assembly elections, political parties, candidates and voters must be able to have confidence in the impartiality and independence of the judicial system.

“The decision to suspend the Chief Justice has led to many Nigerians, including lawyers and civil society observer groups, to question whether due process was followed. The timing, just before the swearing-in of justices for Electoral Tribunals and the hearing of election-related cases, has also raised concerns about the opportunity for electoral justice.

“The EU EOM calls on all parties to follow the legal processes provided for in the Constitution and to respond calmly to any concerns they may have.

“The EU EOM will continue observing all aspects of the election, including the independence of the election administration, the neutrality of security agencies, and the extent to which the judiciary can and does fulfill its election-related responsibilities.”

Speaker Dogara: Unconstitutional, Dictatorial and an Act of Executive Recklessness

On its part, Dogara described Onnoghen’s suspension as unconstitutional, dictatorial and an act of executive recklessness.

In a statement personally signed by him, Dogara said with the president’s action, Nigeria has become a full blown dictatorship, taking after Germany in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire.

“With the unconstitutional suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) by President Muhammadu Buhari, the world has been served with notice that Nigeria is now a full-blown dictatorship.

“This did not come as a rude shock except to those that have been blind to the gradual but progressive erosion of democratic values in the polity as President Buhari’s government has never hidden its disdain for the rule of law.
“We have watched in disbelief as the government recklessly deploys institutional prerogatives; routinely flouts the rule of law; subverts and assaults democratic institutions; refuses to accept opponents as legitimate; suppresses citizens’ civil liberties (especially those of opponents) and trample underfoot the media. In short, the Government’s tyrannical and authoritarian credentials are loathsomely legendary.”

Further faulting Buhari’s action, Dogara said: “No provision in Sections 157 and 292 of the 1999 Constitution as amended supports the president in purporting to suspend the CJN or swearing-in an acting CJN.

“The whole idea of a limited government is that the president’s powers is limited by law and it is ultra vires his powers to act in the absence of explicit legislative authorisation. That is representative democracy at its best which our 1999 Constitution as amended guarantees.

“It is instructive to note that our constitution does not contemplate or presupposes a situation whereby the Judiciary will have a suspended CJN and acting CJN at the same time. Therefore, it is right to posit, as some have done that the President now has his own Chief Judge to do his bidding while Nigeria has a sitting CJN until he is removed in line with the provisions of the Constitution.”

According to the speaker, suspending the CJN is an “awfully crude annexation of the judiciary by the president in violation of his oath of office and the Constitution cannot be for any other reason except, as alleged by so many, to prepare the judiciary ahead of time for the purpose of conferring some aura of legitimacy to the contraption that the 2019 general election may after all become.

“I therefore call on the President to remember that he has no better legacy to bequeath other than a good name, which cannot be achieved without honour, character and integrity. Honour and integrity demand that he upholds his oath of office by reversing this assault on our Constitution and following the manifestly clear and unambiguous constitutional procedure for the removal of the CJN if he must be removed. Anything short of this demeans all of us.

“To our citizens, we must now heed the warning of the Irish lawyer cum orator, John Philpot Curran who said, “the condition upon which God had given liberty to man is eternal vigilance: which condition if he breaks, servitude is at once the consequences of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt,” adding that despotism could only prosper if good men and women do nothing.

Falana: Suspension Should Not be Allowed to Stand

Also speaking, Falana said “I have had cause to call on the Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr. Abubakar Malami SAN to withdraw the charge of false declaration of assets filed against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen at the Code of Conduct Tribunal. The call was without prejudice to the merit of the serious allegations levelled against the Chief Justice.

“In line with decided judicial authorities, I had wanted the National Judicial Council to investigate the allegations. Unfortunately, the 88th statutory meeting of the National Judicial Council scheduled to hold on January 15, 2019, which could have deliberated on the matter and take an informed position was postponed indefinitely on the directive of the embattled Chief Justice.

“As the battle shifted to the courts, both the Judiciary and the Executive were shopping for court orders from the Federal High Court, the National Industrial Court, the Code of Conduct Tribunal and the Court of Appeal. In the process, settled principles of law were sacrificed for the exigency of the moment.

“Thus, at the 15th annual Gani Fawehinmi lecture, which held in Lagos on January 15, 2019, I was compelled to warn against the dangerous trend. Regrettably, the warning fell on deaf ears. “Curiously, in an act of brazen impunity, the Executive procured an ex parte order from the Code of Conduct Tribunal for the immediate suspension of the Chief Justice from office. In his purported compliance with the ex parte order, President Muhammadu Buhari has announced the suspension of Justice Onnoghen as the Chief Justice and appointed Justice Tanko Mohammad as the Acting Chief Justice.

