Onnoghen: US, UK caution, EU raps FG

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Knocks, words of caution and indeed a barrage of criticisms have continued to trail President Muhammadu Buhari’s shock suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Samuel Nkanu Walter Onnoghen, and his swift swearing in of Justice Tanko Yusuf in acting capacity.

Taking the lead in flaying what they described as a brutal attack on the judiciary by the President are state governors, embassies, political parties, prominent jurists, socio-political groups as well as civil society groups. They all cautioned Buhari to allow the rule of law to prevail in order not to plunge the country into needless chaos.

The Embassy of the United States, specifically expressed deep concerns over Onnoghen’s suspension, and deplored the executive’s decision to suspend and replace the CJN and head of the judicial branch, without the support of the legislative branch, on the eve of national and state elections.“We note widespread Nigerian criticisms that this decision is unconstitutional and that it undermines the independence of the judicial branch. That undercuts the stated determination of government, candidates, and political party leaders to ensure that the elections proceed in a way that is free, fair, transparent, and peaceful – leading to a credible result,” the statement said.

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It added: “We urge that the issues raised by this decision be resolved swiftly and peacefully in accordance with due process, full respect for the rule of law, and the spirit of the Constitution of Nigeria. Such action is needed urgently now to ensure that this decision does not cast a pall over the electoral process.”

Similarly, the British Government expressed worry over Onnoghen’s removal from office as CJN.A statement from the British High Commission in Nigeria said: “We have heard a wide range of credible and independent voices, including in the Nigerian legal profession and civil society, who have expressed concern over the constitutionality of the executive branch’s suspension of the chief officer of the judiciary.

“We respect Nigeria’s sovereign authority and its right to adjudicate on constitutional provisions, but as friends of the Nigerian people, we are compelled to observe that the timing of this action, so close to national elections, gives cause for concern. It risks affecting both domestic and international perceptions on the credibility of the forthcoming elections.

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“We, along with other members of the international community, are following developments closely,” said the statement on it’s website.
The UK government therefore urged all actors to maintain calm and address the concerns raised by the development through due process, demonstrating their commitment to respecting the Constitution and the impartial administration of the rule of law. It further urged the actors to take steps to ensure that elections take place in an environment conducive to a free, fair and peaceful process.

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On its part, the European Union said the decision to suspend the Chief Justice has led to many Nigerians, including lawyers and civil society observer groups questioning whether due process was followed, and the timing- just before the swearing in of justices for electoral tribunals, and the hearing of election-related cases.

This development, the body said, has also raised concerns about the opportunity for electoral justice.A statement by Sarah Fradgley said the EU EOM was invited by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to observe the 2019 general elections, but is now very concerned about the process and timing of the suspension.

The EU noted that with 20 days until the presidential and National Assembly elections, political parties, candidates and voters must be able to have confidence in the impartiality and independence of the judicial system, independence of the election administration, the neutrality of security agencies and the extent to which the judiciary can, and does fulfill its election-related responsibilities. “The EU EOM calls on all parties to follow the legal processes provided for in the Constitution and to respond calmly to any concerns they may have.

“The EU EOM will continue observing all aspects of the election, including the independence of the election administration, the neutrality of security agencies, and the extent to which the judiciary can and does fulfil its election-related responsibilities,” the statement read.

For the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Yakubu Dogara, Buhari’s action is simply “unconstitutional,” hence the world has now been served with notice that Nigeria is now a full-blown dictatorship. In a statement, yesterday, Dogara called on the President to rescind the decision, even though the action did not come to him as a surprise since the Buhari-led government had never hidden its disdain for the rule of law.

“We have watched in disbelief as the government recklessly deploys institutional prerogatives; routinely flouts the rule of law; subverts and assaults democratic institutions; refuses to accept opponents as legitimate players; suppresses citizens’ civil liberties (especially those of opponents) and tramples underfoot the media. In short, the government’s tyrannical and authoritarian credentials are loathsomely legendary.

“No provision in Sections 157 and 292 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) supports the President in purporting to suspend the CJN, or swearing in an acting CJN. The whole idea of a limited government is that the President’s powers is limited by law and it is ultra vires his powers to act in the absence of explicit legislative authorisation. That is representative democracy at its best, which our 1999 Constitution as amended guarantees.

“It is instructive to note that our Constitution does not contemplate or presupposes a situation whereby the judiciary will have a suspended CJN and an acting CJN at the same time. “Therefore, it is right to posit, as some have done that the President now has his own chief judge to do his bidding while Nigeria has a sitting CJN until he is removed in line with the provisions of the Constitution.

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“The awfully crude annexation of the judiciary by the President in violation of his oath of office and the Constitution cannot be for any other reason except, as alleged by so many, to prepare the judiciary ahead of time for the purpose of conferring some aura of legitimacy to the contraption that the 2019 general elections may after all become.

“I therefore call on the President to remember that he has no better legacy to bequeath other than a good name, which cannot be achieved without honour, character and integrity. Honour and integrity demand that he upholds his oath of office by reversing this assault on our Constitution and following the manifestly clear and unambiguous constitutional procedure for the removal of the CJN if he must be removed. Anything short of this demeans all of us.

