Hounding the Chief Justice of Nigeria, By Eze Onyekpere
…the attorney general of the federation is duty bound to get to the CCT and stop the proceedings. If the attorney general fails to discharge this constitutional duty, the CJN should defend this case to the highest quarters. He should stand his ground, continue presiding over the affairs of the judiciary, and refuse to be blackmailed.
Nigerians woke up last Saturday to a tornado in the form of news that was not expected. Yes, it is true that the executive arm of government under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari in connivance with the chief law officer of the federation, being the attorney general and minister of justice decided to charge the chief justice of the federation, being the leader of the judicial arm of government to the Code of Conduct Tribunal for what evidently are unsustainable charges in law. The proposed arraignment on Monday, February 14, 2019 has far reaching consequences for our democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law and its due process.
But how did it begin? A petition was written by one Dennis Aghanya of the Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative (ARDI) who is reported to have been President Buhari’s media aide between 2009-2011, the pioneer publicity secretary of the Congress for Progressive Change and a founding member of the Buhari Organisation. The petitioner anchored his petition to the Code of Conduct Bureau on the imminence of the 2019 elections. The petition was dated January 7, 2019 and was received by the Code of Conduct Bureau on January 9, 2019. By January 11, 2019, charges have been filed for arraignment of the CJN on January 14, 2019. Wonderful clock work, efficiency and value for money public service operation in protection of accountability and transparency! Several issues are raised by this highly charged political prosecution and this discourse shall analyse them seriatim.
The first issue is that the petitioner had access to the assets declaration of the CJN, the acknowledgement letters from the CCB, the affidavits filed and details of money in several bank accounts. All the information used in the petition were facilitated from official sources and very likely from the CCB which had custody of these documents. But this is the same CCB that has refused to disclose information on the declaration of assets of many prominent public officers when requests have been made under the Freedom of Information Act. The CCB has gone ahead to claim justification for its position under a constitutional provision that demands that the National Assembly enacts a law prescribing the terms and conditions for public access to declarations. Pray, will the CCB and other government agencies please extend the same rights and privileges to other Nigerians who have made requests for the disclosure of asset related information?
The second issue is that the charge in all practical intents and purposes seeks to remove the CJN from office less than 34 days to the elections. Why is the executive interested in removing the CJN and installing a new one? It would be recalled that President Muhammadu Buhari never wanted the current CJN to assume the office. He kept on dilly dallying and refused to confirm his appointment until he fell sick and Acting President Osinbajo had to confirm him. Thus, the President is still continuing in his refusal to confirm by attempting to remove the CJN through the back door. Any claim that the CCB is acting independently and the President is unaware is childish and can be a story for the marines. It is clear that the President with an eye on the elections has subjugated most institutions of government and seeks the control of the judiciary so that he can get away with manipulation of the elections. This is an abuse of state administrative resources contrary to section 100 of the Electoral Act 2010 as amended. The section states that state apparatus should not be deployed to the advantage or disadvantage of any candidate or political party in an election.
Again in the petition and the charge, there is no positive mention of any fraud, stealing or misappropriation of funds. But cases where fraud have been established after investigation including that of the former secretary to the government of the federation in the grass cutting case; Ghanduje, the governor of Kano State caught on tape collecting bribes; the Mainagate scandal, etc., they have all been swept under the carpet by the Presidency, EFCC, ICPC and all anti-corruption agencies. So, Nigerians elected a President and he appointed an Attorney General to pick and choose which cases to prosecute even where the available evidence is overwhelming. We cannot continue with this backwardness, barbarism and ridiculing of the anti-corruption concept. Nigerians are sick and tired of mischief and refusal to perform statutory duties all in the name of partisanship.
The charge against the CJN is not only frivolous but it is misguided and runs against judicial precedent especially the now popular judgement of the Court of Appeal in Nganjiwa v FRN (2017) LPELR 43391. It is the judgement of the Court of appeal which has not been set aside by the Supreme Court that a judicial officer who has not been investigated by the National Judicial Council and sanctioned for misconduct cannot be arraigned in any criminal court in Nigeria. This is the position of the law and it must be very well known to the Attorney General of the Federation. Even if he did not file the charges, he has the power to withdraw them and stop the proceedings. But mum is the word from his office in the last two days. He watches and may be enjoys the high drama of ridiculing and hounding of the honorable and distinguished CJN. But he forgets that the legal profession is his primary constituency and his action and omissions could lead to his being sanctioned by the Disciplinary Committee of the bar at the appropriate time. There is a precedent for this. It is up to the attorney general to decide his fate by either continuing in this direction or to change for his own good.
The 1999 Constitution clearly provides the method and way of removing the CJN from office, through the legislature or the National Judicial Council. It is very clear to the executive that none of these two methods will succeed in the circumstances considering that the CJN has not committed any offences that may lead to his removal from office. Thus, the current charge before the CCT is designed to ridicule, humiliate, intimidate and oppress the person of the CJN in particular and the judiciary in general. The message is to be understood; if the CJN being the leader of the judiciary can be treated this way, any other judge will definitely know that it will be easier to deal with him or her. Election petitions are by the corner and an emasculated judiciary will be pliable, easy to manipulate and will not be in a position to deliver justice according to the law.
Going forward, the attorney general of the federation is duty bound to get to the CCT and stop the proceedings. If the attorney general fails to discharge this constitutional duty, the CJN should defend this case to the highest quarters. He should stand his ground, continue presiding over the affairs of the judiciary, and refuse to be blackmailed. History will be just and fair to men of goodwill like him who stand up to be counted in defence of the fatherland.
Eze Onyekpere is the lead director at Centre for Social Justice.