THE purported suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Hon Justice Walter Onnoghen by President Muhammadu Buhari may have put our hard-won democracy in great danger. It was an assault against the Judiciary, the third arm of our presidential democracy; a cynical violation of the principle of separation of powers.
The President told the nation he acted on an order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, which undertook to try the CJN based on a petition accusing him of failure to declare his assets as the law mandates. Buhari ignored the fact that even the issue of the competent jurisdiction of the CCT to try the CJN had not been settled. He also overlooked the constitutional provisions (Section 292) which define the process by which a judicial officer can be removed from office.
The frightening aspect is that the Head of the Executive Branch unilaterally suspended the Head of the Judiciary. It is unprecedented in our history. Former military rulers only suspended portions of the Constitution, scrapped the Legislature and ousted the courts’ powers over certain military decrees. The Judiciary’s status as the last hope of the citizenry remained sacrosanct. If a President is allowed to suspend the CJN with such impunity, he can choose to do whatever else he likes in the future. That is not acceptable.
In our presidential system the Heads of the Executive and the Judiciary can never be removed without the involvement of all the three arms of government. It is only the leadership of the National Assembly that can be removed by their colleagues who elect them.
The danger of the President’s action is that it has set the polity on edge. The core substance of the case – the alleged misconduct and corruption against the CJN – has been overshadowed by the perception that Onnoghen is being rushed out of office to prevent him from playing his constitutional role in the impending elections in which the Judiciary is the final arbiter.
Onnoghen’s illegal suspension has further cast a shadow of doubt on the fidelity of the impending elections, especially when viewed against the background of the President’s refusal to sign the Electoral Amendment Bill.
We join other well-meaning Nigerians and the international community in condemning the manner of Onnoghen’s suspension. It is a deadly violation of the Constitution and should not stand. We strongly believe that if due processes are followed, there is no way Onnoghen can escape justice if culpable.
We call on President Buhari to restore Onnoghen to his office. Thereafter, both Onnoghen and Mohammed should honourably resign and give way to a new CJN who is not in any way sullied by the politics and morality of this issue. No sacrifice is too big to protect our democracy.