IN the view of Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom, Onnoghen’s suspension and his hasty replacement is an attempt by the Presidency to truncate democracy and throw the country into anarchy. Ortom in a statement signed by his Chief Press Secretary, Terver Akase maintained that with the unconstitutional sacking of the CJN, the Presidency has demonstrated that it does not believe in the rule of law, due process and the principle of separation of powers.

According to the governor, the suspension of the CJN is not only a slap on the judiciary, but the action also exposes the present administration’s desperate self-succession bid at the expense of the country’s unity and its continued existence.He wondered why the current administration, which has no antecedent of respecting court orders acted swiftly relying on a “directive” from the Code of Conduct Tribunal to suspend the CJN.

HIS Rivers State counterpart, Nyesom Wike insists that if the suspension is not reversed, it will mark the end of independent judiciary, even as he alleged that his state is the prime target of the Buhari administration. He further alleged that the new CJN and other judges were under instructions to upturn judgments of courts in states, where the APC is in intra-party crisis.

Speaking when representatives of the National Executive Committee of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Nigeria visited him at the Government House Port Harcourt, yesterday, Wike said: “The suspension of the CJN is unfortunate. I raised an alarm when the Federal Government tested the waters by going to abduct judges in the midnight. I knew what the Federal Government intended to achieve. The whole essence was to put the judiciary in its pocket.

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“The then NBA leadership played into their hands. They allowed politics and religion to becloud their sense of patriotism. It is not the removal of the CJN that is the issue, but there is no more judiciary. No judge will henceforth deliver contrary judgment based on law against the Federal Government,” he alleged .THE Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) yesterday said “in the face of our law, Justice Tanko cannot function as a Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), as there is no vacancy in that office since the 1999 Constitution (as amended) has no provision for two Chief Justices of Nigeria at any particular time. Justice Walter Onnoghen is still in charge as the Chief Justice of Nigeria,” it added.

The party in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, also noted what it called “the illegal swearing in of members of the election petitions tribunal by Justice Mohammed Tanko, and surmised that his action was a complete nullity.” The PDP therefore charged Justice Tanko to note, “he is allowing himself to be used by despotic forces in their bid to truncate our hard-earned democracy.

“It is also imperative for Justice Tanko to agree that having allowed himself to be used to desecrate the hallowed temple of justice, his oath of office and oath of allegiance, the only option left for him is to quit the bench,” the statement said.The PDP reminded Justice Tanko of his membership of the panel set up by the National Judicial Council (NJC), which on March 14, 2018, forced Justice Obisike Orji to quit the bench and go on a compulsory retirement for allowing himself to be sworn in as the acting Chief Judge of Abia State without the statutory recommendation of the NJC.

“From Justice Tanko’s first illegal assignment, which is the swearing-in of election tribunal Justices for the forthcoming elections, Nigerians can now see the raison d’etre for his illegal appointment. This action is in itself a nullity and we caution the said justices to be reminded of the popular maxim that something cannot be built on nothing.

AS far as the Akwa Ibom State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr. Uwemedimo Nwoko is concerned, since the advent of democracy in 1999, Buhari’s action is the most potent threat to the survival of the country’s democracy.Describing it as an attempted “coup against democracy,” Nwoko called on Nigerians, the Nigerian Bar Association, and other affiliate bodies to rise up against this trait of dictatorship, stressing that such action was the saddest in the history of the country since after the annulment of the June 12th elections.

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“Since the return of democracy in May 1999, this is the single most potent, most alarming, condemnable and intolerable threat to the survival of democracy in Nigeria. Since May 2015, when the present government was sworn in, most of us have seen and observed and quietly pointed out the regular symptom of dictatorial manifestations in different forms and different times and circumstances associated with different person.

“I said it before that the regular dictatorial tendencies by the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari should not be taken for granted. I was particularly alarmed when judges’ residences were raided at night without court orders or search warrants and Nigerians took it for granted. It has become very obvious that our democracy is not only facing a threat, but also facing imminent danger. It is no more speculations, there is dictatorship in the land,” he said.

MEANWHILE, The Presidency yesterday, said the Nigerian government will not sit back and allow foreign countries to interfere in its internal affairs. Apparently reacting to recent comments credited to some foreign countries criticising government decisions especially following the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen on Friday, the Presidency in a statement signed by Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, said it will not accept any subliminal interference in the sovereignty of Nigeria under any guise.

While welcoming what it said was the prevailing keen interest and partnerships for successful elections in, and a peaceful Nigeria, the Presidency said; “we reject any interference or perception management that promotes apprehension, citizens distrust or undermines the transparency and acceptability of the outcomes of our electoral process.“Nigeria reserves the right to be insulated from suggestions and or interference with respect to wholly internal affairs and commends international laws, customs and norms that mandate and require nations and the comity to respect this prerogative to all.

