Why we did not refer Onnoghen’s case to NJC- FG

Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed

The Federal Government says allegations of breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers levied against the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, are not within the purview of the National Judicial Council (NJC).

The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who gave the explanation at a media briefing on Monday in Abuja, said the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) is the only body statutorily empowered to deal with Onnoghen’s case.

He said the CCT was therefore acting within its powers in ordering the suspension of Onnoghen as CJN.

The minister added that President Muhammadu Buhari was right in carrying out the order.

“Some have argued that the Justice Onnoghen issue should have been referred to the NJC to handle.

“They would have been right if Justice Onnoghen had been accused of professional misconduct, which is what is within the purview of the NJC.

“The allegations against Justice Onnoghen go beyond professional misconduct. It is the alleged breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers. And only one body is statutorily empowered to deal with this: The Code of Conduct Tribunal,’’ he said.

In justifying his position, the minister relied on various judgments delivered by Onnoghen at the apex court upholding the provisions of the law concerning the CCT.

“In one particular judgement he delivered on July 12, 2013, Justice Onnoghen held that the CCT had EXCLUSIVE JURISDICTION (emphasis mine) to deal with all violations contravening any of the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau.

“Let me put this in a layman’s language: All breaches of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers must be handled by the Code of Conduct Tribunal. Pure and simple.

“In other words, Justice Onnoghen’s judgment held that the provisions “expressly ousted the powers of ordinary regular courts in respect of such violations,’’ he said.

The minister cited another Supreme Court judgment delivered by Onnoghen to justify his opposition:

“This is a case between Ismaeel Ahmed and Nasiru Ahmed, Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) Chairman of the Kano State chapter of the party and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) which has been reported by the media.

“Onnoghen, while interpreting Paragraph 12 of the Fifth Schedule of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) as regards CCT’s jurisdiction held that, “…the said paragraph 12 provides as follows:

“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.”

The minister added that the judgment, which was delivered at the Supreme Court with suit number ‘SC.279/2012’ before Justices Onnoghen and others, also held that the provisions of the law were clearly unambiguous.

For those who argued that the CCT was wrong in ordering Onnoghen’s suspension, the minister said that the judge disagreed with them in his earlier pronouncement.

“In the judgment I referred to earlier, he wrote: “The Tribunal to the exclusion of other courts is also empowered to impose any punishment as specified under sub-paragraphs (2) (a), (b) & (c) of paragraph 18 as provided in sub-paragraphs 3 and 4 of paragraph 18 while appeals shall lie as of right from such decisions to the Court of Appeal.”

“In essence, the CCT is right to have directed Justice Onnoghen’s suspension and the president did the right thing by acting on the orders of the CCT,’’ he said.

Mohammed noted that it was unfortunate that in the ensuing debate, the focus on due process had overshadowed the talk on the substance which were the allegations against the CJN.