Nigeria's Democracy at a Crossroads under Buhari

Jan 17, 2019

Justice Walter Onnoghen, left, during his swearing in by Vice President Osinbajo, during Buhari's medical sojourn abroad. The FG appears to want him out of the scene

Last Sunday, the nation was thrown into a frenzy following the news that the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, was to be tried at the Code of Conduct Tribunal at the instance of the Federal Government of Nigeria for allegedly failing to declare his assets and for operating domiciliary accounts. This development, coming barely a month to the presidential election, was seen as a desperate move by the incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari, to cling on to power at all costs. According to this school of thought, the move was to remove the CJN and replace him with a pliant person who will be ready to do the bidding of the government in power by appointing ''friendly'' judges to serve in post election suits.

Going by Buhari's recent antecedents, those who nurse the above fear may not be blamed, being that Buhari has supervised a systematic breach of the laws of the land by largely shunning due process, as well as dividing the country along ethnic and religious lines.

That Buhari does not care a hoot about the laws of the land is not in dispute, especially as far as his actions are concerned. The latest move to unseat the CJN is one of them, being that under Section 158(1) of the 1999 Constitution, the National Judicial Council has ample powers to deal exhaustively with matters pertaining to allegations of misconduct and discipline of judicial officers.

Specifically, the NJC has the powers and clear procedures for investigating allegations and recommending appropriate sanctions or disciplinary measures against judicial officials as a matter of first instance before any further steps.

Legal experts have been making reference to the judicial pronouncements in the cases of FGN Vs Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court (January 9, 2018) and Justice Ngajinwa Vs FGN 2017 at the CCT, which, they say, have given validation to the express provisions of the constitution on this issue.

This is why the latest move by the FG is viewed as a grave and dangerous escalation of the assault on institutions of state, including the National Assembly and the judiciary by a president saddled with the constitutional responsibility and huge moral obligation to defend the country's democracy.

Looking at the entire saga, one would indeed come to no other conclusion than that it is an orchestrated move to intimidate the judicial arm and gag it ahead of the 2019 general elections, especially during the expected litigations that will trail the elections. It took the absence of Buhari (during his medical trip abroad) for the Vice President to effect the swearing in of Onnoghen whose appointment was delayed by Buhari before he fell sick. This shows that the FG never had faith in Onnoghen or trusted him.

One of the questions Nigerians are asking is why this action should be taken now, barely a month to the general elections. For the petition against the CJN to have been submitted on January 8, charges drafted on January 9 and arraignment fixed for January 14, in a country not noted for such speed in the judicial process, certainly smacks of something being wrong somewhere.

The outrage by Nigerians against this move shows how unpopular it is and the president will do well to stop going ahead with it.

Already, Justice Onnoghen failed to appear before the CCT, prompting them to adjourn the matter to January 22. Onnoghen's refusal or failure to show up before the CCT, when noted against the backdrop of the call in some quarters for him to shun it, has only served to heighten tension which the country can certainly do without.

We therefore urge the president to listen to the voice of reason and toe the path of due process, while also respecting the laws of the land. Failing to do this will only inch the country closer to anarchy.


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