Premium Times, an online news medium, has joined calls on President Muhammadu Buhari to reverse the suspension slammed on embattled Walter Onnoghen, Nigeria’s Justice Chief.
Mr Buhari on Friday suspended Mr Onnoghen who is accused of non-declaration of assets traced to him. Since the news broke Nigerians and some foreign countries has been calling for a reverse of the action.
On January 9, a former aide to Buhari alleged in a petition that the top jurist refused some bank accounts traced to him. His petition was forwarded to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) who on behalf of the Federal Government hurriedly slammed a six count charge on the Chief Judge.
The action was viewed by critics as an attempt to annex the judiciary given the fact that the executive arm of government had severally attempted to annex the legislative arm and the press but on different occasions failed to achieve its bid.
When arraigned on January 14 the top jurist through his legal team challenged the jurisdiction of the CCT to try the Chief Justice. The team argued that there are constitutionally laid down procedure of prosecuting a judicial officer if found guilty of any offence. They said the procedure was not followed.
Series of court orders has halted the trial of the Chief Justice at the CCT with the most recent being from the Court of Appeal.
Although the upper Appeal Court has given its order on Thursday, Buhari went ahead to suspend the country’s judicial head citing a recommendation from the lower CCT urging him to do so.
Examining the president’s action, Premium Times said it was illegal and unconstitutional. The online paper stated this in an editorial it published on Sunday.
While calling for the reverse of the suspension, it listed the clamp down on a national daily early this year, the invasion of the National Assembly last year and the recent trial of the top jurist as signs that under Buhari the nation is sliding to dictatorial regime.
“There are worrisome, unmistakable signs of a gradual descent to dictatorship in Nigeria, especially in the last few years under the President Buhari administration. Unless urgently checked by the concerted efforts of the Nigerian people and lovers of democracy, the consequences will spread far beyond the shores of the country,” Premium Times said.
The paper cited the timing and execution of the trial of Onnoghen is inappropriate. It had earlier advised the president to shelve the arraignment of the Chief Justice.
“First, the speed with which the presidency is pursuing Mr Onnoghen’s trial. The CCB arraigned Mr Onnoghen at the Tribunal within days of receiving the petition against him. This alacrity is curious of a government notorious for lethargy in all aspects of governance.
“Then the timing of the trial. It began only a few weeks to the general elections in which Mr Onnoghen’s office has a crucial role. His suspension was announced just hours before he was to constitute the various tribunals to sit on petitions arising from the elections. This choice of time for the trial has strengthened the suspicion that its real object is to shackle Mr Onnoghen and keep him far away from playing the role the Constitution assigns his office in elections.
“Even as obscene is the mentioned swiftness with which Mr Buhari executed the order of the CCT to suspend the CJN. The Tribunal made the order on January 23. The president put it into effect two days later. This speed of action is uncharacteristic of a government renowned for snail-speed response to important national issues.
“Given the attitude of the government to court judgments, its response to the order of the CCT raises even higher the red flag of cynicism. The government has serially flouted court orders for the release of the former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, and of an Islamic cleric, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky. Both of them have been in detention since 2015.
“We are alarmed that an administration long accused of selectivity in its flagship war on corruption is now moving to choose court judgments to obey. The rule of law demands indiscriminate obedience of court judgments until set aside by a higher court.
“Mr Buhari’s reckless violation of the Constitution in his suspension of the CJN has pushed the nation to the edge of a constitutional crisis. It has also increased the tension surrounding a crucial general election.
“Again, we call on President Buhari to reverse his suspension of the CJN and to stand aside for the due process of law to apply on Mr Onnoghen’s alleged infractions.”
Premium Times also called on the embattled jurist to step aside.
“Equally, Mr Onnoghen’s credibility has been seriously tainted by the revelations of vast sums of money that he conveniently forgot to declare as part of his asset and he cannot continue as CJN. He should save Nigeria the present embarrassing conundrum by resigning his appointment,” the paper said.