By AHURAKA ISAH
To say all is not well in the Temple of Justice is an understatement. Leading ministers of the temple of justice are being stripped naked in the market square, a sacrilege according to tradition and the temple myths. In short the temple is being desecrated, despoiled and dishonoured.
This is because, on December 10, 2018, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) arraigned the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Paul Usoro (SAN) for allegedly laundering N1.4 billion. The commission had in its 10-count charge alleged that Usoro converted and laundered the said sum sometimes in 2015 in connivance with Governor Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State.
The offence allegedly committed by the NBA President was contrary to Section 18 (a) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act, 2011 and he is liable to be punished under Section 15(3) of the same Act
Barely a month after, precisely on January 11, 2019, the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) summoned the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen to appear before it for trial on 6-count charge over failure to declare his assets fully before the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).
These are two ministers in the temple of justice, which are the Bar and Bench. While Usoro heads the Bar, Justice Onnoghen leads the Bench, the entire judiciary and by extension the chief priest in the temple of justice. Justice Onnoghen is unarguably the mirror image of the judiciary, and that’s why his purported trial is akin to mangling, muddling or defiling the temple of justice or spattering on judiciary’s image.
President Muhammadu Buhari must have observed that the former NBA President, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), who led 12 other members of inner bar, namely, Lateef O. Fagbemi (SAN), Akin Olujinmi (SAN), Oluwarotimi O. Akeredolu (SAN), Kola Awodein (SAN), Taiwo Osipitan (SAN), Charles Edosomwan (SAN), Emeka Ngige (SAN), Femi Atoyebi (SAN), Femi Falana (SAN), Funke Aboyade (SAN), H.O. Afolabi and 10 other counsel to defend him in the motley of suits challenging proprietary or otherwise of his WAEC certificate is the same person leading legal onslaught against the needless attack on the judiciary.
While Chief Olanipekun is Usoro’s lead counsel in his money laundering trial by the EFCC, he is at the same time leading 46 other SANs to defend Justice Onnoghen and the judiciary from embarrassment.
Mr President, Chief Olanipekun and other senior lawyers are not just acting for fun, love of Justice Onnoghen or for any pecuniary benefits but a professional duty. Lawyers are regarded the world over as guardians of the law, and consequently play a vital role in the preservation of society. Unlike the Judges who are only seen and seldom heard, lawyers have unfettered access to the public, are easily heard and very publicly seen.
The Rules of Professional Conduct of the Legal Profession as contained in the Legal Practitioners Act (Chapter 207 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria) are intended for maintenance of respect for and confidence in the judicial office
Rule 1 for instance, specifically states that; “It is the duty of the lawyer to maintain towards the Court respectful attitude, not for the sake of the temporary incumbent of the judicial office, but for the maintenance of its supreme importance. Judges, not being wholly free to defend themselves, are peculiarly entitled to receive the support of the Bar against unjust criticism and clamour. Where there is proper ground for serious complaint of a judicial officer, it is the right and duty of the lawyer to submit his grievances to the proper authorities’’.
Mr President, there are people you need not to quarrel with, but by omission or commission such is triggered by some of your aides, and ostensibly fighting such fellows in your name without restrain and just as they apply your official seal and stamp on action meted on their victims.
Our dear President, you need to watch some politicians who are close to you because they are desperate to make their own personal problems as Mr President’s own problem. There’s story going round that a former governor from the south-south has vowed to ensure that the Chief Justice of Nigeria is not only embarrassed but relieved of his office. To make do with his vow, he rallied handful of Mr President’s political family members around him to unleash mayhem on the judicial institution in the name of undoing Justice Onnoghen.
This is largely because the politician believe that the CJN is responsible for his political woes, just as he failed to see clearly that he is the architect of his political misfortune. They failed to obey court orders and at the same time expected some benefits thereafter from the court pronouncements.
This is why some stakeholders strongly implored the President to have a second look at the whole development, giving an impression of a Presidency being made up of “sub-presidencies” or ‘’power-blocks’’ that are operating at variance. No doubt, the national interest is far and above personal political interest or political ambition.
But come to think of it, can the President, beside the trap of his office truly believe that Justice Onnoghen is corrupt or deserve ongoing ridiculous treatment? At the risk of sounding immodest, I would join other students of history to say no.
On December 24 2008, Leadership Newspaper named the trio of former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, former Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice George Adesola Oguntade and the current CJN, Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen as the ‘’Leadership Persons of the Year’’, with the following comments:
‘’In a period of uncertainty and palpable loss of political faith, they struck a courageous blow for truth that captured and galvanised the popular imagination of Nigerians.
‘’In the face of contrived siege, they defied creeping authoritarianism and chose the road less travelled. For their fearless, judicial reaffirmation that justice is the 21st century’s most powerful idea; for lighting a candle in darkness to show the way forward, Justices Alooma Mariam-Mukhtar, George Oguntade and Walter Onnoghen are the LEADERSHIP Persons of the Year 2008.
The trio voided the 2007 electoral victory of late President Musa Yar’Adua and his then Vice, Goodluck Jonathan and sacked them from office by their epochal minority judgment. They had in their dissenting judgment, held that the allegation of substantial non-compliance with the Electoral Act 2006 was proved by the petitioner.
