All the justices of the Supreme Court, except Justice Sidi Dauda Bage, Saturday boycotted the swearing-in of 250 members of the 2019 Election Panels by Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Muhammad, in a problematic start to his headship of the judiciary. Muhammad was appointed acting CJN on Friday by President Muhammadu Buhari and sworn in following on a controversial ex parte order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) directing the suspension of incumbent CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen.
Nonetheless, Muhammad sued for decency among judicial officers to protect the integrity of the judiciary. But the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) described the inauguration of the election panels by Muhammad as legal invalidity. PDP said Muhammad had allowed himself to be used to desecrate the hallowed temple of justice, his oath of office and oath of allegiance, saying the only option left for him is to quit the bench.
Onnoghen’s trial had drawn wide condemnation within and outside the Nigerian judicial community. The objections got to a head on Friday following his suspension and Muhammad’s appointment, with many in the international community joining in condemning the unfolding events in the third arm of Nigeria’s government.
The swearing-in ceremony for the electoral panel members, Muhammad’s first official function as CJN, took place at the Main Court Room, Supreme Court Complex, Abuja, with just one justice of the apex court in attendance. No reason was given for the absence of the other justices. But it was generally believed to be an indication of strong objection to Onnoghen’s trial and suspension, and Muhammad’s subsequent appointment, as the bizarre events in the Nigerian judiciary took a turn for the worse.
The electoral panels comprise National Assembly Election Petition Tribunals, Governorship Election Petition Tribunals, and State Assembly Election Petition Tribunals.
Inaugurating the panels, Muhammad tasked their members to rise in defence of the judiciary from those he claimed were bent on destroying it. He charged them to discharge their duties with the fear of God, whom, according to him, they are first responsible to.
“As your Lordships take the oath of office as chairmen and members of the Election Petition Tribunals, let me remind you that this oath is a solemn appeal to Almighty God,” Muhammad declared, adding, “Therefore, it is to God Almighty that you will be ultimately responsible. It’s from this oath that your duties and responsibilities as chairmen and members of the election petition tribunal in your various places of assignment spring forth and has a binding effect.”
The interim CJN stated that the judiciary was passing through difficult times, and urged the judges to protect the institution of the judiciary by upholding and enhancing its honour and standing.
He told the tribunal members, “I implore you to discharge your onerous duty diligently and with the fear of God Almighty. The judiciary is in the trying time, you must stand to protect and uphold the integrity of this arm of government.
“I, therefore, congratulate you on this appointment and I urge you to see this assignment as a call to greater service to your nation.”
PDP: Muhammad’s Inauguration of Election Tribunals a Nullity
However, PDP described the swearing-in of the election petition tribunal judges by Muhammad as a nullity. The main opposition party said it was imperative for Muhammad that has allowed himself to be used to desecrate the temple of justice, his oath of office and oath of allegiance, the only option left for him was to quit the bench.
National Publicity Secretary of PDP, Mr. Kola Ologbondiyan, in a statement yesterday insisted that before the law, Muhammad could not function as CJN, as there was no vacancy in that office since the 1999 Constitution (as amended) has no provision for two CJNs at any particular time. The party said Onnoghen was still in charge as CJN.
According to the statement, “From Justice Tanko’s first illegal assignment, which is the swearing-in of election tribunal Justices for the forthcoming elections, Nigerians can now see the raison d’etre for his illegal appointment.
“This action is in itself a nullity and we caution the said justices to be reminded of the popular maxim that something cannot be built on nothing.”
PDP said Buhari should know that Nigerians, irrespective of tribe, creed or political leaning, would never allow anybody to push the nation to the abyss of anarchy.
The party reminded Muhammad of his membership of the panel set up by the National Judicial Council (NJC), which on March 14, 2018 forced Justice Obisike Orji to quit the bench and go on compulsory retirement for allowing himself to be sworn in as Acting Chief Judge of Abia State without the statutory recommendation of the NJC. It advised Muhammad to note that he was allowing himself to be used by despotic forces in their bid to truncate the country’s hard-earned democracy.
Ologbondiyan stressed that when Nigerians were in the trenches for this democracy, General Muhammadu Buhari, as he was then known, was in cahoots with the last dictator, General Sani Abacha, against the will of the people. He said it was unsurprising that Buhari, once again, wanted to subdue the country’s democracy and subvert the rule of law.
PDP added that it had always alerted Nigerians to the fact that Buhari was bent on removing Onnoghen and replacing him with a pliable CJN that would help him uphold his rigging plots and achieve his self-succession bid, having realised that he cannot win in any free and fair electoral contest.