The high profile nature of the Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen’s case has rightfully arrested the attention of high ranking political and legal analysts, pundits, and leaders on the real reason behind the plan to arraign and try him.
Members of the public have also expressed displeasure regarding the nature and timing of the charges, while many have been jubilant as they believe that this development sends a signal to all that public servants and office holders, regardless of how high up in the chain of command, are also bound by the law, to play by the rule or pay for it.
Regardless of whatever side of the divide, there are pertinent questions that must be asked and answered just to set the records straight.
We have to ask if the allegations against Justice Onnoghen have any merit. Is he culpable of any of the charges against him, two of which are; refusing to declare his assets, and operating domiciliary accounts? Should his prosecution have been put off because we are about one month from the general elections which he would have been the Chief decider in the legal matters arising therefrom?
If Justice Onnoghen is found guilty, should his sin be washed away because he’s from the Niger Delta, or should his “mistakes” of defiling the sanctity of the office he holds be swept under the carpet because he’s the final authority on the law of the Federal Republic?
Why are the people rushing to his defense not expressing confidence in his innocence, but are rather blaming it all on political malignity? And should pleas of ignorance of the law or excuses of forgetfulness constitute enough grounds for legal exonerations.
To adequately understand the case, it is important we look at those questions and answer them without any form of bias. In a communiqué issued at the end of the South-South Governors forum meeting held on Sunday, the Governors resolved that, the action against Justice Onnoghen Constitutes a setback to the gains of the nation’s democratic experience of 20 years. Note that, Justice Onnoghen is an illustrious son of Cross Rivers State of the oil-Rich South-South region.
The communiqué read; “We note that the attempt to drag the CJN to the CCT is also a grave and dangerous escalation of the assault on institutions of state including the National Assembly and the judiciary. We believe that the President, Muhammadu Buhari has a Constitutional responsibility and huge moral obligation to defend our democracy”.
It reads further, “therefore, we consider this step, which is directly aimed at humiliating the nation’s highest judicial officer and a prominent son of the region, as totally unacceptable as it is reflective of the South-South story of marginalization and intimidation.’’
“The unceremonious removal of the acting Director-General of the Department is still fresh. We note that the unfortune action against the CJN further reinforces the perception that the Buhari administration has no regard for the sentiments of Nigerians, in particular the People of Niger Delta and the rule of law”.
From the communiqué released, it becomes clear that the South-South Governors considers Justice Onnoghen’s case as a typical issue of maginalization of the region. And a resolve has been reached by the Governors to throw their height behind Justice Onnoghen.
Addressing this issue from the legal perspective, Barr Somina Peter Johnbull, SAN explained that, although the constitution makes it mandatory for public officers to make declarations as to their holdings before assuming office and periodically as well, these declarations are targeted against unjust enrichment of public officers during their time in office. But what remains debatable is if the mischief is being met?
He noted that as the law stands in Nigeria, a Judge cannot be made to face criminal or quasi-criminal trial for acts relating to his functions and office as a Judge until the internal disciplinary machinery has been exercised by the Nigerian Judicial Council, NJC as in the case of FRN V Nganjiawa.
He said, “what amounts to an act or omission relating to the functions and office of a Judge? It is not far-fetched. It relates to anything a person should have done or omitted to be as a Judge either as it relates to his functions or his office. In FRN V Nganjiawa, a Judge was charged to court for allegedly taking bribes for cases he was adjudicating over.
“FRN V Nganjiawa does not amount to blanket immunity for Judges. No. Thus, a Judge who drives his car recklessly and kills a person can be charged. A judicial officer who robs a bank can be charged for theft”.
“Does FRN V Nganjiawa apply to Justice Onnoghen? The answer is in the affirmative. Recall that the duty to make the declarations is appurtenant to assumption and continuing in the office as a Judge. It is because Justice Onnoghen is a serving Judge that is why he is required to comply with the law. Thus, it relates to his office thereby making the decision of FRN V Nganjiawa, applicable.
Johnbull explained that, while FRN V Nganjiawa has been criticized; it has not been set aside by the recognized authorities (the Supreme Court or the National Assembly vide Legislation).
He also noted that, FRN V Nganjiawa protects the Judiciary and Judges from being emasculated, threatened or trampled upon by any arm or agency of Government.
He said, “woe betides a nation whose Judges would look over their shoulders, when handling cases on account of the looming shadows of an agency of Government to file trumped charges”.
However, in the recent case of FRN V Saraki, the Supreme Court has clearly stated that it is not every omission in the declaration that amounts to a criminal infraction, except such omission was fraudulent. We hope the CCT would be guided by that decision.
Johnbull said, “To me, the planned arraignment of CJN is illegal, unjustifiable and the CCT should on its own accord, decline jurisdiction”.
While some believe that Justice Onnoghen is guilty of the charges leveled against him, it is important we let the legal process play itself out. Let the evidences be brought to light if any. Only then can we be in a better position to judge the process, and the strength of the cases of the prosecution and the defense to determine if the chief Justice is a victim of injustice.