By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA-Justice Mary Odili, on Friday, disagreed with six other Justices of the Supreme Court that a suit Cross River State filed to challenge the removal of the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, deserved to be struck out.
In a dissenting judgment, Justice Odili, held that contrary to the majority view of other members of a seven-man panel of Justices of the apex court, Cross River State, being where Onnoghen hails from, possessed the locus standi to raise legal questions regarding the suspension and eventual sack of their son as the CJN.
She maintained that since the state raised constitutional questions through its Attorney General, the Supreme Court was an appropriate forum for them to seek answers.
Justice Odili held that the ex-parte order President Muhammadu Buhari relied upon to suspend the former CJN on January 25, was wrongly issued by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, in Abuja.
She held that the CCT, ab-initio, lacked the requisite jurisdiction to entertain the six-count charge that led to Onnoghen’s conviction.
According to Justice Odili, the entire proceedings before the CCT was invalid considering that the Federal Government, failed to channel allegations it levelled against the ex-CJN to the National Judicial Council, NJC, before it dragged him to court.
Justice Odili held that going by extant judicial precedents, a serving judicial officer could only be tried after the NJC had exercised its disciplinary function.
Meanwhile, earlier in their majority decision, six other Justices of the Supreme Court led by Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour, struck out the suit on the premise that Cross River State Government lacked the locus standi to institute the suit on behalf of Onnoghen.
Justice Olulayode Ariwoola who prepared the lead majority judgment, further held that the Supreme Court was not the appropriate forum for the state to ventilate whatever grievances it had with regards to Onnoghen’s removal.
Consequently, Justice Ariwoola struck out the case by upholding a preliminary objection the Attorney-General of the Federation filed to challenge the competence of the suit.
He, therefore, struck out the case without considering its merit on grounds that the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to entertain same.
Though Justice Ariwoola was absent on Friday, his judgment was read by Justice Paul Galinje, who was a member of the panel.
Other members of the panel that agreed that the suit deserved to be thrown-out were Justices Dattijo Muhammad, Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, Inyang Okoro and Sidi Bage (now retired).
It will be recalled that Cross River State had shortly after Onnoghen was suspended, approached the Supreme Court to challenge President Buhari’s powers to take such action without recourse to the NJC.
The State invoked section 22 of the Supreme Court Act, which conferred the apex court with original jurisdiction to sit as a court of first instance, on disputes between any State of the Federation and the Federal Government.
Specifically, Cross River State, through the office of its AG, prayed the court to determine whether the suspension or removal of Onnoghen from office by President Buhari, based on an ex-parte order by a lay magistrate (the Chairman of the CCT), was not in gross violation of section 292(1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
Cited as defendants in the suit were the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Attorney General of the Federation.
In opposition to the suit, FG, through the office of the AGF, argued the Plaintiff lacked the right the suit.
The AGF contended that Onnoghen’s suspension was personal to him and therefore could not be interpreted to amount to a dispute between FG and State Government that would require the invocation of section 22 of the Supreme Court Act.
It will be recalled that the CCT had in a judgment on April 18, found Onnoghen guilty on all the six-count charge the FG preferred against him.
The Mr. Danladi Umar-led three-man panel tribunal said it was satisfied that FG successfully proved its allegation that Onnoghen who had voluntarily resigned his position as CJN on April 4, acted in breach of the code of conduct for public officers in the country.
It held that evidence of three witnesses that testified in the course of the trial, was not discredited by the defendant who was accused of failing to properly declare his assets, as well as operating five domiciliary foreign bank accounts.
The panel maintained that admission by the embattled former CJN that he forgot to declare the five accounts he operated since 2009, was “weighty enough” to guarantee his conviction.
Aside from giving FG the nod to confiscate all the monies in the accounts, the tribunal further deposed Onnoghen as the CJN and Chairman of both the NJC and the Federal Judiciary Service Commission, FJSC.