Tuesday, January 29, 2019 11:11PM / Federal Ministry of Information and Culture
Gentlemen of the press, thank you for once again honouring our invitation.
As you would recollect, President Muhammadu Buhari last Friday complied with the order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, directing the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon Justice Walter Onnoghen, pending the determination of the cases against him at the Code of Conduct Tribunal and several fora relating to his alleged breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers.
Since then, there have been widespread reactions from within and outside the country. In particular, the opposition has latched on to it, threatening fire and brimstone and concocting all sorts of imaginary scenarios and generally muddying the waters. In what I will call the theater of the absurd, the main opposition party, the PDP, even suspended its electioneering campaign for 72 hours! Of course, you must have seen my reaction to that. I said there is nothing to suspend in a campaign that never took off in the first instance! So much for the opposition's hysteria.
Today, I have called this press conference to set the records straight and redirect the discourse. Contrary to what the opposition and their ilk have been saying, this is not about the forthcoming elections, neither does the suspension of the CJN signal the beginning of dictatorship. President Buhari is an avowed democrat, and this he has proven time and time again. This Administration stands firm on the rule of law!
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 attacks, 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.
The Role of the Media
It is regrettable to note that the media, which should have led the discourse, has not done so. In fact, a section of the media has taken sides. Several newspapers have written editorials on this issue. Some newspapers have employed rather crude and obnoxious language to push forth their opinions, while others have been more tempered. But curiously, none has written from a perspective that shows that they understand the big picture.
What is the big picture? In the words of The Right Honourable Sir Alfred Denning, or Lord Denning, then Lord Justice of the British Court of Appeal, a judge should in his own character be beyond reproach, or at any rate should have so disciplined himself that he is not himself a breaker of the law. Still talking of the big picture, some have suggested that the suspension of Justice Onnoghen is a threat to our democracy or even the country's very existence. They are wrong. Again, Lord Denning, himself quoting the words of Sydney Smith, said: ''Nations fall when judges are unjust, because there is nothing which the multitude think worth defending.'' Had the section of the media that I referred to earlier understood the big picture, they would have framed the debate differently, rather than work to inflame passion and help those seeking to muddy the waters.
The Roles of the NJC and The Code Of Conduct Tribunal
It is unfortunate that in the ensuing debate, the talk about due process has overshadowed the talk about the substance. Procedure cannot or should not trounce substance. That brings me to the role of the National Judicial Council (NJC). 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.
Interestingly, Justice Onnoghen himself has elucidated on this. In various judgments, he upheld the provisions of the law concerning the CCT. In one particular judgement he delivered on July 12, 2013, Justice Onnoghen held that the CCT had EXCLUSIVE JURISDICTION (emphasis mine) to deal with all violations contravening any of the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau. Let me put this in a layman's language: All breaches of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers must be handled by the Code of Conduct Tribunal. Pure and simple. In other words, Justice Onnoghen's judgement held that theprovisions “expressly ousted the powers of ordinary regular courts in respect of such violations.”
In a case between Ismaeel Ahmed and Nasiru Ahmed, Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), Chairman of the Kano state chapter of the party, and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which has been reported by the media, Onnoghen, while interpreting Paragraph 12 of the Fifth Schedule of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) as regards CCT’s jurisdiction held that, "…the said paragraph 12 provides as follows: ‘Any allegation that a public officer has committed a breach of or has not complied with the provisions of this Code shall be made to the Code of Conduct Bureau."
The judgement, which was delivered at the Supreme Court with suit number 'SC.279/2012' before Justices Onnoghen and others, also held that the provisions of the law are clearly unambiguous. Justice Onnoghen said that the provisions are, "so construed literally meaning that any breaches of any provisions of the said 5th schedule or matters of noncompliance with any provisions of the Code shall be made to the Code of Conduct Bureau that has established its Tribunal with the exclusive jurisdiction to deal with any violations of any provisions under the Code.''
Is anyone still in doubt that the CCT is the right court to try the alleged breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers levied against Justice Onnoghen? Is it not clear that challenging the jurisdiction of the CCT to try him is an abuse of court process by Justice Onnoghen?
As for those who argued that the CCT is wrong in ordering Justice Onnoghen's suspension, are they aware that Justice Onnoghen himself disagreed with them? In the judgement I referred to earlier, he wrote: “The Tribunal to the exclusion of other courts is also empowered to impose any punishments as specified under sub-paragraphs (2) (a), (b) & (c) of paragraph 18 as provided in sub-paragraphs 3 and 4 of paragraph 18 while appeals shall lie as of right from such decisions to the Court of Appeal." In essence, the CCT is right to have directed Justice Onnoghen's suspension, and the President did the right thing by acting on the orders of the CCT. Needless to say that in many of the cases of professional misconduct against judges that Justice Onnoghen has presided over at the NJC, judges have been suspended while still undergoing trial!
Gentlemen, from the foregoing, it is clear that:
a) Contrary to the cacophony of voices that have been muddying the waters, the CCT was acting within its powers in ordering the suspension of Justice Onnoghen as Chief Justice of Nigeria, and President Muhammadu Buhari was right in carrying out the order.
b) The suspension of Justice Onnoghen is a consequence of his breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers and has nothing to do with the forthcoming elections, neither does it signify the onset of dictatorship or tyranny as some have insinuated. It amounts to irresponsible extrapolation to say that the suspension of Justice Onnoghen is the onset of dictatorship.
c) A section of the media shirked their agenda-setting role by failing to objectively lead the discourse on the issue of the allegation facing Justice Onnoghen and his subsequent suspension. Certain editorials crossed the acceptable limit of decent discourse, and did little or nothing to enlighten the public on the issue at stake.
d) The opposition, in its reaction, is guilty of engaging in hysteria and for overheating the polity. Conveniently, they have anchored their failed campaign for the 2019 election on an issue that is totally unrelated to the election. By their reaction, they have made their tattered umbrella available for shielding alleged corrupt persons. Their leopard can never change its spots: The PDP is corruption personified and it's only reason for seeking a return to office is to complete their looting of the national treasury. The attack dogs unleashed by the opposition have been engaging in incitement and other actions that can threaten law and order. There is no cause for alarm, as the law enforcement agencies are alive to their responsibilities.
e) The threat of mass action by some groups cannot undermine the course of justice. More Nigerians are with us than are with them on this issue, going by the feelers that we are getting from across the country. Those who want to protest against the suspension of the CJN should feel free to exercise their rights, within the limits of the law.
I thank you for your kind attention. I will now take questions strictly related to the issues I have addressed.
Alhaji Lai Mohammed
Federal Ministry of Information and Culture