The National Judicial Council, NJC, yesterday waded into the crisis rocking the judiciary, by directing suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, to respond to corruption allegations against him within seven working days.
NJC, which is the organ of the judiciary responsible for Appointments, Promotions and Discipline of Judicial Officers, also gave the Acting CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad, the same number of days to explain why disciplinary action should not be taken against him for submitting himself to be sworn-in by President Muhammadu Buhari as Onnoghen’s replacement.
In essence, the duo have till Thursday, February 7, 2019, or nine days from today to respond. The legal body took the decision at the end of an emergency meeting it held in Abuja over last Friday’s suspension of the CJN by President Buhari.
Specifically, the NJC, directed Onnoghen to respond to a petition lodged against him by Mr. Zikhrillahi Ibrahim of the Resource Centre for Human Rights & Civil Education. It was learned that the petitioner is accusing Onnoghen of being in possession of funds and properties that are way beyond his legitimate earnings.
On the other hand, NJC asked the Acting CJN, Justice Muhammad, to respond to two separate petitions entered against him by a group, the Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative, and a former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba, SAN. Agbakoba had in his petition urged the NJC to determine the propriety of Justice Muhammad accepting to be sworn-in by the President in place of the suspended CJN, despite being aware of the implication of his conduct.
According to Agbakoba, by submitting himself to the President to be sworn-in as acting CJN, Justice Muhammad lent himself to constitutional infraction by the executive arm of government.
He recalled that Justice Muhammad was a member of the panel that sanctioned Justice Obisike Orji of Abia State for allowing himself to be sworn-in as Abia State Chief Judge by the state’s governor without recourse to the NJC.
NJC to send petition against CCT chair to FJSC Consequently, Agbakoba, accused the Acting CJN of engaging in an act of judicial misconduct. Meantime, the NJC, in a statement by its Director of Information, Mr. Soji Oye, said it would forward another petition filed against the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, Mr. Danladi Umar, to the Federal Judicial Service Commission, FJSC.
The CCT Chairman had on January 23, issued the ex-parte order President Buhari relied upon to suspend Onnoghen, after which he and swore in Muhammad.
A group under the platform of Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative, had urged the NJC to sanction the CCT boss for engaging in “reckless abuse” of his judicial powers.
However, the Council said the FJSC was the appropriate constitutional body empowered to deal with issues the petitioner raised against the CCT Chairman.
Onnoghen, Muhammad get copies of petitions against them Already, the NJC, said it has furnished both Onnoghen and Muhammad with copies of the petitions against them, adding that it abridged their response time to seven days, owing to the “gravity of the matters involved.”
Before its meeting, the NJC asked both Onnoghen and Muhammad to recuse themselves although every serving CJN is statutorily empowered to preside over activities of the NJC. In their stead, former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umaru Abdullahi, was elected to act as the Interim Chairman of the NJC, pending the resolution of the crisis.
However, the Council, said it would reconvene its sitting on February 11.
The statement, read: “The National Judicial Council held an emergency meeting today and considered four petitions filed at its secretariat.
The petitions are: “Petition against Hon. Mr. Justice W.S.N. Onnoghen, GCON by Zikhrillahi Ibrahim of Resource Centre for Human Rights & Civil Education;
“Petition against Hon. Mr. Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, CFR by Centre for Justice and Peace initiative:
“Petition against Hon. Mr. Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, CFR by Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, OON; and:
“Petition against Hon. Danladi Yakubu Umar, Chairman, Code of Conduct Tribunal by Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative.
“Council referred the petition against Hon. Danladi Yakubu Umar to the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) which is the appropriate constitutional body empowered to deal with it.
“In line with its procedure, Council also forwarded the petitions against Hon. Justices W.S.N. Onnoghen, GCON and I. T. Muhammad, CFR to them for their responses.
“In view of the gravity of the matters involved, Council abridged the usual response period from fourteen (14) to seven (7) working days for the Hon. Justices to respond. “Hon. Mr. Justice W. S. N. Onnoghen, GCON and Hon. Mr. Justice I.T.
Muhammad, CFR recused themselves from the meeting.
“Consequently, Council elected Hon. Mr. Justice Umaru Abdullahi, CON, former President of the Court of Appeal as Interim Chairman to preside over the meeting. Council will reconvene on the 11th February, 2019.”
Onnoghen challenges suspension Meantime, Justice Onnoghen has gone before the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal to challenge the ex-parte order the CCT issued for his suspension.
He argued in the four grounds of appeal he lodged through his team of lawyers led by Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, that the Mr. Umar-led CCT erred in law by granting an ex-parte order for his removal, even when its jurisdiction to entertain the six-count charge the Federal Government levelled against him was being challenged.
He therefore applied for “an order setting aside the order of the tribunal made on the 23rd of January, directing the Appellant to step aside as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and a further order that the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria takes all necessary measures to swear-in the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council.”
Onnoghen contended that “the exercise of powers over the motion ex-parte without first determining the jurisdiction of the tribunal amounted to unlawful exercise of jurisdiction and therefore void.”
A three-man panel of the Court of Appeal had on January 24, ordered the CCT to halt further proceedings before it to await the outcome of an appeal Justice Onnoghen lodged before it.
Meanwhile, some lawyers, yesterday, defied the two-day sit-at-home order from the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, and appeared before the Supreme Court to represent their clients.
A five-man panel of justices of the apex court presided over by Justice Mary Odili, heard and adjourned about nine cases on the cause list. Likewise, both the Court of Appeal and the Federal High Court, Abuja conducted proceedings with lawyers in attendance, though most of the parties took fresh hearing dates.
The situation was, however, not the same at various courts of the Federal Capital Territory, where most of the judges were absent. The atmosphere in all the courts visited by Vanguard NGN was calm with no task force in sight to enforce the boycott order the NBA declared on Monday in protest against the suspension of Justice Onnoghen.
Recall that President Buhari had in an unprecedented move on Friday, suspended Onnoghen who was accused of failing to declare some of his assets as prescribed by the law, and swore in the most senior jurist of the Supreme Court, Justice Tanko Muhammad to take over the leadership of the judiciary as the acting CJN.
Irked by the President’s action, NBA which is the umbrella body of lawyers in the country, ordered all its members to boycott courts for two days, starting from Tuesday. NBA, which took the decision at the end of an emergency meeting of its National Executive Committee, NEC, further constituted a three-man committee to liaise with all its members currently serving in President Buhari’s government with a view to finding a way to resolve the crisis involving Onnoghen.