Divergent reactions have greeted the news filtering in that the Chief Justice of Nigeria, His Lorsship, Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen will be arraigned before the Code of Conduct Bureau on Monday 14th January. Surprisingly, these reactions, coming from lawyers, are not based on law as it is. Most opinions and condemnations being voiced out are based on emotions, sentiments, political affiliation and all you can think of but law.
The starting point is to examine the proposed charge(s) against His Lordship. From reports made available, the CJN is alleged to have maintained foreign accounts and domiciliary accounts in foreign currency; His Lordship is alleged to have failed to declare his assets in violation of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers.
The second step is to examine the provisions of the law as it relates to the allegation about to be turned charges against His Lordship, the Hon. CJN.
Now, Schedule V, Part 1, of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended provides in paragraph 11 thereof as follows:
11.1. “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, every public officer shall within three months after the coming into force of this Code of Conduct or immediately after taking office and thereafter –
a. at the end of every four years; and
b. at the end of his term of office, submit to the Code of Conduct Bureau a written declaration of all his properties, assets, and liabilities and those of his unmarried children under the age of eighteen years.
11.2. Any statement in such declaration that is found to be false by any authority or person authorised in that behalf to verify it shall be deemed to be a breach of this Code.”
The same law provides that no public officer shall maintain any foreign account.
The third step is to enquire whether these constitutional provisions apply to the Chief Justice of the Federation and the answer can only be found in the law.
Schedule V part ii of the 1999 Constitution as amended provides for the categories of persons recognised by law as public officers. These includes
5. “Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justices of the Supreme Court, President and Justices of the Court of Appeal, all other judicial officers and all staff of courts of law.”
It is thus without much ado that one can safely submit that the Chief Justice of Nigeria, His Lordship Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen is a Public Officer. His Lordship is also bound by the provisions of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers as contained in the Constitution of the Federal Republic.
The fourth step is to examine the law as to what step could be taken by the Federal Government, through the Attorney General of the Federation when there is a breach or an alleged breach of any of these provisions.
Paragraph 12 of part 1 if the fifth schedule to the 1999 constitution provides:
12. “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.”
Now what is the AGF proposing to do? Nothing but complying with the law. Then why the hullabaloo? Those who oppose the step being taken by the Federal Government have advanced basically three arguments. First, they claim that independence of the judiciary is paramount. They have however forgotten to differentiate between the person of Mr. Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen as a Nigerian who is not above the law and who could commit offence: a Nigerian who is not immuned and who is not better than many others His Lordship had tried and sentenced. The proponents of independence of the judiciary have failed, whether by commission or commission, to see that the office of the CJN is what is meant by judicial independence and not the person in the office. They have refused to appreciate the necessity of subjecting every person to equal treatment before the law, knowing that failure to so do portends great risk to our commonwealth.
The second reason being put forward by defenders of His Lordship, Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen CJN is that the timing of the arraignment is suspect. According to them, the proposed charge is akin to an attempt by the ruling political party to compromise Election Petitions. This argument, every trained legal mind who agree, is fallacious. An offence can only be reported and tried when discovered. The GJN must be prepared to face and stand trial. And the burden is on His Lordship to prove his innocence as Paragraph 11.3, Part 1 of Schedule V of the 1999 Constitution deems a defendants guilty until contrary is proved.
11.3. “Any property or assets acquired by a public officer after any declaration required under this Constitution and which is not fairly attributable to income, gift, or loan approved by this Code shall be deemed to have been acquired in breach of this Code unless the contrary is proved.
Admittedly, the premise upon which the third argument is based is true but the conclusion drawn therefrom is false. The premise of the argument is that the Federal Government cannot remove the CJN without following due process, that is through the JSC. Yes, that is the law and it has received judicial backing in the case of NGANJIWA v. FRN, However, the conclusion drawn by anti-prosecution of Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen CJN is fallacious. Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen CJN cannot be removed except by recommendations of the National Judicial Service Commiasion. His Lordship can however be prosecured by the Code of Conduct Bureau and a conviction by the Bureau can be a basis for NJC’s recommendation for removal.
Let us allow the rule of law and not the law of rulers. Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen is just another Nigerian who should subject himself to laws that govern all Nigerians.
Ola Dan Olawale Esq.,
NBA, Akure Branch.