“Nigeria is confident of its electoral processes and her preparation for the imminent elections and the federal government has supported the independent electoral umpire in both its independence and resources needed to accomplish our desire and insistence on free and fair elections.

“In addition, the Federal government has ensured the independence of all organs, institutions and arms of government to perform their functions in a manner that is transparent and is not lacking in integrity whether institutionally or by persons within such institutions or organs and will continue to do this.

“Although the question of foreign interference, whether state sponsored, promoted or otherwise has dominated recent elections and outcomes globally, the federal government assures citizens and the global community that it will fiercely and assiduously promote the will and the right of Nigerians to choose and elect their leaders without pressure or assistance from persons or entities that are not constitutionally empowered to participate in the process.”

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“Citizens are encouraged to confidently exercise their franchise in an orderly manner with the assurance of the federal government to their security during and after the electoral process as well as the readiness of the security forces to confront any plan or attempt to interfere with or disrupt the process whether by elements within or from outside the country.”

A pro-democracy and non-governmental organisation, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) has called on the National Assembly to impeach President Buhari over the purported suspension of Onnoghen, which it described as “unequivocally unconstitutional, illegal, immoral and grossly indefensible” and a brazen coup against democracy.

National Coordinator, Emmanuel Onwubiko in a statement, yesterday, in Abuja, said the office of the CJN is not a ministerial or extra-ministerial position, noting that the office is a creation of Sections 230 (1) (a) and 231 (1) and (2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended).

Onwubiko noted that the President cannot appoint or remove the CJN unilaterally and the Constitution has explicitly stated the procedure for the appointment and removal of the CJN and no court, tribunal, president or other authority or person in Nigeria can derogate from, override or alter the said procedure.

According to him, the Chief Justice of Nigeria is the head and symbol of authority of the Nigerian Judiciary, stressing that the judiciary is neither an agency of the federal government, nor a department in the executive. “HURIWA hereby calls on the National Assembly to impeach President Muhammadu Buhari immediately. By Section 231 (1) and (2) of the Constitution, the appointment of the CJN requires the compulsory involvement of the three arms of government. The President appoints the CJN on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC) subject to the approval of the Senate,” The statement read in part.

IN tune with HURIWA’S call for Buhari’s impeachment is a global Independent Political Action Committee, the Peter Obi Support Network (POSN), which, yesterday asked the National Assembly to reconvene immediately and begin impeachment proceedings against him for the “unconstitutional suspension.” The group in a statement signed by its spokesman, Chief Tochukwu Ezeoke said President Buhari has confirmed the statement of former President Olusegun Obasanjo that Nigeria has returned to the Abacha era.

Therefore: “The National Assembly should assert its constitutional authority and powers and prevent this slide into chaos and erosion of the rule of law,” the group said, while also calling on the Federal Government to avert the looming constitutional crisis precipitated by its ill-advised action.

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A judiciary watchdog, Access to Justice (A2J) has also called on the Federal Government to immediately rescind the “suspension” of Onnoghen, and stop politicising and undermining the judicial process, as well as the trial of the CJN.A2J in a statement endorsed by it’s convener, Mr. Joseph Otteh equally called on Justice Tanko to immediately resign from the so-called appointment as acting CJN, given the “patently illegal way this was procured.”

“A2J reiterates its earlier call for the removal of Danladi Umar from office as the chairman of the CCT in order to restore some form of credibility to the Tribunal. “We note that the politically-motivated efforts to remove Chief Justice Onnoghen from office using deeply-flawed judicial processes, within the context of impending elections might have portentous political ramifications and can lead to a huge constitutional and political crisis. It is important for our country and its nascent democracy to stave-off this looming crisis, and prevent foreseeable chaos and turmoil.

“The government needs to de-escalate the tensions that are building as a result of its pursuit of Chief Justice Onnoghen. Since the government is convinced CJN Onnoghen has committed criminal offence(s), and has confronted him with it using the ordinary process, it must allow the rule of law to run its course. The government must make every effort now, to dissipate what might be the gathering clouds of a looming anarchy,” it stated.

IN Calabar, NGOs and some political support groups have threatened to shut down the state capital with a one million-man march, even though no fixed date for the exercise has been given. But the organisers said it certainly would be within the week.The groups which include Cross River for Good Governance, (CRFGG), Arise For Onnoghen, (AFO) and Friends of Atiku, (FOA), have vowed to ensure that justice is done in the CJN’s suspension from office.

The also view the action of Federal Government as tyrannical and a further emasculation of the judiciary to feather the political interest of the ruling APC.The Secretary of FOA, Mr. Austine Ibok, yesterday said, “it is incredible and an utter violation of the constitutional provisions for President Muhammadu Buhari to just wake up and suspend the CJN, based on an advice by the Code of Conduct Tribunal CCT.”

He said with Section 292 of the amended 1999 Constitution stating that the President can only remove the CJN with 2/3 of Senate’s resolution, it is shocking and an abuse of constitutional powers for the President to have acted otherwise, even when the matter is before a competent Court of Appeal.

-GUARDIAN-

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