• CJN’s suspension puts judicial independence under threat, says UN
There may be more trouble for the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen, as the National Judicial Council (NJC) said it had received a fresh petition against him from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
In a statement, the Director of Information, NJC, Mr. Soji Oye, said the new petition from the EFCC had been forwarded to Justice Onnoghen and he is expected to respond to the allegations raised therein within seven working days.The NJC held an emergency meeting yesterday to consider the responses of Onnoghen and the Acting CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad, to the three petitions brought against them.
The council, at the meeting, decided to constitute a preliminary complaints assessment committee in accordance with Regulation 17, 2017 of the National Judicial Council Judicial Discipline Regulations. The committee is expected to report its findings to the council on Wednesday.
But before concluding its meeting yesterday,, the NJC reaffirmed its confidence in Justice Umaru Abdullahi and pledged to continue under his interim chairmanship.
A group had called for his removal as the NJC chairman on the ground that he was close to President Muhammadu Buhari, and that he was likely to be biased in his decision on Justice Onnoghen’s matter tabled before his committee.
Meanwhile, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayán, has warned the Federal Government that the suspension and replacement of Onnoghen contravened international human rights standards on the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers.
Garcia-Sayan, in a statement yesterday, said: “The dismissal of judges without following procedures laid down by the law and without effective judicial protection being available to contest the dismissal is incompatible with the independence of the judiciary.
“International human rights standards provide that judges may be dismissed only on serious grounds of misconduct or incompetence. Any decision to suspend or remove a judge from office should be fair and should be taken by an independent authority such as a judicial council or a court.”
Onnoghen was suspended on 25 January 2019 and replaced with Mohammad. Garcia-Sayán said that Buhari had acted in compliance with an order issued two days earlier by a tribunal established under the constitution to decide on alleged breaches of the code of conduct for public officials, after four separate Nigerian courts – the Court of Appeal, the National Industrial Court and the two Federal High Courts – had already ordered a stay of proceedings in the tribunal.
According to him, the said order upon which the suspension was based was issued ex-parte while the motion on notice on the same subject was
adjourned the day before by the issuing court.“All state institutions must abide by the decisions of national courts and tribunals. In the case of Onnoghen, four national courts hierarchically superior to the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) had already ordered a stay of proceedings, and the tribunal had in a previous case, 8 months earlier, held that it lacked jurisdiction over cases involving judicial officers, which should be processed by the National Judicial Council,” Garcia-Sayan stressed.
He noted that some of the judges handling the case of Onnoghen and the defence lawyers have been subjected to serious threats, pressures and interferences.“I am seriously concerned at such allegations, which may constitute, if proven, grave attacks on the independence of the judiciary and the free exercise of the legal profession,” said the expert.
“One of the senior advocates defending the Chief Justice was arrested on Wednesday by security agencies. Lawyers play an essential role in
securing access to justice, and should never suffer, or be threatened with prosecution or other sanctions for action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics,” he added.