Niger Delta leader, Chief Edwin Clark, has vowed that the people of the South South will resist the impending arraignment of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) and chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC), Justice Walter Onnoghen.
In a telephone chat with LEADERSHIP Sunday last night, Clark said the onslaught was orchestrated by the government to pave way for a pliant replacement.
While noting that what the government did to the former Director General of the Department of State Security (DSS) is similar to the latest attack on the CJN, the elder statesman said there is no way this would go unchallenged.
LEADERSHIP Sunday reports that in an unprecedented move, the federal government will tomorrow arraign the embattled CJN before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) on a six-count criminal charge bordering on alleged refusal to declare his assets.
Onnoghen who is being accused of discrepancies in the details provided to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) allegedly breached the provision of the CCB Act.
Specifically, the CJN allegedly maintains accounts in foreign currencies, which comprised Dollar account, Pound Sterling account and Euro account contrary to the provisions of extant laws guiding public office holders.
To this end, the CCT has scheduled tomorrow, Monday January 14, for the commencement of Onnoghen’s trial.
But stating vehemently that South South people will resist the move against the CJN, Chief Clark said the game plan of the Buhari administration is to sack Justice Onnoghen with a clear mandate to get a more pliant CJN that will pander to the whims of government as a replacement.
Clark who disclosed that governors from the South South will meet today to appraise the situation and come up with their action plan urge government to thread softly on this to avoid a backlash.
“We will resist this attack on our son. There is no way we will allow him to be disgraced. This is the same way they treated the former Director General of DSS. No way”, he added.
Clark further noted that all lawful means of resisting this will attract support from him and other well-meaning Niger Delta leaders and other Nigerians.
Meanwhile, head of Press and Public Relations of the CCT, Mr Ibraheem Al-Hassan, in a statement he issued yesterday confirmed that consequent upon the application filed by the CCB to the CCT chairman, a six- count charge trial against the CJN would commence tomorrow.
Disclosing that service of summons had been effected to the CJN, AL-Hassan said, “The three man panel led by Justice Danladi Umar, will commence the trial on Monday, 14th January, 2019.
“The application was filed yesterday by the operatives of CCB, dated 11st January, 2019 and signed by Musa Ibrahim Usman and Fatima Danjuma Ali containing 6 count charges all borders on non-declaration of asset.”
The application, dated January 11, was signed by two senior lawyers at the CCB, Musa Ibrahim Usman and Fatima Danjuma Ali.
LEADERSHIP Sunday gathered that the CJN may be asked to resign from his position so as to prevent undue interferences in his trial.
Although it is unclear whether or not the NJC which is the highest decision making body on judicial officers has received a petition against the CJN, sources familiar with the council disclosed that Onnogen’s fate would depend on how the council handles the allegation.
If he is eventually arraigned tomorrow, Justice Onnoghen would be the first CJN in the country’s checkered history to be arraigned for criminal charges by the federal government.
There are feelers that his planned arraignment may not be unconnected with a petition by a civil society group, Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative (ARDI), to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), listing a number of allegations against the CJN, including false declaration of assets.
The group, in the petition dated January 7, 2019, acknowledged by the office of the CCB chairman on January 9, 2019, alleged that CJN Onoghen is the owner of sundry accounts primarily funded through cash deposits made by himself up to August 10, 2016 which appear to have been run in a manner inconsistent with financial transparency and the code of conduct for public officials.
According to the petition, Onnoghen made five different cash deposits of $10,000 each on March 8, 2011 into Standard Chartered Bank Account 1062650; two separate cash deposits of $5000 each followed by four cash deposits of $10,000 each on June 7, 2011; another set of five separate cash deposits of $10,000 each on June 27, 2011 and four more cash deposits of $10,000 each the following day.
The group alleged in the petition that the CJN did not declare his assets immediately after taking office, contrary to section 15 (1) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, and that he did not comply with the constitutional requirement for public servants to declare their assets every four years during their career.
ARDI alleged that prior to 2016, Onnoghen suppressed or otherwise concealed the existence of these multiple domiciliary accounts owned by him, as well as the substantial cash balances in them.
