The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) rose from its National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting in Abuja yesterday, calling on its members nationwide to boycott all courts for two days. The action billed to begin today is a protest against the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen, by President Muhammadu Buhari.
A statement at the end of the meeting reads in part: “NEC resolved that members should boycott all courts for the next two days starting from 29th to 31st of January, 2019.”
The meeting ratified the constitution of a three-man committee (which may be expanded) made up of former Presidents Wole Olanipekun (SAN), A. B. Mahmood (SAN) and President Paul Usoro (SAN) to interface on the issue.
The committee adopted and ratified all actions and statements earlier issued by the NBA president on the prosecution and suspension of the CJN.
The body yesterday summoned an emergency meeting of all its executive members following the suspension of Onnoghen.
In a statement it issued at the weekend, the NBA decried Buhari’s “outright disrespect for the constitution” in the suspension of Justice Onnoghen.
The embattled Onnoghen yesterday described rumour of his purported resignation as fake news.
A statement issued by his media aide, Awassam Bassey, said the fake news was being circulated by mischief makers.
“Mischief makers are still circulating this fake news. Once again, no truth in it whatsoever. The Hon CJN, Hon Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, GCON, has not resigned,” Bassey said.
The NBA met as the Senate took President Buhari to the Supreme Court for “illegally” suspending Onnoghen.
The upper legislative chamber is seeking the interpretation of the apex court “on whether President Buhari acted within the provision of the constitution in his suspension of the CJN or whether the action of the president does amount to usurpation of the powers of the Senate as provided for in Section 292 of the constitution.”
Senate President Bukola Saraki, in a statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Yusuph Olaniyonu, yesterday, explained that an emergency sitting of the Senate tomorrow was no longer required since the rules of the upper legislative chamber are against debating matters pending before the courts. Thus, the previous adjournment of the Senate till February 19, 2019 stays.
Also yesterday, lawyers, human rights activists, students and others across the country protested against the suspension of the CJN, describing the action as unconstitutional.
In Abuja, members of the National Interest Defenders (NID), Lawyers in Defence of Democracy (LDD) and other human rights groups, who jointly protested, converged at he headquarters of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to demand, among other things, that the association rise in defence of democracy.
They also urged justices and judges across the country to shut down courts in solidarity with the CJN.
Addressing the protesters, the convener of the NID, Mr. Ikenga Ugochinyere, alleged that President Buhari relied on and used a forged and fictitious tribunal order to suspend Justice Onnoghen.
“Nigerians will recall that the petition served on the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) against the CJN was received by the bureau on January 9. The purported tribunal order which the president claimed he relied on was also dated the same January 9. The motion on notice seeking the same prayers as the purported motion ex parte was dated January 10, the charge filed was dated January 10 while the statement of the CJN in answer to the petition was dated January 11,” he stated.
Ugochinyere observed that “from the above dates, it appeared that upon receipt of the petition, the first action of the bureau was to file a motion ex parte, asking Onnoghen to vacate office for Justice Tanko Mohammed to be sworn in even before the commencement of an investigation into the matter, before the CJN was approached to make a statement and even before charges were filed against him.”
By this, the group accused Buhari of violating the constitution which he swore to uphold.
“This is an act that amounts to gross misconduct and it must certainly warrant his removal from office. The National Assembly should as a matter of urgency, national importance and patriotism, commence without any delay the process of impeaching President Buhari.
“We also call on the NBA and the National Judicial Council (NJC) to decide whether the impunity should be allowed to stand. The NJC and NBA must order the shutdown of the courts until the illegal suspension of the CJN is lifted and the impostor CJN, Justice Tanko Mohammed made to vacate the office.
“The NJC must expel Justice Mohammed from the Bench for accepting an illegal appointment in violation of the constitution and the NJC rules of engagement.
“The NBA must direct lawyers to boycott the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) presided over by Danladi Umar until disciplinary action is served on Umar for issuing a fake order that paved the way for impunity.”
The protesters urged the National Assembly to commence action for the removal from office of Umar, “who, having criminal charges against him, still sits in office and dumped Nigeria in a state of constitutional hiatus.”
The protest was disrupted by another group of people in support of President Buhari’s action.
In Enugu, residents of the south east zone yesterday took to the streets to protest against Onnoghen’s suspension.
The placard-carrying protesters, under the aegis of Coalition of Southeast Voters’ Voice, marched to Enugu Government House, state and federal high courts as well as the House of Assembly. They called on the National Assembly to immediately convene and consider a motion for the impeachment of President Buhari whom they alleged had acted contrary to the oath he swore to uphold, by the suspension of Onnoghen.
Some of the inscriptions on the placards carried by the protesters, who wore black attires, read: “Coalition of Southeast voters call for immediate impeachment of President Buhari”, “Osinbajo has failed as a judicial officer”, “Southeast governors, stop romancing with a tyrant”, “ Muhammed Tanko should resign now’, and “Stop desecrating our judiciary.”
The coordinator of the protesters, Mr. Sunday Umeha, said they were “worried over the latest episode in the series of undemocratic and constitutional recklessness that has become the hallmark of the Buhari’s administration.”
He stated that though they had found that it had become difficult for the Buhari administration to conform to minimum standards of civil rule, given how it had allegedly undermined democratic governance, they never knew “it would extend its brigandage to the hallowed temple of justice to whom we owe the preservation of our hard-fought democracy.”
The group, which said that it was not defending the suspended CJN, argued that the country “is a constitutional democracy where every action of government must be done according to law, otherwise it will be null and void abinitio.”
Former Vice President and Presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, condemned the move against Onnoghen, calling on Nigerians to be more vigilant against further breaches of the constitution by the Federal Government.
