Former Deputy President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr Monday Ubani, tells FEMI MAKINDE of Punchng.com that lawyers are not shielding the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, from being prosecuted over allegations of non-declaration of assets, but have faulted the process
Was it right for the South-South governors to have asked the CJN to shun his arraignment before the Code of Conduct Tribunal?
A lot of people are emotional about issues that come up in our nation most times. The advice given to the CJN by some South-South governors was borne out of emotion. It is not proper to advise anyone not to honour any court invitation; that will be creating anarchy. If anybody is invited by the court or is asked to appear before any court, it will be improper for people, who are in charge of government like the governors, to ask such person to shun the court invitation. These are governors, who run their states and it will be improper for them to ask a public officer, who is alleged of an infraction, not to appear before the court. I don’t think the CJN heeded that advice. This is because he was represented by his counsel at the Code of Conduct Tribunal. It is ill-advised (that the governors gave) but he obviously did not heed the advice.
The arraignment was said not to have followed the due process of law because the CJN was not first reported to the National Judicial Council. Should the allegation against him be swept under the carpet because of this?
Nobody is saying the allegations should be swept under the carpet. We are under constitutional democracy. If the constitution has made a provision that certain things should be done in certain manner, it will be improper not to follow the laid down procedure. If the CJN had been involved in crimes like robbery, murder or rape that has nothing to do with the functions of his office, that is another thing. But if the infractions arose out of the function of his office, then the case must follow the due process. Without being a judicial officer in this case, he wouldn’t have been asked to declare his assets. There is a link between that infraction and this office. The proper thing to do is to report that matter to the NJC. He will not preside over that case and it is important we make that clear. He cannot be a judge in his own case. After reporting the matter to the NJC, then he can be dragged before the CCT or any court if there is anything wrong that he has done. That is the procedure and even there is a judicial authority which has not been reversed. There is a judicial authority that applies to when something like this happens and it has not been reversed. Going to the CCT straight is putting the cart before the horse. It is fundamental process; the moment you breach it, you run into problem and that is what is happening now. There is even an injunction now by a superior court that the CJN should not be arraigned. And there is a preliminary objection before the court that the court has no jurisdiction; all these things will put that trial into jeopardy. They won’t move further in this case because they didn’t receive quality advice. And we keep on advising this government that let them receive quality advice from the people they have appointed. I am sure they have lawyers they appointed and the moment they don’t listen to these lawyers, they will run into technical hitch, which is what is happening now.
What do you think will happen to this case?
The due process should be followed to avoid anarchy. The CJN is the head of an arm of government like the President is the head of the executive arm. You don’t embarrass your judicial system. Of all the arms of government, the judiciary is the most important. Who do you refer this matter to? Is it not the judiciary? The man is before the judiciary and you want the judiciary not to follow the due process. They will follow the due process; if they don’t, the judiciary will put them on the right track and that is what will happen in this case.
Do you support the call that the CJN should also enjoy immunity since the heads of the executive arm also enjoy immunity?
This is a constitutional issue but as long as the constitution does not confer immunity on the CJN, there is nothing anybody can do for now. I agree that if the head of the executive is enjoying immunity, there is no reason why the head of legislature and the head of the judiciary should also not enjoy immunity. The only problem is that he has not been conferred with immunity and we are not even saying that the CJN should enjoy immunity. If he has done anything wrong, is it not good to follow what the constitution says? For now, let the proper procedure of the law be followed in trying him. He is not above the law and I want the people to get us right. We lawyers are in support of the fight against corruption. We must get this country back to where it is supposed to be. Corruption has kept us retarded and denied us of basic amenities that are taken for granted elsewhere. We lawyers, who have conscience, will always support the fight against corruption but there are processes and procedures. We cannot allow the government we voted for to be doing the wrong thing. We must insist on due process. We are not saying the CJN should not be tried or that he is above the law.
How will you rate the anti-corruption war of Buhari administration?
I have always said that we must put a structure in place that will discourage people from engaging in corruption. If Buhari goes tomorrow, what structure do we have in place to fight corruption?