CJN, Walter Onnoghen
In the last couple of days, Nigerians have been engaged in hot discussions and disagreements about the direction of our politics and governance. The most discussed topic is that President Muhammadu Buhari’s unilateral suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, over unproven allegations of under-declaration of assets.
While the discerning majority see through the illegality, breach of due process and discountenancing of separation of powers, a few members of the minority who see and hear no evil about the President who now acts like an emperor continue to justify the aberration. Clearly, an abuse of presidential and executive powers has crystallised.
It is imperative to state that law is an instrument of justice; it facilitates social engineering through the resolution of societal conflicts and the central theme of law and justice is to treat like cases alike and different cases differently. Nigerians are entitled to equality before the law and equal protection of the law. No one is above the law and no one is to enjoy any advantage or suffer any disadvantage simply because of their religion, sex, ethnicity, etc. in the implementation of any law, policy or administrative action. Thus, discrimination is outlawed except on the grounds clearly stated and cognisable under the clawback clause of the 1999 Constitution.
Central to the abuse of presidential powers is the issue of blackmail and using the law as an instrument of fighting the opposition. Nigerians will recall that after the internal intrigues in the ruling All Progressives Congress led to the emergence of Senator Bukola Saraki as the Senate President, he was charged to the Code of Conduct Tribunal over allegations of asset declaration. He was maligned, abused and humiliated until the Supreme Court discharged and acquitted him. The law was set in motion to force and blackmail him to resign from the exalted office. He was even asked by the former APC chairman, John Odigie-Oyegun, to resign as the Senate President and once he resigned, the party would ensure that the case at the CCT would be discontinued.
Today, the presidential abuse of powers in relation to Justice Onnoghen still has the same imprimatur of the CCT. It appears that the CCT is the available forum for manipulation and settling political scores. Why is this so? It is a matter of common knowledge that the CCT chairman, Danladi Umar, is legally and morally challenged. He has been investigated for corruption and a prima facie case established against him. A former Attorney General of the Federation, Mohammed Adoke, had sought to prefer a charge against him for extorting money from persons appearing before the CCT but did not get it through before he left office. During the Saraki trial, the issue of whether Danladi Umar was fit and proper to continue presiding over the CCT came up and the Federal Government through the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission defended his continued stay in office.
However, in a twist to the Umar story and in February 2018, the EFCC filed charges of fraud against Umar. The charges, prepared by Festus Keyamo, an EFCC prosecutor, came two years after the anti-graft agency absolved the same Umar of any wrongdoing in a case of judicial bribery and racketeering. Court filings published by the media indicated that Umar collected N10 million from Rasheed Taiwo, a former Customs official who was facing false asset declaration charges before the CCT sometime in 2012. The prosecution also accused Umar of receiving N1.8 million of the N10 million bribe sum through one of his personal assistants, Gambo Abdullahi. The two counts of fraud contravened Section 12(1) (a) and (b) of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2003. The offences he was charged with attract up to seven years in prison. These charges were filed after Umar did not find Saraki guilty.
In the typical manner of the present Federal Government, the story moved into the dramatic mode as the Attorney-General queried the chairman of the EFCC and Keyamo, the prosecutor. The contents of the query as reported in the media are to the effect that: “The attention of the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation was drawn to news report that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has filed charges of corruption against the chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, Hon. Justice Danladi Umar, before the High Court.
I am directed by the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation to seek clarification from you as to whether the charges were filed on your instruction or directive and if in the affirmative, what is the compelling basis for doing so. This clarification becomes imperative in view of the following background facts. The commission’s investigation report dated 5th March 2015 addressed to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation stated as follows: ‘the facts as they are now against Justice Umar raised a mere suspicion and will therefore not be sufficient to successfully prosecute for the defence’.
Kindly accord this letter top priority while your prompt response within 48 hours from the receipt of same is required in the circumstances.”
This high wire politicking led to the discontinuation of the prosecution.
However, the complainants in the case have not withdrawn their complaint. It is just that the state refused to prosecute. So, what is happening now? The Attorney-General refuses to prosecute Umar but treats him as a vulnerable person who can be blackmailed and maligned at any point in time. He either obeys the will of his blackmailers or he will be in the dock to answer for the charges with the overwhelming evidence against him.
This is how low the administration of criminal justice has sunk in Nigeria. If this is not the case, no reasonable person can understand what will make a person trained as a legal practitioner and who presides over a Tribunal to adjourn a motion on notice for argument and purportedly later, hears the motion ex-parte and issues far-reaching orders including the ones the Tribunal has no jurisdiction to make. How can a legal practitioner who is not suffering blackmail issue orders at a time the jurisdiction of his Tribunal is challenged and the decision on jurisdiction is to be made after the motion has been canvased by the parties already before the Tribunal?
In the circumstances, even if we are to go by Buhari’s jurisprudence as reflected in his speech that purportedly suspended the CJN, Umar should be allowed go and clear his name before continuing to preside over a Code of Conduct Tribunal. From the very strong prima facie case already made out against him, he is no longer a fit and proper person to continue to preside over an ethics Tribunal like the CCT.
Leaving him on the seat and continually blackmailing him is a great disservice to the rule of law and constitutional democracy.
The disciplinary body of the legal profession should take steps to call Umar to order because the abuse of powers was done in his capacity as legal practitioner considering that he is not a judicial officer. The legal profession must defend its honour and integrity.
-Written by Eze Onyekpere