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The Buhari Government’s History of Enforcement of Court Orders and the Suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria

Since the Buhari government came to power on 29 May, 2015, it has shown a high propensity and proclivity for utter disregard for court orders as evident in its refusal to release Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife and Sambo Dasuki since 2015. Then, one wonders what was the reason for the speed with which President Muhammadu Buhari implemented the directives of the Code of Conduct Tribunal to suspend the CJN over his non-declaration of his assets.

On this issue two crucial points should be raised: the first is the constitutionallity of Buhari’s affront to the law of the land by summarily suspending the Chief Justice and the second is the moral burden of the CJN to function in office in view of staggering allegations of corruption levelled against him. Just yesterday I made the following declaration when I was accused of siding with corruption when I criticised the reckless action of the Buhari government on the issue of the CJN :

I guess there is a mix up that needs clarification. 1. No sensible Nigerian will support any act of corruption. 2. The issue here is that the constitution of Nigeria is the Supreme law of the land which everyone and institutions must respect its tenets otherwise Nigeria gravitates to anarchy. 3. Selective justice is the height of injustice. By all means all corrupt elements must be brought to justice. But if you talk of corruption what is your opinion on Tinubu, Rotimi Amaechi, Ganduje or Kano, David Babachir Lawal, Ayo Oke and host of other Nigerians that should have been brought to justice a long time ago. 5. Finally, if the CJN is guilty by all means let him spend the rest of his life in jail. So, there is a need for a holistic approach to the issue of corruption in this country.

Read the last paragraph of my piece and you would see that I am advocating for the rule of law and due process. That’s my point.
I further submitted that- Nobody is trying to condone corruption. Without following the constitutional procedures, Nigeria will return to anarchy and the Abacha years. My general observation is that if you ask for the rule of law and due process to be enforced, people tend to believe that you are siding with the CJN. These are two different issues.

At this point, I will want to share two editorial views of the Punch and Premium Times newspapers in order to let my readers know that the acts of the President was nothing more than a subversion of the Nigerian constitution, even in the face of some apologists of the APC swearing and cursing that the action of the President was constitutional:

Punch Newspaper Logo; Credit: Punch Newspaper

CJN’s suspension: A dictator bares his fangs
January 26, 2019
Punch Editorial Board
‘Yesterday, President Muhammadu Buhari surrendered all pretence to the rule of law and constitutional democracy by sacking the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen. Unilaterally and in flagrant violation of the Constitution, he also swore in Tanko Muhammad as the new acting CJN. By this act, the President has precipitated needless confusion in the polity. A shocking action, it will aggravate tension ahead of the general election in February and March. This poses a great peril to our democracy.

Though the President defended his action by citing an order from the Code of Conduct Tribunal directing Onnoghen’s suspension, his action is akin to a coup – a judicial coup in this case. In a subtle way, the President has suspended in part an integral part of the judiciary by illegally intimidating its highest symbol and shamefully deposing him. This undemocratic and high-handed approach advertises Buhari as an anarchist in a civil garb.
Onnoghen’s travails began late in 2016. His substantive elevation as the CJN suffered delay by the Buhari government to the bewilderment of the public.

Early in 2017, he was eventually nominated by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, who was then the Acting President and was sworn into office in March (2017). But the real signs of trouble blew open on January 7 when a civil society group, the Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative, filed a petition with the Code of Conduct Bureau, accusing Onnoghen of corruption and false declaration of assets. The CCT immediately took over from there, commencing the trial of the CJN. Initially, the Buhari Presidency denied having anything to do with his arraignment. In spite of criticism that the move against Onnoghen did not follow laid-down rules the trial proceeded with unusual speed. But on Thursday, the Court of Appeal, Abuja Division, in its ruling, ordered the CCT to stay action, pending the determination of Onnoghen’s application that the CCT had no power to try him. Before his suspension, Onnoghen was due to swear in members of the National Assembly, governorship and state assembly election petition tribunals.

“No matter how grave the allegations levelled against the CJN, the Buhari government cannot resort to self-help in addressing the matter, much against the position of the 1999 Constitution. In the Third Schedule, Part 1, the constitution expressly states the procedure that should be followed in removing the CJN. The process is initiated by the National Judicial Council. According to Third Schedule, Part 1, Section 21 (b), “The NJC shall have power to recommend to the President the removal from office of the judicial officers specified in sub-paragraph (a) of this paragraph, and to exercise disciplinary control over such officers.” The officers listed therein are the CJN, Justices of the Supreme Court, the President and Justices of the Court of Appeal; the Chief Judge and Judges of the Federal High Court.

