Is the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Onnoghen really immune to trials?
No one is above the law, not even the president or the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) and this can be seen in section of the 1999 Constitution. Section one, subsection 1 of the constitution says “this constitution is supreme and its provisions shall have binding force on the authorities and persons throughout the federal republic of Nigeria”.
Nonetheless, the constitution still provides room for immunity. For example, section 308 of the 1999 Constitution protects the President, His vice, Governors and deputy Governors from trials until the end of their tenures after which they can be tried before a court. In regards to this the CJN possesses similar power as he cannot be tried in Court unless relieved from his duties and position as the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
Firstly, who is a Chief Justice of Nigeria? A Chief Justice of Nigeria is the topmost judicial officer of the nation and head of the judiciary, one of the tiers of Government. he is the president and head of the Supreme Court which is the highest court in the country. He is appointed by the President of Nigeria on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (s231 (2) of the Constitution).
A CJN once appointed, stays in seat until he cloaks 70 or until he dies.
However, he maybe removed from his position as CJN either through the senate or the National Judicial Council (Section 292 of the Constitution). He may be removed by the president “acting on an address supported” by a two-third majority voting (s291(1)(a)(i) . A prerequisite to this is that such a decision must be based on grounds that such CJN is being removed for his “inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment (whether arising from infirmity of mind or of body) or for misconduct or contravention of the Code of Conduct ” (Section 292).
If the National Assembly (Senate) cannot remove him, the National Judicial Council can also play a role. Though tricky due to the fact that the CJN is the acting chairman of the National Judicial Council, it has been said that the NJC in the past in similar circumstances, allow the CJN to temporarily step down from his position, after which the allegations can be heard by the NJC. This process however appears questionable due to the possible close working relationship of various parties involved. The executive tier of government thus, seems to have ignored the NJC completely and jumped to the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
In order to successfully take a Chief Justice of Nigeria on trial as stipulated earlier, he must be removed from his position as Chief Justice of Nigeria either through the senate or the National Judicial Council (NJC) (Section 292 of the Constitution). This is built on judicial precedence following the facts of the case of Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa. In fact, to a normal mind, it is sacrilege that one who is to judge and sustain the course of justice be placed under the eyes of the law as an offender. It is not only an insult to the holder of such position, but an insult to the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and the entire judicial body of Nigeria. So we can conclude that a Chief Justice of Nigeria can be removed from his seat as the head of the Supreme Court.
To conclude, it appears that President Buhari and his entourage want the acting CJN removed instantaneously and only God knows why. To sustain a democracy and maintain societal structure, the law cannot be ignored. Although he may or may not have breached a part of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers (alleged failure to disclose assets), there is a proper way to go around it.