At the popular Shehu Yardua Centre in Abuja, Atiku reviewed the mood of the nation regarding the challenges faced by democracy and accused the presidency of taking undemocratic actions.
He commended Nigerians and the international community for rising against the attack on democracy.
“How we react to this challenge in the following days will determine the fate of our democracy, which has been brought to great peril by this needless crisis engineered by a government that is unwilling to subject its conducts to the requirements of our constitution.
“I need to state that this latest action by General Muhammadu Buhari falls squarely within the pattern of executive lawlessness that has now been firmly turned into statecraft by the APC government,” he noted.
According to Atiku, “The serial disregard of court orders, and consequent violation of constitutionally guaranteed human rights of our citizens confirm beyond all doubt that General Buhari and his government would rather obey their own whims and operate by separate rules outside the well-established constitutional order and the rule of law. It scarcely requires emphasis that this behaviour is alien to democratic rule and more in line with that of a military dictator.”
He said although corruption should be fought to a standstill, the process and procedures as laid down in the constitution must be strictly complied with.
“Without doubt, the fight against corruption is crucial to good governance and the progress of our country. In this context, the issue of corruption as it relates to the institution of the judiciary is even more crucial. As the last refuge of the common man, our judiciary must not only be above suspicion but must also be seen to be manifestly above board. The issue at stake is not whether the Chief Justice is guilty or not, but whether his removal from office has been done in accordance with the process specified in our constitution” he declared.
“As a democrat, I must say, without equivocation, that no mission or goal, no matter how noble or well intended, should be used as a pretext for the subversion of our democracy and our democratic institutions. To create a condition that allows the constitution and the rule of law to become secondary to any other agenda is to pave the way for tyranny.”
He drew attention to the continuous disregard for key democrat institutions in the country.
“We are all witnesses to how this government has serially assaulted the National Assembly, a separate arm of government that represents the bastion of our democracy. However, with this attack on the judiciary, General Buhari has set a new precedent in our democracy that has no equivalence in our history, not even in the darkest days of military dictatorship. This cannot be allowed to stand.”
He warned the president against any further step against the constitution and democracy, pointing out that “such actions that may push us further down the slippery slope towards a major constitutional crisis could derail the electoral process.”
On its part, the leadership of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) condemned the suspension of Onnoghen, calling for his immediate re-instatement in “order for rule of law to prevail in the country.”
The students made their position known during a protest march to the Ogun State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Press Centre, Abeokuta, yesterday.
Their spokesman, Azeez Adéyemí told journalists after their demonstration that the move against Onnoghen was a total affront to the rule of law and constitutional democracy.
“Unilaterally and in flagrant violation of the constitution, he also swore in Tanko Muhammed as the acting CJN. By this act, the President has precipitated needless confusion in the polity, a shocking action that will aggravate tension ahead of the general elections in February and March.
“We frown on the way Buhari defended his action by citing an order from the CCT directing Onnoghen’s suspension. His action is akin to a coup – a judicial coup in this case. In a subtle way, the president has suspended an integral part of the judiciary arm of government.”
Some of the placards the students carried bore inscriptions like “Suspension of CJN by Buhari is Satanic and Demonic”, “NANS demands that Buhari should apologize to Nigerians on CJN Saga”, “Buhari go home, you are not fit”, “Buhari, the suspension of CJN has the hands of Jacob, voice of Esau”.
But the Federal Government has dismissed criticisms trailing the suspension of Onnoghen, insisting that the president followed the law by not contacting the NJC before taking the action.
The government also argued that the CCT acted within its powers in ordering the removal of the CJN.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed who briefed journalists yesterday in Abuja said the suspension of Justice Onnoghen was a consequence of his breach of the code of conduct for public officers and had nothing to do with the forthcoming elections, neither did it signify the onset of dictatorship or tyranny as some had insinuated.
He insisted that the action of President Buhari was in compliance with the order of the CCT which directed the suspension of the CJN pending the determination of the cases against him at the tribunal and several fora relating to his alleged breach of the law.
To Mohammed, Justice Onnoghen has been given the opportunity of fair hearing, but “e has been abusing his position and the judicial process by filing frivolous applications and even dodging service of processes.”
The minister argued that Justice Onnoghen himself had in various judgments, upheld the provisions of the law concerning the CCT, adding that in one particular judgement he delivered on July 12, 2013, Onnoghen held that the CCT had exclusive jurisdiction to deal with all violations contravening any of the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau.
“Let me put this in a layman’s language: All breaches of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers must be handled by the CCT. Pure and simple. In other words, Justice Onnoghen’s judgement held that the provisions expressly ousted the powers of ordinary regular courts in respect of such violations.
“As for those who argued that the CCT is wrong in ordering Justice Onnoghen’s suspension, are they aware that Justice Onnoghen himself disagreed with them? The judgement, which was delivered at the Supreme Court with suit number ‘SC.279/2012’ before Justices Onnoghen and others, also held that the provisions of the law are clearly unambiguous.”
Meanwhile, the CCT has adjourned indefinitely the trial of Onnoghen.The adjournment was made pending the decision of the Court of Appeal in a case brought before the court by Onnoghen.
The two-man panel of the tribunal led by Umar, said the adjournment was in compliance with the Court of Appeal order made on January 24, which put the trial on hold till Wednesday January 30, when it would rule on the motion on notice pending before it.
Besides, the NJC will today hold an emergency meeting over the suspension of the CJN.
The meeting, which was previously scheduled for 10:00 a.m. yesterday, will hold today in Abuja. It was learnt that neither Onnoghen, whose suspension has become a subject of controversy, nor Ibrahim Muhammad, the acting CJN, will be allowed to preside over the meeting.