“Buhari’s action is vile, perfidious and indefensible. It is an action only fit for jackboot regimes, where the constitution could easily be suspended, as the Murtala Muhammed military regime did in 1975 to remove the then CJN, Taslim Elias, from office. By igniting a bevy of crises in the judiciary just a few weeks to the general election, Buhari is apparently adopting Nicolas Maduro’s strategy in Venezuela. In the troubled country, Maduro seized the control of the apex court when he appointed a group of ruling party members to the bench in contravention of the constitution.

Needless to say, the President’s singular and misguided action has the tendency to plunge the country into an unnecessary constitutional crisis and, perhaps, derail 20 unbroken years of democratic governance. This is not unlike other despotic and undemocratic acts that the government has been associated with in the past, even if it might be considered more audacious, far-reaching and probably unexpected. Buhari’s tenure has witnessed an invasion of a national newspaper, DAILY TRUST, over a publication considered to be offensive by the military. Despite numerous court orders, the Buhari government has refused to release the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, Ibrahim el-Zakzaky. The cleric and his wife, Zinat, were clamped into detention in December 2015 after Shi’ite members clashed with the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, in Zaria, Kaduna State. Likewise, the government has disobeyed several court rulings for the release – on bail – of Sambo Dasuki, the National Security Adviser under Goodluck Jonathan, Buhari’s predecessor. Dasuki is being tried for allegedly mismanaging $2.1 billion, fund meant to procure arms for the military to fight the Boko Haram insurgency.

On Buhari’s watch, Nigeria’s democracy looks treacherously shaky. In fact, Friday’s action, rightly termed a coup by another name, could only be matched by the invasion of the National Assembly last year by men of the State Security Service in a failed bid to force a leadership change. That was another act of meddlesomeness orchestrated against another arm of government that is the most emblematic of a democracy.

How do dictators hold onto power? James Tilley, a professor of politics at Oxford University, says the totalitarian tyrannies of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and others relied largely—although not exclusively—on mass terror and indoctrination. Nigerians must see through Buhari. He wants to convince the public that he is fighting corruption, but his hidden agenda is to institute an autocratic regime. Nigeria’s democracy can no longer be considered to be out of harm’s way. After close to three decades of brutal military dictatorship, the country deserves the right to enjoy her hard-earned democracy in peace. Nobody else can defend it but Nigerians themselves. It is, therefore time for the civil society to rise and nip in the bud what is turning out to be a gradual but seemingly inexorable descent into a full-blown dictatorship.

Just about two decades after Sani Abacha, Nigeria is, once again, in the grip of tyranny. The descent into the abyss of dictatorship must be stopped. This is the height of lies, denials and impunity that define Buhari’s three and half years rule. To restore sanity, rebuild trust in our fragile democracy, the President should swiftly reverse the dangerous violation of the 1999 Constitution, which he swore to uphold on assumption of office in 2015.”

Now let’s look at the point of view of the Premium Times:

Premium Ties Logo; Credit: National Accord Newspaper

EDITORIAL: Onnoghen: Time to halt Nigeria’s slide to anarchy
January 27, 2019
“On Friday, President Muhammadu Buhari suspended the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen. He immediately swore in Justice Tanko Muhammad as his interim replacement in a development that had precedence in what happened over four decades ago under military rule.
The president said his action followed an order he obtained from the Code of Conduct Tribunal before which Mr Onnoghen is standing trial. The CJN is accused by the presidency through the Code of Conduct Bureau of failure to declare his asset as required of him by law.

“However, the suspension is clearly extraneous to the procedure stipulated by the 1999 Constitution for the removal of judicial officers from office.
The Third Schedule, Part 1 of the 1999 Constitution stipulates how a judicial officer may be removed from office. It states: “The National Judicial Council (NJC) shall have power to recommend to the President the removal from office of the judicial officers specified in sub-paragraph (a) of this paragraph, and to exercise disciplinary control over such officers.”

The officers listed therein are the CJN, Justices of the Supreme Court, the President and Justices of the Court of Appeal, the Chief Judges and Judges of the Federal High Court. Therefore, Mr Buhari’s brusque suspension of the CJN is illegal, dictatorial, rude and obnoxious. It should be swiftly reversed or stoutly resisted by Nigerians.

