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The Onnoghen Affair: Finding a Way Forward

Press Release, Centre for Democracy and Development, Abuja, 27th January 2019

On Friday, President Muhammadu Buhari suspended the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen putting Nigeria on the path to constitutional crisis especially because he immediately swore in Justice Tanko Muhammad as his interim replacement without allowing the National Judicial Council and other arms of government play their constitutional roles. The President is aware that he has no such powers, so he justified his action by claiming he was obeying a directive from the Code of Conduct Tribunal, before which Mr Onnoghen is standing trial. The Tribunal, however, has no such powers, and the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) strongly avers that the President Must backtrack from his action as a prerequisite for resolving the quagmire as resolving the predicament we find ourselves in as a country.

The Constitution is clear that the powers of appointment and removal are shared powers which the President cannot exercise alone.  It is also settled law that only the NJC is constitutionally vested with the authority of disciplinary control including that of suspension of an erring judicial officer. The removal of the CJN has created much concern with the way processes of court and law are flagrantly being abused.

The current crisis ensued over the allegation of massive amounts of money in various Naira and foreign currency accounts as well as property which the Chief Justice of Nigeria, by his own admission had forgotten to declare as required by law.

Mr Onneghen had himself presided over the establishment of the jurisprudence for suspension of all judicial officers charged for wrongdoing. He, therefore, had an absolute responsibility to step down immediately and allow the National Judicial Council deliberate and take a decision on the matter.  Instead of taking the irresponsible action to stop the 88th statutory meeting of the National Judicial Council scheduled to hold on January 15, 2019, which could have deliberated on the matter and taken a proper decision based on the facts of the case and precedent.

We are less than three weeks away from the Presidential elections, and Nigeria cannot afford a constitutional crisis at this time, or at any other time.

The Centre for Democracy and Development Avers as follows:

  • That President Muhammadu Buhari has no unilateral constitutional power to Appoint, Remove or Suspend the CJN. He should immediately retrace his steps and withdraw the illegal appointment of Tanko Mohammed as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria.
  • That Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen has serious charges levelled against him, and it is morally reprehensible for him to continue to stay in office until all matters are judiciously dispensed with, CDD, therefore, call on  Justice Onnoghen to immediately step down and convene  the National Judicial Council to meet and make a determination on the way forward.
  • Nigerians are seriously concerned about the entrenched culture of corruption and impunity in the country. Therefore, it beholds on the National Judicial Council to ensure justice is not just done but seen to be done in the CJN matter.  And importantly, the Nigerian government is reminded that it must tackle corruption in adherence to the spirit and letters of the Nigerian Constitution.
  • Importantly, the Buhari Administration must note that resort to jackboot tactics such as witnessed in the unfolding Justice Onnoghen matter is delegitimising the forthcoming 2019 general elections in the eyes of Nigerians and the comity of Nation. CDD is reiterating that election is a process and not an event, therefore, all actions that unravel in the lead up to the elections either positive or negative will impact the integrity of the election.


Idayat Hassan,

Director, Centre for Democracy and Development