Governors of Nigeria’s South South states are angry and poised for war with President Muhammadu Buhari over plans by the federal executive to arraign the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, at the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
Justice Onnoghen is the country’s highest judicial officer who hails from Cross River in the South South, is being accused of operating undeclared domiciliary accounts and may be arraigned before a lowly judicial officer.
President Buhari is reported to have asked him to vacate office ahead of possible arraignment on Monday at the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
A statement issued at the end of a meeting of Governors from the region, held at the Bayelsa State Governor’s Lodge in Abuja on Sunday, expressed fear that the federal executive is attempting to emasculate the judiciary.
They also noted that the federal executive had in the last three years made several attempts to cripple the headship of the National Assembly.
The Governors asked President Buhari to stop what they said was the harassment of the judiciary and asked the CJN to ignore summons by the tribunal.
The statement was signed by Governors Henry Seriake Dickson, Bayelsa State, Nyesom Wike Rivers, Ben Ayade of Cross River, Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom and Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State.
“An emergency meeting of the governors of the states of the South South geopolitical zone, held at the Bayelsa State Governor’s Lodge, Abuja on Sunday, January 13, 2019.
“The meeting, called at the instance of the Governor of Bayelsa State, the Honourable Henry Seriake Dickson, who is also Chairman of the South South Governors Forum, was attended by the Governors of Cross River State, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, and Delta States.
“The meeting deliberated on the recent happenings at the Supreme Court involving the Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Walter Onnoghen and resolved that the action against him constitutes a setback to the gains of the nation’s democratic experience of 20 years.
“We note that under Section 158(1) of the 1999 Constitution, the National Judicial Council, has ample powers to deal exhaustively with matters pertaining to allegations of misconduct and discipline of Judicial officers. Specifically, the NJC has the powers and clear procedures for investigating allegations, and recommending appropriate sanctions or disciplinary measures against judicial officials as a matter of first instance before any further steps.
“The judicial pronouncements ina ` the cases of FGN Vs Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court (January 9, 2018) and Justice Ngajinwa Vs FGN 2017 at the CCT have given validation to the express provisions of the constitution on this issue.
“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.
“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 endless marginalization and intimidation. The unceremonious removal of former Acting Director General of the Department of State Service, Mathew Seiyefa and his replacement is still very fresh.
“We note that the unfortunate 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
“It is a fact that this administration has a penchant for flagrant disobedience of and disregard for legitimate and valid court orders.
“We expect President Buhari to know that democracy cannot survive without respect for the constitution, strict adherence to the rule of law, and separation of powers as enshrined in the constitution.
“We strongly believe that the regrettable development at the Supreme Court at this critical time, when preparations for the general elections are wobbling (with serious concern about INEC and security agencies) is capable of causing avoidable anxiety, tension and possible breakdown of law and order in the country.
“We note further that the action undermines confidence not only in the judiciary but also the electoral process that has already commenced, in view of the pivotal role that the judiciary plays in the process of electoral adjudication.
“We affirm President Buhari should know that the continuous assault on critical institutions of state is a defining feature of a dictatorship, and that the President is obliged to live up to his word that he is a born-again democrat, as he assured Nigerians in 2015.
“Based on the foregoing, we hereby call on the President:
1) To condemn without any equivocation, this assault on the CJN and the judiciary especially coming after similar assaults on the National Assembly, to save the country from this embarrassment and global contempt.
2) We call on the CJN to ignore this so-called Court summon from the CCB and the provocative call for his resignation in some quarters.
“While we are not opposed to a genuine fight against corruption, such an action must always be anchored on the rule of law.
“We also decry the massive buildup of arms by APC leaders and members across the Niger Delta with the intent to cause mayhem and a general breakdown of law and order during the elections.”
There are fears that the move against Onnoghen is born out of an established policy to keep Nigerians of southern origin from occupying the post.
Onnoghen is the first CJN from the southern part of the country after a long line of succession by Northerners since 1987. He got appointed to the office by the then acting President Yemi Osinbajo only after President Buhari took ill and was flown abroad for medical treatment.
A prominent jurist, the late Justice Adewale Thompson had in a series of opinion articles in the Nigerian Tribune in the 1990s warned that Northerners had drawn a line after Justice Ayo Gabriel Irikefe that “Never Again” would a southerner occupy the office.
Irikefe had been succeeded by Muhammed Bello (1987-1995), Mohammed Lawal Uwais (1995 -2006), Salihu Modibbo Alfa-Belgore (2006-2007), Idris Legbo Kutigi (2007 – 2009), Aloysious Iyorgher Katsina Alu (2009 – 2011), Dahiru Musdapher (2011 -2012), Aloma Mariam Mukhtar (2012 – 2014) and Mahmud Mohammed (2014 – 2016).