The Senate on Monday filed a suit before the Supreme Court praying for among others, an order reinstating Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
The Senate action came after it cancelled its scheduled plenary earlier billed for Tuesday (today).
The Clerk of the Senate, Mr Nelson Ayewoh, who announced the cancellation in a statement signed by him, did not give reasons for the action.
He only explained that the federal lawmakers would resume on February 19.
But the Special Adviser (Media) to the Senate President, Mr. Yusuph Olaniyonu, in a statement explained that the cancellation was due to the last-minute decision by the Senate leadership to seek judicial interpretation to Onnoghen’s suspension by President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday.
In the suit marked SC.76/2019, the Senate asked the apex court to declare the suspension of Onnoghen without support of two-thirds majority of the Senate as a violation of section 292(1)(a)(i) of the constitution.
The suit also asked the apex court to issue an order restraining the two defendants in the suit – President Buhari and the Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr Abubakar Malami – from continuing or repeating the violation of the constitution and disregarding the power of the Senate in respect to the suspension of the CJN.
The three prayers sought by the Senate read, “A declaration that the suspension, by the President, of Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen from his office as Chief Justice of Nigeria on or about January 25, 2019, without an address calling for the removal, supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate is in violation of section 292(1)(a)(i) of the constitution and therefore null and void.
“An order rescinding or setting aside the suspension of Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen from his office as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and restoring him to the said office.
“An order restraining the defendants from continuing or repeating the violation of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and disregarding the powers of the Senate at the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
Buhari had while announcing the suspension of Onnoghen hinged his decision on an ex parte order made by two of the three members of the Code of Conduct Tribunal where Onnoghen had been charged with six counts of non-declaration of assets.
The CCT order had directed the CJN to step aside from office pending the conclusion of his trial and ordered the President to swear in the next most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Tanko Muhammad, as the acting CJN.
But the Senate, through its counsel, Mr. Paul Erokoro (SAN), has, in its suit which was filed on Monday, faulted the President’s action.
It argued that the President could not on the directive of the CCT suspend the CJN without two-thirds majority of the Senate or appoint Muhammad as the acting CJN without Senate’s confirmation.
The plaintiff submitted two questions for determination.
One of the questions is if having regard to section 292 and Part 1 of the Third Schedule to the Nigerian Constitution and section 21 of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, the President could not “suspend” or “prevent” the CJN from performing the functions of his office “on the directive of the Code of Conduct Tribunal or for any reason whatsoever, without an address supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate calling for the removal of the Chief Justice of Nigeria.”
The other question for determination read, “Having regard to section 231 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended, and in particular, sub-sections (1) and (4) thereof, can the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria appoint an acting Chief Justice of Nigeria when there is no vacancy in that office and when the substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria is fit and able to perform the functions of the office and without the recommendation of the National Council and confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.”
A Legal Assistant in the Office of the Senate President, Mr. Sambo Idahi, in an affidavit filed in support of the suit, said he attended a meeting of the principal officers of the Senate held on January 25, 2019 when the issue of Onnoghen was extensively discussed.
He said the meeting discussed the CCT’s ex parte order which the President anchored his action on and the swearing-in of Justice Muhammad as the acting CJN.
Senate not consulted before the decision
According to Idahi, Saraki informed the meeting that he was not consulted on the matter and never received any request from the President or any other person or authority to debate the issue.
He added that Saraki said Buhari had never requested the Senate’s approval of Justice Muhammad as the acting CJN.
The affidavit read in part, “On Friday, the 25th day of January, 2019, at about 5.40 pm, I was present at a meeting in the Senate Building attended by Principal Officers of the Senate, where the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria was extensively discussed.
“The discussions at the meeting centred on the public announcement made by the President of Nigeria, General Muhammadu Buhari, on the 25th day of January, 2019, in which he revealed that he had suspended the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen, and appointed Hon. Justice l. T. Muhammad as the Chief Justice of Nigeria in an acting capacity. The President’s address during the swearing-in of Hon. Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad was also discussed at the meeting as well as the ex parte order made by the Code of Conduct Tribunal on which the President had acted.
“Hereto shown to me and marked Exhibit A is the said President Muhammadu Buhari’s address. The tribunal’s ex parte order is Exhibit B herein.
“I printed out Exhibits A and B from a HP desktop Computer and HP Laser Jet Pro 4ooMo1a in the office of the Senate President. We use the computer and printer aforesaid daily in the normal work of the Senate and throughout the period of their use, both have functioned accurately. Information has been regularly supplied to the computer in the ordinary cause of those activities information of the kind from which the exhibits were derived and the computer and printer have behaved properly and nothing has ever happened to make us question their reliability and accuracy.
