The Federal Government and Attorney General of the Federation told the Supreme Court on Thursday that the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, had not been removed from office but was only suspended.
Responding to a suit filed before the apex court by the Cross-River State Government, the two respondents argued that Mr Onnoghen was simply suspended to enable him to stand trial on charges of non-declaration of assets instituted against him before the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
The Solicitor-General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice, Dayo Apata, who represented the two respondents, asked the apex court to dismiss the suit which was filed by Cross Rivers State to challenge Onnoghen’s trial and suspension by President Muhammadu Buhari.
Being a suit between the Federal Government and a state government, it did not arise from an appeal from the lower courts but was filed directly at the Supreme Court under the “original jurisdiction” of the apex court.
Reacting to the argument by the plaintiff’s, Lucius Nwosu (SAN), to the effect that Onnoghen’s “removal from office, by President Muhammadu Buhari was a violation of the Constitution, attack on the judiciary and a breach of the doctrine of separation of powers, Mr Apata contended that “there is a clear distinction between suspension and removal”.
Insisting that Onnoghen’s suspension was not arbitrary, Mr Apata said Buhari’s decision to suspend the CJN followed a valid order which Onnoghen himself has now appealed.
Mr Apata also argued, among others in his client’s notice of preliminary objection and counter affidavits, that the subject matter did not qualify as a dispute between a state government and the Federal Government to warrant being heard by the apex
He said the suit did not disclose any dispute between Cross River State and the Federal Government of Nigeria on the subject matter of this case or the charge pending before the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
In his argument, the plaintiff’s counsel, Nwosu, urged the court to dismiss the defendants’ objection and grant all the prayers sought by his client.
He added, “The seat of the CJN is an institution specifically established by the Constitution of Nigeria, which also makes it tenured, to the effect that the occupant should stay there until his/her retirement age.
“And the only way he/she can be removed before his/her retirement age, has also been stated in the Constitution. This dictates that even if there is any transgression, this procedure must be followed.”
Nwosu insisted that the Supreme Court was the proper forum for the case to be decided.
Nwosu argued that the suit before the Supreme Court was not personal to Onnoghen, but meant to cure a violation to the Constitution and the prevent such violation in future.
The seven-man panel of the apex court led by Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour fixed May 27 for judgment.