The Supreme Court had on December 12, 2008 in a split of 4-3 laid to rest the dispute over the April 21, 2007 presidential poll by dismissing petitions brought before it by former military head of state, Major General Muhammadu Buhari of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) and ex Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the Action Congress (AC). The Supreme in dismissing the petitions said both lacked merit.
The then CJN, Idris Legbo Kutigi, Aloysius Iyorger Kastina-Alu, Niki Tobi, and Dahiru Musdapher dismissed the Buhari appeal and upheld the election of Yar’Adua and Jonathan.
Justice Niki Tobi who read the lead judgement held thus; “In my view, the most important complaint in an election petition is the disenfranchisement of eligible voters who reported within the statutory time to cast their votes but could not for reasons of violation of the Electoral Act,” Tobi read from the judgment.
“If there is evidence that despite all the non-compliance with the Electoral Act, the result of the election was not substantially affected, the petition must fail. In other words, Election Tribunal must, as a matter of law dismiss the petition, and that accords with section 146 (1) of the Electoral Act.”
But Justice Oguntade who read the lead dissenting judgement differed with Tobi and his co-travelers, and insisted alongside his co-dissenters that failure by the electoral commission to use serialised ballot papers bound in a booklet meant that the election was not conducted substantially in tandem with the Electoral Act 2006.
“The inevitable conclusion I arrived at is that the failure of the 1st respondent (INEC) and the Chief National Electoral Officer, Maurice Iwu, to use serialised ballot papers bound in a booklet is clearly a non-compliance, which shows that the 2007 presidential elections were not conducted substantially in accordance with the principles of the Electoral Act 2006,” Oguntade said in the dissenting judgment.
The three justices that wrote dissenting judgment had besides exhibiting unequal courage and bravery did what they did out of their conscience and downright believe in giving justice. Up till tomorrow or till eternity, President Buhari doesn’t offer bribes, and he could not have offered them anything.
Therefore, it would betray tenet of good conscience and defy sense of conjecture, logical or deductive reasoning for one to say President Buhari believes Justice Onnoghen is corrupt. But this just as many Nigerians believe the President is being held hostage, prevailed upon from hearing other side of the story to balance the narratives those few aides are feeding the C-in-C with, especially those being accused for one thing or the other.
Even in an unjust war, there are rules of engagement. The office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria is a creation of the Constitution. Appointment procedure into that office and procedure for removal of occupant of that office are well provided for in the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
Section 231(1) of the 1999 Constitution states that ‘’the appointment of a person to the office of CJN shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate’’.
In the same vein, Section 292 (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) states that ‘’A judicial officer shall not be removed from his office or appointment before his age of retirement except in the following circumstances –(a) in the case of –
(i) Chief Justice of Nigeria, President of the Court of Appeal, Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Chief Judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Grand Kadi of the Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja and President, Customary Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, by the President acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate.
Section 292 (1) (b) goes further to say, ‘’in any case, other than those to which paragraph (a) of this subsection applies, by the President or, as the case may be, the Governor acting on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council that the judicial officer be so removed for his inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment (whether arising from infirmity of mind or of body) or for misconduct or contravention of the Code of Conduct’’.
Several injunctions have been procured at the Federal High Court and National Industrial Court restraining the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) against the arraignment of Justice Onnoghen. Though they are court of first instance and not appellate court but still take precedence before the CCT because they are listed in the constitution as courts of record, while CCT is not but a mere administrative tribunal.
The strongest point upon which General Buhari was voted President of Nigeria in 2015 was his avowed campaigns to rid the country of corruption and the insurgency ravaging the country.
Nigerians won’t forget easily that he came to rout out the Alhaji Shehu Aliyu Shagari’s administration on charges of corruption in 1983 and mounted an offensive against entrenched interests. Buhari justified his two years military’s seizure of power in the country from 31 December 1983 to 27 August 1985, by castigating the civilian government as ‘’hopelessly corrupt’’; arguing that “a flawed democracy was worse than no democracy at all”. In 20 months as Military Head of State, about 500 politicians, officials and businessmen were jailed for corruption during his stewardship. Detainees were released after releasing sums to the government and agreeing to meet certain conditions.
One could get worried that the impression being created in the mind of the general public is that the APC wants to have its person as CJN so as to avoid a seemingly “anti-government” judgments from the High Court to the Supreme Court. And it has been argued that there is no corruption more potent than bullying judges or procuring judges to give judgment in ones favour irrespective of the laws and facts before him. One thing is as sure to happen as the sun rising from the east tomorrow: No one would remember the names of these aides of the President ten years after, its Buhari’s government that shall continue to be mentioned.
At a moment like this, all that is required of the President is to direct the Attorney-General of the Federation to withdraw the 6-count charges he filed through the CCB against Justice Onnoghen before the CCT. Except by extra-judicial measures, there is no way AGF’s case against Justice Onnoghen will succeed at the CCT. He can only succeed at embarrassing Justice Onnoghen, the judiciary and the AGF-Malami himself because he is still a lawyer.