The suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, by President Muhammadu Buhari received yet another legal challenge Thursday as a former president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), asked the Federal High Court in Lagos to declare the action as unconstitutional.
Also maintaining its objection to the suspension of Onnoghen yesterday was the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP), which expressed concern over alleged move by the federal government to clamp down on the lawyers of the CJN.
CUPP also raised the alarm on what it described as another undemocratic plot by the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led administration to frame the opposition parties’ consensus candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, and other opposition leaders for alleged gun-running and violence. Buhari had recently suspended Onnoghen, following an exparte order by the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) in Abuja.
Before the order, the federal government had filed a six-count charge against the CJN for alleged non-declaration of his assets.
But Agbakoba said the suspension of Onnoghen was wrong.
The grounds of the claim is that judicial officers, including the CJN enjoy judicial immunity and have constitutionally guaranteed tenure of office that can only be interfered with by the administrative action of the National Judicial Council (NJC) or the president acting on an address supported by two thirds majority of the Senate.
In the suit which also has the Attorney General of the Federation and the NJC as defendants, the senior lawyer stated that in the suspension of Justice Onnoghen, President Buhari did not adopt either of the procedures.
In the originating summons and other accompanying affidavit obtained by THISDAY, the former NBA boss asked the court to determine whether by the combined interpretation of Section 153 (1) (i), paragraph 21 (b) of the Third Schedule and Section 292 (1) (a) (i) of the 1999 Constitution, Onnoghen can be suspended or removed from office except on the recommendation of the NJC or the president acting on an address supported by two thirds majority of the Senate.
He urged the court to declare that by the combined interpretation of Section 153 (1) (i), Paragraph 21 (b) of the Third Schedule and Section 292 (1)(a) (i) of the 1999 Constitution as altered, the CJN cannot be suspended or removed from office except on the recommendation of the NJC or the president acting on an address supported by two thirds majority of the Senate.
He argued: “I know that on January 25, 2019 President Buhari pursuant to an exparte order of the Code of the Conduct Tribunal purportedly suspended Justice Onnoghen and purportedly swore in Justice Tanko Muhammad as the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria.
“I am aware that there is public outrage as a result of the suspension of Justice Onnoghen. I also know that there are different views about whether the President of Nigeria can suspend the CJN as he did.
“I know that the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides for removal of the CJN and that the CJN can only be removed based on the recommendation of the NJC or an address by the President supported by two third majority of the Senate.
“I am fully aware that contrary to the provisions of the Constitution, the president suspended Justice Onnoghen, based on an exparte Order from the CCT on January 25, 2019.
“I am aware that the NJC will on February 11, 2019 determine petitions on the suspension of Justice Onnoghen and the swearing in of Justice Mohammed as the Acting CJN.
“The decisions of the NJC are purely administrative. I believe it is in the public interest for the court to declare the law as relates to the suspension or removal of the CJN.
“I verily believe that it is in the national interest and constitutionalism and due administration of justice to grant the reliefs sought on this summons by the plaintiff.”
No date has been fixed for the hearing.