Suspended Nigeria Chief Judge ordered to respond to corruption allegation

The Nigerian government has been accused of circumventing constitutional provisions for the discipline of judges
A young lawyer stands at the balcony of a courtroom at the Lagos State High Court on January 29, 2019. – The Nigerian Bar Association has commenced a nationwide two-day boycott of all courts to protest suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen by President Mohammadu Buhari on corruption charges and sparking claims he had breached the constitution and was trying to manipulate the judiciary ahead of February election. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

A constitutional body saddled with powers to discipline erring judges in Nigeria has asked the country’s suspended chief judge, Justice Walter Onnoghen to reply allegations of corruption against him in seven days.

The National Judicial Council or NJC, after an emergency meeting in Abuja on Tuesday, also urged acting chief judge, justice Tanko Muhammad to respond in same manner to two allegations filed against him. The petitions were filed by citizen-based organisations and a lawyer.

“In view of the gravity of the matters involved, Council abridged the usual response period from fourteen (14) to seven (7) working days for the Hon. Justices to respond”, a statement sighted by News Central and signed by NJC Spokesman, Soji Oye said.

Nigerians were shocked last Friday by President Muhammadu Buhari’s suspension of Chief Justice Onnoghen and swift swearing in of an acting judge. The action followed an earlier six-count charge of non-assets declaration against the embattled jurist filed on January 14, before a special court.

Onnoghen had been charged before the Code of Conduct Tribunal or CCT with such issues as failure to declare Naira bank accounts and owning multiple domiciliary and foreign bank accounts with hundreds of thousands of dollars, contrary to constitutional provisions and code of conduct for public officials in Nigeria.

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Buhari’s action led to an uproar with opposition politicians especially of the Peoples Democratic Party, lawyers, civil society organisations and many western diplomats issuing statements against the decision.

The Nigerian government was accused of circumventing constitutional provisions for the discipline of judges without referring the matter to the judicial council. They warned that the action was capable of upsetting the credibility of the February 16 presidential elections, which is less than two weeks away.

The government called the bluff of the opposition and diplomats. It warned against “foreign meddling” in its internal matters even as it clarified that the suspension of the chief judge was due to grievous corruption allegations and misuse of judicial powers to circumvent the law through the use of technicalities by Onnoghen, making the suspension inevitable, after obtaining an emergency court order from the CCT to stop him from ridiculing the judiciary.

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In what looks like an oncoming tide that may sweep the country’s major judicial actors, the CCT Chairman Danladi Umar also had a petition filed against him at the NJC based on corruption allegations. “Council referred the petition against Hon. Danladi Yakubu Umar to the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) which is the appropriate constitutional body empowered to deal with it”, the NJC added.

Until his suspension, Onnoghen was the head of the NJC. But as the body met at the emergency meeting, both the chief judge and the acting chief judge were asked to recuse themselves. 

The CCT had on Monday adjourned the case indefinitely after a Court of Appeal order, pending the determination of a case of lack of powers or jurisdiction, to prosecute the matter at the CCT.

An order by the country’s body of lawyers which asked for a boycott of courtrooms for two days to express grievances by legal practitioners against Buhari’s suspension of the chief judge remained unsuccessful across Nigeria on Tuesday. Many lawyers were seen in courts even as judges showed up to handle cases. Only a handful of protests were recorded in cities like Calabar, Abuja and Lagos.

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Some lawyers said there was no need for protests directed by the Nigeria Bar Association as suspended chief justice Onnoghen had himself admitted in writing to the allegations wherein he said he “forgot” to declare the bank accounts and dozens of mansions.

The judicial council will reconvene on February 11 for a decision on  responses to the petitions.

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