Why Justice Tanko Muhammad may be disciplined by NJC

Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad signing in as acting CJN after being sworn in by President Muhammadu Buhari at the State House, Abuja.

There is a common saying that ‘you cannot eat your cake and still have it’. This indeed, is the fate that may await the Hon. Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad on February 11, 2019 when the National Judicial Council (NJC) reconvenes to consider his fate and that of his boss, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen.

Justice Onnoghen who is on suspension through an executive fiat issued on January 25, 2019 by President Muhammadu Buhari, has been given seven days by NJC to clear his name on a number of petitions against his alleged misconduct at the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) over his asset declaration.

The President has repeatedly justified his action and is therefore seeking reelection in February 16 presidential election to continue his perceived ‘good works’ in this regard.

On the other hand, Justice Muhammad, as the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, at the suspension of Onnoghen as CJN, willy-nilly submitted himself to President Buhari, the head of the Executive arm of government, to be sworn in as acting CJN against the rules of NJC which must first screen and recommend him for appointment. This is the process that was circumvented.

This is one of the high points of the petitions brought against him, especially that of a former Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) president, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), in which the NJC has also asked him to respond within seven days to give cogent reasons why he jumped at the appointment without recourse to the traditional rules of engagement of the institution he belongs.

In Agbakoba’s petition he said: “The Constitution is clear about the procedure for suspending or removing the Chief Justice of Nigeria. The Chief Justice of Nigeria can only be removed on the recommendation of the NJC. See Section 153 (1), Paragraph 21 (a) of the 3rd Schedule and Section 292 (1) (a) (i) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 and the Supreme Court decision in Elelu-Habeeb v AGF (2012) 40 WRN 1.

“Hon. Justice Tanko Muhammad is fully aware of the state of law, yet he presented himself to be sworn in by the President, adding that ‘Justice Muhammad was a member of the NJC panel that removed Justice Obisike Orji of the Abia State High Court for accepting to be sworn in as Chief Judge by the governor of Abia State without the recommendation of the NJC’.

Regretting Justice Tanko Muhammad’s attitude in this matter, Agbakoba reiterated his opposition to his appointment as acting CJN by stating the obvious.

“It is a matter of regret that Justice Tanko Muhammad who participated in this process (of removing Justice Obisike) will lend himself to this constitutional infraction.

“We therefore pray the NJC to determine this petition in line with the decision in Justice Obisike Orji case by immediately removing Justice Muhammad as Justice of the Supreme Court on grounds of gross misconduct which has generated perhaps the most controversial crisis in Nigeria’s judicial history”.

NJC which had its emergency meeting yesterday, January 29, 2019 without Justices Onnoghen and Muhammad, and chaired by a retired President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umaru Abdullahi (CON) from Katsina State, North West, Nigeria issued a seven-day ultimatum to the two principal actors to respond to the petitions and await their fate on February 11, 2019 when it reconvenes to take a decision on the issue.

The body is made up of 24 members of very senior judges from the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, Federal High Court, National Industrial Court, State High Courts, Sharia Court of Appeal, Customary Court of Appeal, some retired Justices of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, five senior members of the Bar and two senior private citizens.

Meanwhile, the NBA which is following through its own programmes against the suspension of the substantive CJN with a two-day boycott of courts throughout the country which ends today, Wednesday 30, 2019, has asked President Buhari to rescind the decision of Onnoghen’s suspension and follow due process and rule of law to end the judicial imbroglio.