It listed the account balances as follows: “The Standard Chartered Bank dollar account 1062650 with a balance of $391,401.28 on January 31, 2011, The Standard Chartered Bank Euro account 5001062686 with a balance of EURO 49,971 .71 on January 31, 2011, The Standard Chartered Bank pound sterling account 5001062679 with a balance of GBP23,409.66 on February 28, 2011.
“It is curious that these domiciliary accounts were not declared in one of the two CCB Forms filed by Justice Onnoghen on the same day, 14th December 2016,” the group queried.
When contacted, the senior special assistant to the CJN on media, Mr Awassam Bassey, feigned ignorance, saying he was not aware of the development until he was contacted for inquiries from journalists.
“I don’t have any information on this. I have received several calls from colleagues over the same issue. I will definitely speak when the need arise,” Awassam said.
Justice Walter Onnoghen was first appointed acting CJN and subsequently confirmed and as substantive CJN since it was argued then that the 1999 Constitution did not make provisions for acting CJN.
Section 231(1) of the 1999 constitution (as amended) provides thus: “The appointment of a person to the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the NJC subject to the confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.”
In the same vein, there is no provision in the 1999 Constitution for the removal of the CJN because the framers of the constitution did not envisage that a situation would warrant the removal of the holder of that office other than death, sickness or attainment of retirement age of 70 years.
But it has been argued that the CJN holds office at the pleasure of the Nigerian constitution and can only be removed from office by death or on attainment of age 70 whichever occurs first, or by impeachment by the Senate, which requires a two-third majority of the members of the Red Chamber
It had been argued within the judiciary circle that by virtue of the judgment of the Court of Appeal in respect of the case of Justice of Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa, the Chief Justice of Nigeria and in fact, any serving judicial officer, cannot be tried by the Code of Conduct tribunal or even court, until the National Judicial Council (NJC) would have dealt with the matter.
The thinking is that although the matter is still on appeal at the Supreme court, the judgment still stands.
Based on that judgment, the Code of Conduct Tribunal had to discontinue the trial of Supreme Court justice, Sylvester Ngwuta, who was facing trial on alleged false declaration of assets.
Similarly, the Federal High Court had also struck out money laundering charges against the Supreme Court Justice based on the said judgment.
However, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Ahmed Raji (SAN), who spoke to LEADERSHIP Sunday on telephone yesterday, urged the general public to exercise caution on the matter.
“I will advise that we thread on a cautious path. We should not dwell very much on speculations. Let us see what happens first, then we will know the way to comment,” he said.
When asked if the arraignment suggest a threat to the independence of the judiciary, especially as it borders on the 2017 Court of Appeal Judgment in the case of Ngajiwa Vs Federal Republic of Nigeria, Raji, he said, “What the judgment says is that where the offence relates to the official conduct, which concerns the discharge of his duties, then you have to report him first to the NJC.
“But where the offence has nothing to do with his work, for instance, if a judge is accused of assault in the market place, that needs not go to the NJC. That is the Court of Appeal judgment in the case of Ngajiwa Vs FRN.”
South South Govs Meet Today
Meanwhile, governors of the South South geo-political zone under the aegis of South South Governors Forum will have an emergency meeting today in Abuja over the planned arraignment of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen.
A statement by the special adviser, media relation to the governor of Bayelsa State, Mr Fidelis Soriwei, to this effect noted that the security of the Niger Delta during and after the elections and the issue of derivation will also be part of discussions at the meeting.
On the planned arraignment of the CJN, Soriwei quoted Governor Dickson as saying that, while he was yet to know the full details surrounding the developments at the Supreme Court concerning the CJN, “it is a grave and dangerous escalation, coming a few weeks to the general elections.”
He said that the South-south governor’s would address a press conference after the meeting to convey the position of the zone to the Nigerian public.
Dickson added that “all efforts must be on deck to prevent the subversion and desecration of the ethos of democracy in Nigeria as the nation moves nearer to the election.”
PDP, Atiku, Others React
Meanwhile, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has alleged that the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Buhari presidency are hounding Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, and seeking his removal so as to cause a constitutional crisis, instill fear in judicial officers and pave way for the foisting of a pliable CJN that will do their bidding on electoral matters.
