CJN Onnoghen: Senators Disagree over Legal Option

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Senate

Is President Muhammadu Buhari right to suspend Justice Walter Onnoghen and install Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN)?

This is the “puzzle” the Senate is asking the Supreme Court to resolve.

But the APC caucus said it will not be part of the legal journey.

Justice Onnoghen is facing charges at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) for alleged false declaration of assets. The tribunal ordered his suspension. President Buhari obeyed the order – an action that sparked an uproar.

The Senate, in a suit it filed yesterday before the Supreme Court, is seeking a reversal of the suspension and the inauguration of Justice Muhammad.

The Senate seeks a declaration that Onnoghen’s suspension ” without a support of two-thirds majority of the Senate” was a violation of section 292(1)(a)(i) of the Constitution.

It also prays the court to restrain those listed as defendanrs – the President,  Federal Republic of Nigeria Buhari and the Attorney-General of the Federation – from continuing or repeating the violation of the Constitution and disregarding the power of the Senate in respect to the suspension of the CJN

The Senate, in the suit filed for it by Paul Erokoro (SAN), argued that the President could not on the directive of the CCT suspend the CJN without two-third majority of the Senate or appoint Muhammad as as the Acting CJN without Senate’s confirmation.

The plaintiff submitted two questions for determination.

One of the questions is if having regard to section 292 and Part 1 of the Third Schedule to the Nigerian Constitution and section 21 of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, the President could not “suspend” or “prevent” the CJN from performing the functions of his office “on the directive of the Code of Conduct Tribunal or for any reason whatsoever, without an address supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate calling for the removal of the Chief Justice of Nigeria”.

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The other question for determination read, “Having regard to section 231 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended, and in particular, sub-sections (1) and (4) thereof, can the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria appoint an acting Chief Justice of Nigeria when there is no vacancy in that office and when the substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria is fit and able to perform the functions of the office and without the recommendation of the National Council and confirmation of such appointment by the Senate.”

The three prayers sought by the Senate are:

  • a declaration that Justice Onnoghen’s suspension without an address calling for the removal, supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate is in violation of Section 292(1)(a)(i) of the Constitution and therefore null and void;
  • an order rescinding or setting aside the suspension of Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen from his office as Chief Justice of Nigeria and restoring him to the said office; and
  • an order restraining the defendants from continuing or repeating the violation of the Constitution and disregarding the powers of the Senate at the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The upper chamber yesterday cancelled its planned resumption of plenary today.

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