“The President of the Senate informed the meeting that the Senate was not consulted on the matter and never received any request from the President or any other person or authority to debate the issue or present an address to the President for the removal or suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
“The Senate President and other persons at the meeting repeatedly stated that the Senate had never met to vote on the removal or suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and that no address had been passed by the Senate and presented or sent to the President of Nigeria for the Chief Justice to be removed or suspended.
“The meeting also noted that the Senate was not requested to confirm and did not confirm the appointment of Hon Justice l. T. Mohammed as acting Chief Justice.”
But the APC caucus in the Senate has dissociated its members from the legal action filed by Saraki on behalf of the federal lawmakers at the Supreme Court.
The Senate Leader, Ahmad Lawan, in a statement on Monday said there was no resolution of the red chamber which empowered Saraki to take such an action.
The statement read, “It has come to the notice of the Senate APC caucus that the Senate has approached the Supreme Court for the interpretation of the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, by President Muhammadu Buhari.
“For the records, the Senate never met to take such a resolution and at no time, mandated anyone to approach the Supreme Court on this matter, on its behalf.
“Consequently, the Senate APC caucus dissociates itself from the said request for the legal interpretation of the (CJN) suspension.”
NBA said only recognizes Onnoghen as the CJN
Meanwhile, the NBA has said it will only recognise Onnoghen as the CJN.
It also ordered its members across the country to boycott the courts on Tuesday and Wednesday in protest against Onnoghen’s suspension.
Rising from its emergency meeting of the National Executive Committee on Monday, the NBA said due process was not followed by Buhari in suspending Onnoghen and swearing in of Muhammad as the acting CJN.
The NBA also set up a committee led by two former Presidents of the association, Chief Wole Olanipekun and Abubakar Mahmud, to liaise with lawyers serving in the Buhari administration with a view to finding a solution to the problem.
Political Parties oppose Onnoghen’s suspension
Meanwhile, 67 political parties on Monday opposed Onnoghen’s suspension, describing it as unconstitutional.
The parties, including the PDP and the Social Democratic Party, in a document signed by their chairmen, said Buhari’s action coming less than three weeks to the elections was suspicious.
Also, a former President of the NBA, Dr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), said he had submitted a petition against Justice Tanko Muhammad, who was appointed last Friday as the acting CJN by the President.
Agbakoba said this just as the police and other security forces sealed off the office of Onnoghen in Abuja on Monday.
It was gathered that the deployment of security officers in the office of suspended CJN was ordered by Muhammad.
The 67 political parties, which on Monday protested against the suspension of the CJN, said they were very disturbed by the illegal act.
“The CJN, as a judicial officer, can only be removed from office by the President acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate for his inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment or for misconduct or contravention of the Code of Conduct,” the 67 parties stated.
The parties noted that Onnoghen’s suspension and the appointment of Muhammad as the acting CJN was based on an improperly obtained order of the CCT, thus making it illegal.
They said Buhari must do the right thing by reversing immediately his illegal suspension of the CJN.
FG defends Buhari’s decision
Meanwhile, the Federal Government has once again defended Buhari for suspending Onnoghen.
It alleged that the case against Onnoghen was much more than misconduct, adding that there were suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars which it said were traced into the suspended CJN’s personal accounts.
It said these were all undeclared or improperly declared as required by law.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohamed, stated this at a press briefing in Abuja on Monday.
Mohamed said, “Some have argued that the Justice Onnoghen issue should have been referred to the NJC to handle. They would have been right if Justice Onnoghen had been accused of professional misconduct, which is what is within the purview of the NJC.
“The allegations against Justice Onnoghen go beyond professional misconduct. It is the alleged breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers. And only one body is statutorily empowered to deal with this: the Code of Conduct Tribunal.”
Mohammed added, ‘’This whole issue is about the country’s highest judicial officer, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, being accused of a breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers, and the legal and moral conundrum surrounding that.
“It is about the suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars to the suspended CJN’s personal accounts, all undeclared or improperly declared as required by law.
“It is about the Hon. Justice Onnoghen himself admitting to the charges that he indeed failed to follow the spirit and letter of the law in declaring his assets, calling it a ‘mistake.’
“And it is about him refusing to take responsibility, instead opting to put the entire judiciary on trial.
“Please remember that Justice Onnoghen has been given the opportunity of fair hearing, but he has been abusing his position and the judicial process by filing frivolous applications and even dodging service of process.”
Mohammed said the media did not get it right by its reportage of the events, saying a section of the media had taken sides in the matter.
Asked why the Federal Government was quick to act on the order of the CCT but neglected judgements on the detained former National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki(retd.), the minister said he was not conversant with the case.