Mr Onnoghen’s trial at the CCT arose from a petition of January 7 filed by a civil society group, Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative (ARDI), with the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB). In the petition, the group accused Mr Onnoghen of corruption and false declaration of assets.
The CCB swiftly arraigned Mr Onnoghen before the CCT on January 14. But three days later on Thursday, the Court of Appeal in Abuja ordered the Tribunal to stay action, pending the determination of Mr Onnoghen’s application challenging the power of the CCT to try him. The Court of Appeal then fixed hearing of the application for Wednesday, January 30.
But rather than comply with the order of the appellate court, President Buhari chose to rush into the execution of an order by a lower court which the superior court had ordered to freeze its proceedings.

To be sure, the allegations against Mr Onnoghen are grave. His position at the height of the administration of justice in Nigeria places on him a legal, and no less moral, duty to step aside until the allegations are cleared. This is irrespective of the credible suspicion of the motive of the government behind his trial. That the CJN would not move or even be pushed along that direction questions his moral fibre and casts a stain on the fabric of the Nigerian judiciary which he heads.

Equally disconcerting is the fact that the CJN had earlier presided over the National Judicial Council’s decision that judges charged with unacceptable conduct must be suspended from office, while such is being reviewed. However, when it came to his turn, he postponed the scheduled meeting of the NJC indefinitely to stop the Council from applying the same rule and suspending him. It was highly unfortunate that what was good for the goose did not appear good enough for the gander in Onnoghen’s case. Still, the NJC could have gone ahead in seeking to protect the integrity of the judiciary by proceeding with its meeting, as it only needed five members to do so. Yet, it did not act.

However, Mr Onnoghen’s disinclination to moral example does not temper Mr Buhari’s own reckless affront to the Constitution. His utterly condemnable action must not stand, else it hastens a descent down the slippery slope of impunity to anarchy or dictatorship.

First, the speed with which the presidency is pursuing Mr Onnoghen’s trial. The CCB arraigned Mr Onnoghen at the Tribunal within days of receiving the petition against him. This alacrity is curious of a government notorious for lethargy in all aspects of governance.

Then the timing of the trial. It began only a few weeks to the general elections in which Mr Onnoghen’s office has a crucial role. His suspension was announced just hours before he was to constitute the various tribunals to sit on petitions arising from the elections. This choice of time for the trial has strengthened the suspicion that its real object is to shackle Mr Onnoghen and keep him far away from playing the role the Constitution assigns his office in elections.

Even as obscene is the mentioned swiftness with which Mr Buhari executed the order of the CCT to suspend the CJN. The Tribunal made the order on January 23. The president put it into effect two days later. This speed of action is uncharacteristic of a government renowned for snail-speed response to important national issues.

Given the attitude of the government to court judgments, its response to the order of the CCT raises even higher the red flag of cynicism. The government has serially flouted court orders for the release of the former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, and of an Islamic cleric, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky. Both of them have been in detention since 2015.

We are alarmed that an administration long accused of selectivity in its flagship war on corruption is now moving to choose court judgments to obey. The rule of law demands indiscriminate obedience of court judgments until set aside by a higher court. Mr Buhari’s reckless violation of the Constitution in his suspension of the CJN has pushed the nation to the edge of a constitutional crisis. It has also increased the tension surrounding a crucial general election.

By decapitating the judiciary, as it were, Mr Buhari has taken his war against state institutions to the next level. Last year, agents of the State Security Service (SSS) invaded the National Assembly in an obvious attempt to force a change in the leadership of the first arm of a democratic government.

Even the fourth estate of the realm is feeling the searing heat of government hostility and disregard for the rights of citizens. Early this year, Nigerian soldiers invaded offices of Daily Trust newspaper in Abuja, Kaduna and Maiduguri over a report by the newspapers that annoyed the Army.

There are worrisome, unmistakable signs of a gradual descent to dictatorship in Nigeria, especially in the last few years under the President Buhari administration. Unless urgently checked by the concerted efforts of the Nigerian people and lovers of democracy, the consequences will spread far beyond the shores of the country.

Already failing at addressing serious existential challenges, Nigeria is least prepared to cope with the disaster that may arise from a reversal of its modest democratic gains. Again, we call on President Buhari to reverse his suspension of the CJN and to stand aside for the due process of law to apply on Mr Onnoghen’s alleged infractions.

Equally, Mr Onnoghen’s credibility has been seriously tainted by the revelations of vast sums of money that he conveniently forgot to declare as part of his asset and he cannot continue as CJN. He should save Nigeria the present embarrassing conundrum by resigning his appointment.

A strong message to both the President and the CJN. A word is enough for the wise.


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