Lawyers yesterday disagreed over the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) judgment in the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Walter Onnoghen case.
To Babatunde Fashanu (SAN), the decision was not sound, Paul Ananaba SAN said it suggested that “the judiciary is working”.
The President of Voters Awareness Initiative (VAI), Wale Ogunade, hailed the judgment because, according to him, it showed that no one is above the law.
In Law teacher Wahab Shittu’s view, the situation calls for sober reflection.
The CCT found Onnoghen guilty of violating the code of conduct for public officers and concealment of assets.
CCT Chairman Danladi Umar ordered that Onnoghen be removed as CJN and stripped of the National Judicial Council (NJC) chairmanship.
It also banned the ex-CJN from holding public office for 10 years. The funds found in the five accounts he failed to declare are to be confiscated by the Federal Government.
Fashanu argued that the CCT had no jurisdiction to try Onnoghen.
According to him, the body with jurisdiction to try a CJN is the NJC. Onnoghen, the tribunal said, was being tried as a public officer and not a judicial officer.
Fashanu also disagreed with the 10-year ban imposed on Justice Onnoghen from holding public office, saying that it would have been okay if the CCT had jurisdiction.
He said if at all the CCT must try Onnoghen, it could only have done that after a disciplinary action had been taken against him by the NJC and the matter was thereafter referred to the tribunal for trial.
Citing constitutional provisions, Fashanu maintained that it is only the NJC that has the last say on the discipline of a CJN and judges.
To buttress his position, he cited the Court of Appeal decision in FRN Vs Nganjiwa and argued that until the decision of the high court is overturned, it is still the NJC that has the powers and jurisdiction to discipline the suspended CJN.
Fashanu recalled that in the course of the trial, Justice Onnoghen objected to the chairman of the tribunal sitting on the matter over some issues raised against him.
He wondered why the CCT chairman did not recuse himself from the matter.
He maintained that the discipline of Onnoghen is a constitutional matter and that that power is given only to the NJC by the constitution to exercise.
The Silk said what the CCT had done was in conflict with the constitution.
“To that extent, the provisions in the CCT Act empowering it to try the issue of declaration of asset, to decide on it as it did with reference to NJC disciplinary action and provisions of the constitution is not proper,” he said.
But Ananaba added that without prejudice to Onnoghen’s right of appeal, the judgment could be an indication that the judiciary was being tested.
Ananaba said: “The judgment means that the judiciary is working, even though this court (CCT) is an administrative court.”
Responding to whether the judgment is a victory for the anti-graft war of President Muhammadu Buhari, Ananaba said: “It depends on who is looking at it. One thing very sure is that it shows very clearly that even a Chief Justice of the Federation can also go through the judicial process.
“However, this (the Onnoghen case) is not corruption as such; he was not charged with fraud, he was charged with failure to declare assets, so, it shouldn’t be translated to anti-corruption as such.”
Is the judgment a confirmation that the CJN can be removed by judicial process?
Ananaba said: “Well, he can be removed based on the constitutional provisions. The Constitution says that he can be removed in this instance; the only thing is that it has not been a general practice, it is new, this is the first time this is happening, but it has happened. It will be tested at the appellate courts.”
Wahab Shittu, an EFCC counsel, noted that the CCT’s conviction was not the end of the matter.
He said: “I believe that the Code of Conduct Tribunal made its own pronouncement but that is not the end of the matter.
“I see Onnoghen exercising his constitutional right of appeal; the matter might be protracted and get up to the Supreme Court.
“It is a sad commentary on our judiciary as no one should celebrate what has happened in this situation where the number one judge in the country has found himself in this kind of predicament.
“It does not call for celebration; it calls for sober reflection and deep concern.
“I want to reserve further comments until the machinery of justice is fully exhausted because I feel the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court will make further pronouncement.”
Ogunade urged that corruption investigations should not be politicised.
He said: “For such a step to be taken against a high ranking official, particularly against the head of the judiciary, then there is smoke behind the fire, I knew something was wrong and, indeed, he was found guilty.
“I was convinced that he was guilty when the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) wrote a petition to the National Judicial Council (NJC) which recommended his resignation and so on.
“I was one of those who suggested, when he started, that he should eat the humble pie and resign as an honourable man but, unfortunately, he allowed himself to be misled by his kinsmen who believed that it was politics.
“Law and politics are like water and oil, there is no way you can mix the two; law will always stand and politics will fall like what you have seen.
“It also shows that there is no sacred cow; those who think they are above the law now know they are under the law; it does not matter that you are the chief law officer.”
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