The Nigerian Bar Association has condemned the filing of non-assets declaration charges against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, by the Federal Government, describing it as a ploy to emasculate the judiciary and intimidate judges ahead of the forthcoming general elections.
The President of the umbrella body of the Nigerian lawyers, Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN), described the development in a statement late on Saturday, as a “targeted assault of the judiciary by the agents of the Federal Government”.
Usoro added that the planned trial of the CJN was a violation of the Court of Appeal’s judgment in Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) which shielded serving judges from investigation and prosecution unless they are first disciplined by the National Judicial Council.
The association urged the Federal Government to exercise “restraint” as it demanded, “that the Code of Conduct Bureau follow due process in proceeding against the CJN by complying with Nganjiwa’s judgment (supra) and other similar judicial precedents.”
“This continuing attack on the justice sector must cease forthwith. FGN and its agencies must desist from debasing the rule of law,” Usoro said in the statement.
He added that with the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, having been earlier subjected to trial on charges of non-declaration of assets before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, the planned trial of the CJN followed “a pattern of consistent assault by agencies of the Federal Government on the heads of the two independent arms of government”.
The statement read in part, “There are two final issues that we must touch upon in this Statement, albeit, briefly. First, could it possibly be a coincidence that the current assault on the judiciary is taking place only weeks to the 2019 National Election?
“Apart from the conduct itself being wrongful and deplorable, its timing is condemnable. FGN will find it difficult to convince any reasonable person that its assault against the CJN and by extension the judiciary is not aimed at emasculating that arm of the government and intimidating our judges ahead of the 2019 National Elections.
“In our afore-referenced International Anti-Corruption Day Statement, the NBA had deplored ‘conducts that qualify as . . . political non-accountability, absence of transparency and impunity in public service’.
“The FGN’s conduct in this instance qualifies, amongst others, as “impunity in public service.
“As a final point, it is also difficult for a disinterested observer not to see a pattern of consistent assault by agencies of the FGN on the heads of the two independent arms of government, to wit, the legislature and the judiciary, starting with the prosecution of the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, before the CCT and now, the ill-fated prosecution of the CJN before the same CCT. The impression must not be created that the agencies of the Executive arm of the FGN are interested in destabilizing and laying prostrate the other arms of the Government and in the process eliminating and destroying any and all voices of dissent and checks and balances.”
Usoro also queried the rush with which the charges were filed as the filing was done by the Code of Conduct Bureau within 24 hours of receiving the petition against the CJN.
He stated, “Why has FGN decided to embark on this anomalous course of charging the CJN before the CCT without first presenting whatever facts it purportedly has against His Lordship to the NJC for its deliberation and determination?
“The petition that triggered the CCB action was on its face received by the Bureau on 09 January 2019 and the charge was promptly drafted and is dated the following day, 10 January 2019 – giving the CCB a record 24 hours for completion of its investigation and the drafting of the said Charge and ancillary processes! If one contemplates the fact that the CCT arraignment is scheduled to take place on 14 January 2019, we have in total a record number of three working days between the receipt and processing of the petition, investigation, preparation of charge and ancillary processes and the arraignment! Such unprecedented speed and efficiency in Nigeria’s criminal justice administration!
“It is clear, given the rush with which this matter was conducted by the CCB, that the NJC was not privy to it and did not conduct its mandatorily required disciplinary processes prior to the filing of the charge before the CCT.”
With the media already awash with the details of the charges preferred against the CJN ahead of the scheduled arraignment on Monday, the NBA said the Federal Government was subjecting Nigeria’s topmost judicial officer to media trial, which the association argued also amounted to corruption.
“Indeed, those orchestrated media trials degrade and corrupt the justice administration system quite apart from the incalculable (but obviously intended) damage that it does to persons who may ultimately be discharged and acquitted,” the NBA said in the statement.