Baring behind the scene manoeuvres that might have taken place up to early this morning, the Chief Justice of the Federation could be in the dock later today for alleged false and incomplete declaration of assets even as the nation remains utterly divided on the propriety of doing so. Two sharp camps of reasoning can be identified on the issue which became a media text Saturday afternoon. Strangely, it is not along ethno-regional and religious lines. Rather the first camp is those out rightly opposed to it. The second are those who support it, directly and indirectly.
The governors of the states in the South-south may be counted to be in the lead in terms of those against the trial. At the end of an emergency meeting partly on the issue Sunday evening, the governors actually called on “CJN to ignore this so-called Court summon from the CCB and the provocative call for his resignation in some quarters”. Its communiqué read by Bayelsa State governor, Seriake Dickson stressed the volatility of the times and the potential for what they call the regrettable development at the Supreme Court to cause “avoidable anxiety, tension and possible breakdown of law and order in the country” in the context of preparations for the general elections described as wobbling and with serious concern about INEC and security agencies).
Three prominent Lagos lawyers – Afe Babalola, Femi Falana and Ebunola Adegboruwa – have spoken along this line too but on the ground that it would be extra-constitutional to commence trial of the CJN before the National Judicial Council would have investigated him or her. Falana says it is bound to be a prosecutorial misadventure if the Attorney-General of the Federation did not withdraw the case forthwith. This is because: “The charge against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, ought not to have been instituted at the Code of Conduct of Tribunal in view of the case of Nganjiwa v FRN (2017) LPELR 43391 wherein the Court of Appeal held that a judicial officer who has not been investigated by the National Judicial Council and sanctioned for misconduct cannot be arraigned in any criminal court in Nigeria.”
Elder Afe Babalola and Adegboruwa relied on the same paragraph as basis for their standpoint, with Babalola adding that, by proceeding with a directive to the CJN to excuse himself from headship of the Judiciary, “the government is unwittingly or, perhaps, deliberately, creating a wrong impression in the minds of millions of Nigerians that the Judiciary is a criminal organisation”
Senate-President, Bukola Saraki, took interest in how the petition submitted against the CJN on January 8th, 2019 matured into a demand for the CJN’s reply by January 10th, 2019 and for trial date of January 14th, 2019 to have been fixed. What he calls the haste has, for him, opened up the debate on the transparency and neutrality of the fight against corruption. He, like Hon Yakubu Dogara, the Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives, is calling for caution in handling the matter.
Similarly, the Nigeria Bar Association, (NBA) has echoed Saraki’s position, describing as an unprecedented speed and efficiency in Nigeria’s criminal justice administration the three working days between the receipt and processing of the petition, investigation, preparation of charges and ancillary processes and the arraignment date. The NBA argued that 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” the NBA said.
Said Speaker Dogara in a statement: As we approach the general elections, it is incumbent on the prosecutorial authorities to exercise caution and treat matters of this nature with utmost circumspection”. He is saying that, otherwise, it could “send the wrong signal that there is a political undertone or other ulterior motives to the issue”, being a matter that affects another arm of government and its head.
Also in this camp is Senator Shehu Sani for whom the planned trial is a “a political assault on the sacred temple of justice; it should be resisted & rescinded”.
The All Progressives Congress is leading the pack of those in support of the planned trial on the ground that it is part of the war against corruption. For it, the law should be allowed to take its course, contrary to the position of its leading opponent – the People’s Democratic Party, (PDP) which had earlier on called the move a signature tune for despotism. The APC said Sunday that there is no truth to the interpretation of the planned trial as a move to rig the impending elections, adding that the government of President Buhari is all for free and fair elections.
Apart from the APC, Comrade Mashood Erubami, the President, Nigeria Voters Assembly has argued against what he sees as Bar becoming blockage to the anti- corruption revolution he says is going on in Nigeria. “Unless and until the President steps on the toes and crushes the legs of any legal personalities that are standing against his war against corruption, nothing will be achieved”, said Erubami who is convinced that nobody should be above the law in the fight against corruption. This, he said, is why highly placed judicial officers, Prime Ministers and Presidents have been prosecuted, found guilty and sentenced to appropriate imprisonment in other sane countries. It is in the context of the foregone that this report talked of two dominant camps of which no one knows who the winner might be and what victory might look like at the end of the day!
In a few hours from now, it would be clear where the pendulum will swing. If the Chief Justice is nowhere near the CCT by noon, then a trial must have suffered a ‘Dead on Arrival’ fate and which is what is likely to happen in this case.