Director of media and publicity of the PDP presidential campaign organization (PPCO), Kola Ologbondiyan, said the above scenario follows allegations that the APC seeks a new CJN that will aid its rigging schemes as well as execute the plot to use the court to detain and put opposition members and outspoken members of Civil Society Organizations out of circulation during the general elections.
He said, “This development is a clear recipe for anarchy and a huge crisis that is capable of fracturing our justice system and derail our democracy as it portends a prelude to a total clamp down on institutions of democracy and rule of law in our country.
“The PDP therefore urges all Nigerians, the United Nations and all international bodies to unite in the defence of our democracy, especially at this very critical time in our political development”.
In the same vein, the presidential candidate of the PDP, Atiku Abubakar, also warned President Buhari and the APC not to throw Nigeria into an avoidable crisis over their desperation to sack the Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen.
In a statement issued in Abuja yesterday by his special assistant on public communication, Mr. Phrank Shaibu, the PDP candidate said the principle of separation of powers remains sacrosanct in a democracy irrespective of what President Buhari is being told by his advisers or the buttons they are pressing to forcefully remove the CJN.
Atiku said the plot to sack Justice Onnoghen is a pre-emptive move against the bench in the face of imminent defeat and knowing the role that the judiciary plays in the final outcome of elections.
He noted: “We have just been made aware of the plot by President Muhammadu Buhari and the APC to sack Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen using flimsy assets declaration issues as a pretext. We are aware that there are plans to arraign Justice Onnoghen before the Justice Danladi Yakubu Umar led- Code of Conduct Tribunal on Monday, January, 14, 2019.
‘’But we warn that despite the clandestine meetings in the highest echelon of the APC and also involving some top officials of the federal government, which include the Code of Conduct Tribunal, neither Buhari nor the APC can re-write the Nigerian Constitution just because of its impending defeat at the February 16 presidential election.
“The heavens did not fall when PDP lost to the APC in 2015, and the heavens will not fall now that the APC is sure to lose to the PDP, seeing that the APC’s plan to rig in the forthcoming elections will not pull through”.
Atiku said Nigerians are aware that the linchpin of the plot, Mr. Dennis Aghanya, the Executive Secretary of the Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative (ARDI), the author of the purported petition seeking Onnoghen’s removal, was the National Publicity Secretary of President Buhari’s defunct political party, the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC).
The PDP candidate warned, however, that if Buhari and the APC succeed in the current plot, it then should be ready for an epic battle, the end of which no one could predict, and the consequences of which could only be imagined.
‘’We have the strength of character, the courage and the conviction to mount a sustained campaign in defence of justice, and in defence of separation of powers as enshrined in the constitution, which is the grund norm of our democracy ,” Atiku warned.
Atiku said even if the allegations against Onnoghen were true, the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) was wrong to have referred the petition to the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).
Also, the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) has described moves to sack the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, as undemocratic and unconstitutional.
The opposition platform described the alleged move as illegal plot by the Muhammadu Buhari Presidency aimed at fixing the last piece of its rigging machinery.
A statement by the spokesman of CUPP, Ikenga Imo Ugochinyere, however enjoined the Chief Justice of the Federation not to resign for the sake of democracy, warning that the opposition will immediately commence mobilisation for a One-Million-Man March to save the Nigerian judiciary from President Buhari’s ‘reign of destruction’.
Ugochinyere further fingered some leading members of the All Progressives Congress (APC) as the brains behind the CJN-Must-Go Project just as he claimed that information available indicates that “a strange order without adequate judicial authority directing the Chief Justice to vacate his seat while the tribunal sits” is in the offing.
He added that the presidency had during the appointment of Justice Onnoghen shown its card that it was not comfortable with his appointment; hence, it was delayed until President Buhari was hurried out of the country due to ill health.
CUPP stated: “Justice Onnoghen has since shown that he is fair, firm, and able to do justice and will not succumb to the pressures of a Presidency that is planning to rig an election as the only hope of winning re-election following their rejection by the Nigerian people.
“This dastardly move by the Presidency is the last desperate act of an outgoing government to blackmail the CJN out of office and bring in a rogue judge to allow APC rigging”.