“It is unfortunate that the Bar and the Bench have played into the hands of the sponsors of incipient fascism in the country. For reasons best known to them, the stakeholders in the legal profession stood by and allowed the Office of the Chief Justice to be completely desecrated.

“It is intriguing that the 12 lawyers, including three Senior Advocates of Nigeria in the federal cabinet did not deem it fit to dissuade President Buhari from carrying out the illegal suspension of the Chief Justice on the basis of an ex parte order issued by the Code of Conduct Tribunal.

“In particular, they ought to have reminded the President of the compulsory retirement of Justice Stanley Nnaji and Justice Wilson Egbo-Egbo for issuing illegal ex parte orders for the removal of Dr. Chris Ngige as Governor of Anambra State. It is sad to recall that it was the federal government superintended by former President Olusegun Obasanjo that instigated the illegal removal of the governor at the material time.

“However, notwithstanding the inauguration of Justice Tanko Mohammad as the Acting Chief Justice, the legal profession should not hesitate to review the entire Onnoghen saga in the interest of the nation’s judiciary.

“In Elelu-Habeeb (2012) 1 WRN, the Supreme Court held that by virtue of section 292 of the Constitution, the heads of the judicial arms of the state and federal governments in the country cannot be removed without a prior investigation conducted by the NJC. Consequently, the apex court set aside the purported removal of the appellant as the Chief Judge of Kwara State upon an address forwarded to the House of Assembly by former Governor Bukola Saraki.

“Therefore, the National Judicial Council should convene and constitute a committee to investigate the allegations leveled against the Chief Justice and make appropriate recommendation to the relevant authorities.”

The Lagos-based lawyer therefore charged Onnoghen’s legal team to proceed to challenge his suspension from office either at the Code of Conduct Tribunal or the Court of Appeal, adding that despite the gravity of the allegations levelled against the Chief Justice, the illegality of the suspension should not be allowed to stand.

“The ex parte order is a suspect document as the motion ex parte on which it was predicated was allegedly filed on January 9, 2019 while the substantive charge against the Chief Justice was filed at the registry of the Code of Conduct Tribunal on January 11, 2019.

“Furthermore, the counsel who argued the motion is not indicated in the ex parte order. However, in view of President Buhari’s belated fidelity in the rule of law, the federal government should comply with all valid and subsisting orders of competent municipal and regional courts made against the federal government.”

Commonwealth Lawyers Association;

Also, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA), the Commonwealth Legal Education Association (CLEA) and the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association (CMJA) have added their voices to the growing condemnation of Onnoghen’s suspension.

In a statement they jointly issued yesterday, the three organisations said that the CJN’s suspension did not follow constitutional procedures and due process in the investigation of a judicial officer.

“We are particularly concerned that the constitutional procedures and due process in the investigation of a judicial officer in Nigeria have not been followed. Where members of the judiciary are accused of criminal conduct, the State is entitled to charge them with the relevant crimes, but the manner in which they are charged and arrested must be consistent with the rule of law and the Constitutional safeguards.

“The judiciary like other members of society may not be subjected to violations of their fundamental human rights no matter what the charges are against them,” the statement stated in part.

Seriake Dickson, a Sad Commentary on Democracy

In the same light, the Chairman of the South-south Governors Forum and Governor of Bayelsa State, Mr Seriake Dickson, has condemned Buhari’s action, saying it was a sad commentary on democracy.

In a release by his Special Adviser, Media Relations, Fidelis Soriwei, Dickson stressed that the action was inimical to the desired stability of the nation and critical institutions of state.

“If the report that we are reading about it are anything to go by, then it is a very sad commentary on our nation’s democracy. It is a very sad day, for our nation’s democracy and for the stability of our nation, and the stability of the critical national institution of which the judiciary is primus inter pares.”

Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) Worldwide

Speaking also, the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) Worldwide, in a statement by its Secretary General, Mr. Alfred Kemepado described the action as ‘unlawful and shameful’, noting that it remains a coup executed by the President against the judiciary.

The IYC accused the presidency of embarking on a plot to instigate unrest and violence in the Niger Delta region and the South-south of the country.

