The UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayán, has warned of an imminent threat to the nation’s judiciary, owing to moves by the executive arm of government to remove the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, from office through alleged illegal means.
Onnoghen was on January 25, asked to step aside as CJN and Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC) by President Muhammadu Buhari, pending the determination of his trial on alleged failure to declare his assets at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).
Garcia-Sayán, in a statement Monday, said the suspension of Onnoghen by President Buhari acted in contravention of international human rights standards on the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers when he announced the suspension of Onnoghen and subsequently appointed Justice Tanko Muhammad as acting CJN.
“International human rights standards provide that judges may be dismissed only on serious grounds of misconduct or incompetence. Any decision to suspend or remove a judge from office should be fair and should be taken by an independent authority such as a judicial council or a court,” he said.
According to Garcia-Sayán, the dismissal of judges without following procedures laid down by the law and without effective judicial protection being available to contest the dismissal is incompatible with the independence of the judiciary.
The UN Special Rapporteur, who noted that Buhari had based the suspension of Onnoghen on the exparte order of the CCT, also observed that the order was made in spite of four separate courts orders asking the CCT to stay further proceedings in the trial.
Garcia-Sayán, a former judge of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, said the order upon which the suspension was based, was issued ex-parte while the motion on notice on the same subject was adjourned the day before by the issuing court.
He said: “All state institutions must abide by the decisions of national courts and tribunals. In the case of Chief Justice Onnoghen, four national courts hierarchically superior to the Code of Conduct Tribunal had already ordered a stay of proceedings, and the Tribunal had in a previous case, 8 months earlier, held that it lacked jurisdiction over cases involving judicial officers, which should be processed by the National Judicial Council.”
He however expressed worry over alleged reports of threats and intimidation of some lawyers representing Onnoghen.
“I am seriously concerned at such allegations, which may constitute, if proven, grave attacks to the independence of the judiciary and the free exercise of the legal profession.
“One of the senior advocates defending the Chief Justice was arrested on Wednesday by security agencies. Lawyers play an essential role in securing access to justice, and should never suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or other sanctions for action taken in accordance with recognised professional duties, standards and ethics,” he added.
The statement noted that the UN expert has expressed his concerns to the Nigerian government and will continue to follow events.