The National Judicial Council has berated the Osun State Governor, Ademola Adeleke, and the state House of Assembly for removing the Chief Judge of the state, Justice Oyebola Ojo, saying they lack the power to suspend or discipline any judge.
A member of the council, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak on the matter, said the NJC was the only body that could investigate and recommend sanctions for judges.
The council member said, “A state government cannot discipline, sanction or sack the chief judge of a state without recourse to the NJC. This applies to judges. If they claim they’ve carried the NJC along, they should have waited for the NJC to investigate her.
“The NJC is the only body empowered by the constitution to investigate judges and recommend appropriate sanctions to the President if it is a federal court, and the governor if it is a state. State governors and Houses of Assembly members can’t remove the state Chief Judge. The NJC is the only body that can suspend judges.
“The same situation happened in Sokoto, where the House of Assembly sacked the CJ, Aisha Dahiru, and the Supreme Court nullified it. “
The spokesperson of the NJC, Adesoji Oye could not be reached for comments as calls to his line indicated it was switched off.
NBA slams Osun
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Bar Association has condemned the suspension of the Osun CJ by the state government.
The House of Assembly had during plenary on Thursday ordered Justice Ojo to step aside pending the outcome of investigation into her activities.
Approving the resolution of the assembly, the governor appointed Justice Olayinka Afolabi as the acting Chief Judge.
Ojo’s suspension was, however, in defiance of an order of the National Industrial Court sitting in Ibadan, which restrained Adeleke from removing her.
Condemning the action of the government, the NBA in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Akorede Lawal, said her removal was unlawful.
He described the action of the governor and state lawmakers as an unwarranted assault on the judiciary and aimed at intimidating that arm of government in the state.
The statement read in part, “The NBA unequivocally condemns this unlawful action by the Osun State Government. The action of the state government is an abuse of the rule of law and a desecration of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended).
“In very vivid terms, the actions of Governor Adeleke and the Osun State House of Assembly are unwarranted assaults on the judiciary and aimed at intimidation.
“The NBA wishes to categorically state that the provisions of the 1999 Constitution are not ambiguous as to the way and manner a chief judge of a state could be removed from office. Certainly, a state House of Assembly resolution for a chief judge to step aside is unknown to the law of our land.”
Citing the case between Nganjiwa and FRN, he said a chief judge could not be removed without the involvement of the National Judicial Council.
The statement added, “Furthermore, the law has since been settled in Nganjiwa v FRN (2017) LPELR-43391 (CA) that any misconduct attached to the office and functions of a judicial officer must first be reported to and determined by the NJC.
“Specifically, the Supreme Court in Elelu-Habeeb & Anor v AG Federation & Ors (2012) 12 NWLR (Pt 1318) 423 has clearly stated that the chief judge of a state cannot be removed under any guise, including the infamous ‘step aside style’ by the Osun State Government without recourse to the NJC.”
The NBA also berated the Osun State Government for disregarding the order of a court restraining it from removing the CJ.
It added, “The NBA is further worried and troubled that in going about its unlawful endeavour, the Osun State Government chose to ignore the lawful order of interim injunction granted by the National Industrial Court sitting in Ibadan, which restrained the governor of Osun State from interfering with the office of the Chief Judge of Osun State.
“This is untoward, coming from a democratically elected state government. All decisions of court must be obeyed and complied with until they are set aside by a superior court of competent jurisdiction.”
Lawal said the NBA had resolved not to recognise Justice Afolabi as the acting CJ of the state.
He vowed that the association would stop at nothing to ensure that the decision of the state government did not stand.
Lawal said, “The NBA’s position is anchored on the constitutional doctrine of separation of power and the independence of the judiciary. The tenure of a judicial officer cannot and should not be subject to the mood of politicians.
“To this extent, the NBA and its members shall not recognise Hon. Justice Olayinka Afolabi as the acting Chief Judge of Osun State, because the provisions of the law must be complied with strictly in the removal of, and/or appointment of the Chief Judge of Osun State.
“The NBA shall take all necessary steps to ensure that this impunity and brazen abuse of office does not stand.”
The spokesperson for the governor, Mallam Olawale Rasheed, had on Thursday, said Adeleke approved the removal of the CJ following a resolution of the state House of Assembly of November 16, 2023, that the Executive arm of government should be informed of the House resolution and that the next in order of seniority to Justice Adepele Ojo be sworn-in immediately to avoid any vacuum in the third arm of government in the State.
The swearing-in of Justice Afolabi as the acting CJ, however, could not as scheduled on Friday as he did not show up.
Meanwhile, efforts to get the reaction of the House Committee on Judiciary were not fruitful as at the time of filing this report.
While the Chairman of the committee, Oluwole Oke, who hails from Osun State, neither picked his calls nor respond to messages sent to him via WhatsApp; the Deputy Chairman of the committee and a member of the New Nigeria People’s Party, Mohammed Danjuma, could not be reached as his mobile phone indicated that it was switched off.
Ifedayo Adedipe, SAN,said no provision of the constitution empowered governors to remove CJs.
“I am not aware of anywhere in the constitution where governors or Houses of Assembly can remove a CJ. What happened in Osun is unconstitutional,” he said.
A senior lawyer, Chief Yomi Aliyu (SAN), said it was unconstitutional for the governor to oust the CJ and appoint another without following due process.
According to him, the embattled CJ is expected to first face a disciplinary panel that would hear the case of alleged misconduct and corruption levelled against her by Adeleke.
He said, “It is unconstitutional for the governor to make any appointment until the case had been brought before the disciplinary panel, which would hear the matter and decide whether or not the CJ was guilty.
“The law is clear on how you can remove a CJ. This has been settled in the case between Habeeb Vs Kwara State Government, where the court emphatically stated that a CJ can only be removed after the CJ has been reported to the National Judiciary Council.
“The incumbent governor of Osun, Ademola Adeleke, has an axe to grind with the CJ, saying that the CJ was too loyal to the former governor, Adegboyega Oyetola. In fact, I learnt that the governor called a meeting of all judges in the state, where he made the allegation.
“The CJ allegedly told the governor that she was neutral and only loyal to the seat. She stressed that her loyalty could not be faulted. But, it was not enough to satisfy the governor, who wanted a change.
“So, he engineered the House of Assembly to pass a resolution. Before that resolution was passed, the National Industrial Court issued an order restraining him from taking such a decision. But, the deputy and governor went on to appoint an acting CJ on their own.
“The judges in Osun State are aware of the position of the law. In Ondo State, a judge was ousted for 15 years for accepting that kind of appointment.”