By Bayo Bernard
On Tuesday January 29, the Nigerian Senate will take a historic decision on whether the recent sack of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen by President Muhammadu Buhari was in line with the Constitution.
Nigerians are expecting a stormy session by the time the senators resume this week to deliberate on the matter.
Already, there are signals that the Upper Chamber polarized along party lines of two major political parties, PDP and APC will not take a uniform decision on the matter.
While APC senators are likely to throw their weight behind President Buhari, their counterparts in the PDP will oppose the action.
The magazine was told by competent sources in the senate on Saturday, that the upper chamber’s decision to reconvene supersedes its earlier plan to resume plenary on February 19.
Recall that President Buhari, on January 22 removed the CJN from office over graft allegation. The president said he acted on the order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT.
Justice Onnoghen was replaced by Justice Ibrahim Tanko, the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court by President Buhari at a brief ceremony in Aso Rock Villa, Nigeria’s seat of power.
Justice Onnoghen is currently facing trial at the CCT over allegation of keeping several offshore accounts running to several millions of dollars.
No chief justice of Nigeria has ever been suspended by the president.
According to Section 292(1) of the Nigerian Constitution, the CJN can only be removed by the president after a written address by the president supported by 2/3 member of the Senate.
The Section states inter alia “ A judicial officer shall not be removed from his office or appointment before his age of retirement except in the following circumstances…. In the case of the Chief Justice of Nigeria……by the president acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate.”
Senate President Bukola Saraki had earlier condemned the removal, describing the president’s action as a coup against the judiciary.
He said the suspension was reckless and unconstitutional, adding that President Buhari is behaving like a dictator.
Saraki the action could derail the nation’s democracy “This action is capable of undermining the nation’s judiciary, subverting the constitution, intimidating judges of all the courts of record, and creating uncertainty in the electoral process.
By unilaterally suspending the CJN without following the provision of the constitution, President Buhari has sent a dangerous signal to the entire world that Nigeria is no longer a democratic nation and that we have returned to the old, jaded era of military dictatorship.”
He said “Our constitution makes no provision for suspension of the nation’s highest judicial officer.
The constitution provides a clear process for removal of the CJN and specify the roles of the three arms of government, beginning from the National Judicial Council (NJC), the National Assembly and lastly, the Presidency, have different roles to play in that process.”
The action amounts to the usurpation of powers of the Senate, Saraki said because “There is no condition under which the President can usurp the powers of other arms of government. I do not know where the President and his advisers got this idea of suspending the CJN on the so-called order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal but this is novel, disingenuous and alien to our laws. It is strange that President Buhari is claiming to be taking orders from a Tribunal which has been ordered by a superior court to halt all actions on the trial.”
President Buhari should be called to order by well meaning lovers of democracy and international bodies like US, UK, EU and United Nations because “With this action, President Buhari has initiated a process the consequence of which nobody can predict. They have precipitated a constitutional crisis.
At this point, all democratic institutions in the country, the international community and democrats across the world should rise against this blatant act of impunity. We should jointly condemn this retrogressive, uncivilized and despotic measure”, Saraki stated.
But his opinion may not reflect that of the entire Senate which is now strongly divided along party lines. The Senate President is of the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, while the president belongs to the ruling party, All Progressives Congress, APC.
Sources in the Red Chamber as the Senate is called, informed the magazine at the week end that the nation may yet witness another rowdy session by the time the lawmakers resumed on Tuesday.
According to one source close to the APC caucus in the Senate “ the meeting is not expected to produce any tangible result beyond the normal resolution condemning the action of the president.
He explained that APC senators will not back any decision to condemn president Buhari’s sack of the CJN.
He said this will amount to working against the interest of the ruling APC “besides, the president took the right decision by suspending the CJN, so as to allow him face his trial by the CCT squarely.”
The magazine was also told that the ruling APC and the Presidency have been reaching out to its senators, through Senate Majority leader, Ahmed Lawan ahead Tuesday’s session
Meanwhile, close sources to the Senate President told the magazine that the opposition PDP senators are already meeting to chart a way forward before they all reconvene on Tuesday.
One PDP senator told the magazine that series of meetings have been held in the last few days.
He said the ”Nigerian Senate will not allow President Buhari to usurp the power of the senate on this matter. It’s very clear that the president does not have the powers to remove the CJN, the Constitution is very clear on the matter.”
Meanwhile, the United States of America and European Union has condemned the suspension of Justice Onnoghen, calling on the federal government to reverse the action.