The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has sent a petition to the "Next-In-Rank" to the Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC) urging the council “to immediately take over the case of Justice Walter Onnoghen, from the Code of Conduct Tribunal with a view to setting up a committee to investigate the allegations of breach of constitutional asset declaration requirements against him”.

A statement by Ms Bamisope Adeyanju, SERAP Senior Legal Adviser, also urged the NJC to ask Onnoghen to step aside from his role as CJN, pending the outcome of investigation into the allegations against him.

The organisation noted that if the allegations against Onnoghen were established, the NJC should refer the case to appropriate anti-corruption body for prosecution, just as it asked , Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed to “recuse himself from the process as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria”.

The NJC was also asked to “consider the issue of appointment of Justice Mohammed with a view to ensuring strict compliance with constitutional provisions”.

“The NJC should take the recommended action within five days of the receipt and/or publication of this letter, failing which SERAP will take appropriate legal action to compel the NJC to take action on the case,” the statement added.

The petition dated January 26, 2019, and signed by Adeyanju, read: “The urgent intervention by the NJC would remove the allegations against Justice Onnoghen from the vicissitudes of political controversy, and a clear and present danger to the independence and authority of the judiciary. It would also help to reverse the country's increasing movement toward anarchy or despotism.

“It is in time like this that the NJC must be most vigilant and alive to its constitutional duties, if it is not to permit a diminution of our treasured constitutional rights.”

The petition copied Diego García-Sayán, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.

The petition continued: “SERAP is concerned that the politicization of our judiciary poses the greatest threat to the independence of the judiciary, to Nigeria’s fledgling democracy and would, if not urgently addressed, lead to denial of access to justice to the most marginalized and vulnerable section of the population.

“The politicisation of the judiciary by politicians would endanger Nigerians’ fundamental human rights and the country’s international human rights obligations, and consequently, the fundamental principles of our constitutional democracy.

“It is the responsibility of the NJC to ensure the preservation of our constitutional values and to prevent the politicisation of the judiciary and politicians from running roughshod over sacred judicial functions, and consequently, the rights of citizens.

“Nigerians deserve a judiciary capable of serving as essential bulwark of constitutional government, a constant guardian of the rule of law, and owing fidelity to no person or party. Unless the NJC acts as requested, the mandates, ability and authority of the judiciary to act as a check on the political branches of government and to protect citizens’ human rights would be drastically curtailed.

“The allegation that Justice Onnoghen failed to declare his assets as required by the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 (as amended) and the arbitrary response by the Federal Government have thrown our judiciary into a crisis, with politicians seemingly taking full advantage of the crisis, resulting in the politicization of the judiciary.

“Many politicians have failed to consider the matter through a constitutional lens and have in fact made statements that may be considered prejudicial to the cause of justice, the interests of the judiciary and Nigeria. As the Senate prepares to sit to discuss the matter, the situation is likely to be even more politicised, especially at the time of election when politicians jostle for position, power, and relevance. Any intervention by the Senate is likely to be politically motivated and would not satisfactorily break the logjam.

“Many Nigerians would see the suspension of Justice Onnoghen as outright intimidation of the judiciary in the hope of making it more deferential to certain politicians, as judges prepare to hear flood of election petitions that are expected to follow the general elections in February and March 2019. Suspending the Chief Justice of Nigeria by an ex parte order obtained via an apparently flawed legal and judicial process is an absurdity too gross to be allowed to stand. It suggests the constitution is no longer the supreme law of the land.”

The group also called noted that the allegations against the CJN have created distrust of the judiciary by the citizens.

The petition continued: “The allegations against Justice Onnoghen, unless properly and constitutionally resolved, would continue to undermine his ability to faithfully discharge and perform his judicial duties as Chief Justice. At a time of judicial-cum-constitutional crisis, the NJC should not and cannot abdicate its constitutional responsibilities to intervene in this matter.

“Judges have the responsibility to uphold the rule of law as an effective check on the political branches. But the judiciary cannot continue to play its traditional role as the guardian of the Constitution until the Justice Onnoghen matter is constitutionally and satisfactorily addressed.”

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