A former Attorney General of Rivers State, Mr. Barinua Wifa, SAN, participated in the drafting of the 1999 Constitution.
In this interview, Wifa blames the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, by President Muhammadu Buhari on his (Buhari) fear of losing the February presidential election.
As a lawyer, how do you see the constitutionality of the action of the President in suspending the CJN?
There is nothing constitutional in what the President did by removing the Chief Justice without following due process. The President does not have such power. Anyone who says the President acted rightly should prove it with the Constitution which is our guide. From the presentations, there is nothing to show that the President has done what is right, from the suspension of Justice Onnoghen to the appointment of Justice Tanko Mohammed in acting capacity. The power he exhibited should have been based on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council. The Council should have made the recommendation for the removal of the CJN before the President acts; that is the position of the law.
Mr. Barinua Wifa, SAN, What does such action mean to you?
Nigeria has been attempting to practice constitutional democracy, but it has not been achieved. The rule of law negates arbitrariness and that is what we see in our attempt to practice constitutional democracy. The situation we have here is that the President claims he has an order of the CCT, whereas it is the NJC that is recognized by law to give such order. It is clear absurdity. The action of the President is purported because he exercised his authority against the law. He has to justify it.
Does President Buhari have the power to pronounce someone standing trial guilty?
That is what he has done by removing a serving judicial official while due process has not been followed. The fact is that it is not the CJN that is under trial, it is democracy that is on trial in Nigeria.
The awkward status of President of the Court of Appeal What is the implication?
The judiciary is to be shielded from invasion by other arms of government. The action of the President is calculated to break the seal of the separation of powers enjoyed by the judiciary. The President should understand that he has acted against the Constitution.
What is the way forward?
The President should immediately recall Justice Walter Onnoghen because it is clear that he is trying to intimidate the judiciary. Onnoghen should be recalled and when due process is followed, they can remove him if he is found culpable as recommended by the NJC. Don’t you think the NJC would want to save one of its own when this matter gets to it at this point? Not at all. The NJC is made of eminent personalities. Because of the composition of that body, they would not compromise the truth.
NJC made the recommendation that brought Onnoghen into office, so why not also wait for recommendation from the Council to remove him? Don’t you think the President may have acted as a result of the fear that the NJC may protect one of its own?
There is the need to leave out fear and do what is constitutionally right. There are so many motives but let us save this nation from disintegration. It is a question related to power, the fear of losing political power may have propelled this. I want to see the President being noble by recalling the CJN.