I returned from the 5NOG, 2019 only to read the pathetic and disheartening news that President Muhammadu Buhari has suspended the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen. Without spilling much ink lets quickly analyse the provisions of Section 292 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The aforementioned section provides thus:
“A judicial officer shall not be removed from his office or appointment before his age of retirement except in the following circumstances:
- In the case of-
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…praying that he 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”.
Thus, in this case, a serving Chief Justice of Nigeria can only be removed from office by the President if two-thirds majority members of the senate assents to such removal.
The law does not envisage the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria by the President. The omission of ‘suspension’ by the framers of the Constitution, to the best of my knowledge was not a mistake; meaning that the Chief Justice of Nigeria can only be removed and not suspended.
Suspension, simply put, means a temporary debarment from a privilege or position. Removal on the other hand, means dismissal from office. The President suspended the Chief Justice of Nigeria on the order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal. The Fifth Schedule to the Constitution provides for punishments where a public officer is found guilty of Contravention of any of the provisions of Code of Conduct. These punishments are:
- Vacation of office or seat in any legislative house, as the case may be;
- Disqualification from membership of a legislative house and from holding of any public office for a period not exceeding ten years; and
- Seizure and forfeiture to the State of any property acquired in abuse or corruption of office.
It is evident that the Code of Conduct Tribunal can only impose punishment after a public officer has been found guilty and not otherwise. Also, the Code of Conduct Tribunal cannot hand down a punishment of suspension on the Chief Justice of Nigeria as doing so will amount to ultra vires of its powers.