“The Buhari administration had earlier unjustly removed Mr. Matthew Seiyefa, who meritoriously rose to the rank of the Director General, DSS, just because he comes from the South and now he has attempted a coup on the entire judiciary just because its head is from the South.

“It is time for youths of Ijaw land and the Niger Delta to show how resolute they can be. We call on the international community, especially the governments of the USA, the UK and the EU to note this unwarranted state violence against the people of the South-South of Nigeria.”

In a related development the THISDAY source within the US government said the government had placed key important players in the current Nigerian government whose actions it now deems as posing a “potentially significant threat to peace as persons of interest.”

According to the source, “We have followed their actions closely and have come to the conclusion that their actions may likely have the potential to cause disruption to the electoral process. The US government has decided to categorised them as ‘persons of interest’,” said the source.

Malami, Others Under America’s Election Watch-list

The US source told THISDAY that the United States was alarmed at the actions of the Buhari government, geared towards suppressing the opposition in the country and the brazen unconstitutional removal of the CJN from his post without following the law as laid down by the country’s constitution.

“We are concerned about the democratic space that is being daily constricted by the government, using the machinery of state to harass and intimidate opponents and deny them a fair process.”

The source further revealed that the anti-graft body, “EFCC is now a tool of blackmail and bullying of political opponents, used to obtain bank account details of opposition elements, private citizens and divulge these details to government, which then uses the information to threaten and scare them from funding democratic opponents of the government”.

The source said the US was particularly alarmed by the removal of the country’s top Judge, whom the Attorney General is rallying the machinery of state against.

“We see this as an attempt to muscle the judicial and take away its independence. When you destroy the courts then the rule of law is in peril and democracy dies.

“The repercussions for the sub-region are too consequential and we cannot allow that to happen. We have identified the Attorney General and some key players in the presidency as persons of interest, whose actions are undermining the democracy and due process.

“We are monitoring them and would continuously review the list of individuals we have so far identified,” he added.

US Congress

Last Friday, the United States Congress warned Buhari to stop the harassment of the opposition political leaders, following the recent crackdown on some political figures in the country.

The US Congress’ warning was contained in a bipartisan resolution, urging the government of Nigeria, along with Nigeria’s political parties, to ensure electoral accountability and transparency in the upcoming February election.

A statement made available to THISDAY by Zachary Seidl of the US Congressional office said the resolution, which has been adopted by the US Congress, was introduced on Wednesday by Rep. Karen Bass, a top Democrat serving on the House Foreign Affairs Sub-committee on Africa, along with the Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Elliot L. Engel, the top Republican serving on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Congressman Chris Smith, Nigeria Caucus Co-Chair Representatives Steve Chabot and Shelia Jackson Lee, and Representative Gregory Meeks.

“The upcoming elections in Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy and economy, are critical to the future of the nation. Reports of President Muhammadu Buhari’s apparent crackdown on non-violent protests and harassment of opposition leaders are extremely concerning, as well as the ongoing violence that has been perpetrated by extremists, particularly in the Middle Belt region.

“The violence must be stopped, along with any subversion of the electoral process. The Nigerian government must see to free and fair elections, which this resolution calls for,” said Ranking Member Smith.

They urged Buhari to emulate the smooth transition in 2015 from the then ruling party to the opposition, as his commitment to strengthening democracy in Nigeria.

Presidency Reacts

“Nigeria reserves the right to be insulated from suggestions and or interference with respect to wholly internal affairs and commends international laws, customs and norms that mandate and require nations and the comity to respect this prerogative to all,” he said.

“Nigeria is confident of its electoral processes and her preparation for the imminent elections and the federal government has supported the independent electoral umpire in both its independence and resources needed to accomplish our desire and insistence on free and fair elections.”

Shehu said the federal government welcomes the prevailing keen interest and partnerships for successful elections and a peaceful Nigeria.

He added that the government had ensured the independence of all organs, institutions and arms of government to “perform their functions in a manner that is transparent, and not lacking in integrity whether institutionally or by persons within such institutions or organs.’’

“Although the question of foreign interference, whether state sponsored, promoted or otherwise has dominated recent elections and outcomes globally, the federal government assures citizens and the global community that it will fiercely and assiduously promote the will and the right of Nigerians to choose and elect their leaders without pressure or assistance from persons or entities that are not constitutionally empowered to participate in the process,’’ he said.

He reiterated the readiness of the nation’s security forces to confront any plan or attempt to interfere with or disrupt the process whether by “elements within or from outside the country”.

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