ABUJA – Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, sitting in Abuja, Mr. Danladi Umar, on Monday, gave reasons why the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, must be arraigned over his alleged failure to declare his assets.
Umar who is heading the three-member panel tribunal, insisted that it was legally wrong for the suspended CJN, to stay afar, and query the competence of the charge against him, as well as jurisdiction of the CCT to entertain same. He said the Supreme Court had on plethora of decided cases, held that a Defendant in a criminal matter must firstly mount the dock and enter his plea to the charge, before any application could be heard. Equally relying on provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, the CCT Chairman, maintained that the panel would not hear Justice Onnoghen’s applications until he is arraigned to enter his plea to the six-count charge the Federal Government preferred against him.
Consequently, Mr. Umar directed Justice Onnoghen’s legal team to ensure that he appeared before the tribunal next week Wednesday for arraignment. “Under the ACJA, a Defendant who is served with a charge and represented by lawyers, must take his plea before raising any objection. I want to say that the presence of the Defendant is needed at this tribunal.
“There are several decisions of the Supreme Court to the effect that plea of the Defendant must be taken before issue of competence of charge or jurisdiction is heard. “The Defendant has continued to stay away from this tribunal. I am going to grant this adjournment at the instance of the prosecution and defence, but must state that the Defendant must attend court at the next adjourned date so that all the issues will be resolved in his presence. “The Defendant must be present to enter his plea to the charge before any application will be taken”, the CCT boss stated. Meanwhile, earlier in the proceeding, Mr. Umar and counsel to the suspended CJN, Chief Adegboyega Awolowo, SAN, exchanged hot words over adjournment request by the Defendant.
Justice Onnoghen, who for the third consecutive time, failed to appear before the tribunal to defend the charge against him, had through his lawyer, urged the tribunal to temporarily suspend the trial since the National Judicial Council, NJC, has wadded into the matter. Awolowo drew attention of the tribunal to the fact that the same petition that precipitated the charge against his client, is now before the NJC.
“In the circumstance, I humbly pray your lordships to tarry for a while so that the Defendant will not suffer double jeopardy. “It is in the interest of justice to allow the NJC to take a decision before proceeding with the case. I believe that the integrity of this tribunal will be further enhanced if this application is granted”, Awolowo added. Though the prosecution counsel, Alhaji Aliyu Umar, said he was not opposed to the adjournment request, however, he decried what he termed as “consistent absence” of the suspended CJN at the tribunal. Umar warned that FG would not hesitate to wield its powers and apply for an arrest warrant, should Justice Onnoghen fail to appear before the tribunal on the next adjourned date.
“If he fails to appear on that day, we will be forced to apply for a bench warrant”, he submitted. At this juncture, the tribunal Chairman insisted on proceeding with the trial by allowing the parties to argue the preliminary objection the suspended CJN filed to challenge jurisdiction of the tribunal to try him. He further accused Onnoghen’s lawyer of deliberately employing delay tactics in a bid to frustrate the trial. Infuriated by the remark, Onnoghen’s lawyer, who was ordered to sit down, tackled the CCT Chairman, reminding him that he (Awomolo) is not a small boy at the Bar. Awomolo stressed that while it was imperative for lawyers to give respect to the Bench, he sais Judges were also required to respect themselves by reciprocating the gesture.
“I have spent over 45 years at the Bar and more than 25 years as an SAN. I will not stand and allow anyone to disrespect me in front of junior lawyers. I take serious exception to that”, Awomolo fumed. Not deterred, the CCT Chairman vowed to go ahead with the trial. “My position is that you have to move your application today, if you don’t, I will ask the prosecution to move its own application for interlocutory injunction against the defendant”, the CCT boss stated. In a bid to douse the tension, the prosecution counsel persuaded the tribunal to stand-down the matter for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, about 10 minutes after the stand-down, the panel reconvened and adjourned the case till next week Wednesday. Before the adjournment, Onnoghen’s lawyer apologised to the CCT panel over his outburst.
“My lords, what transpired few minutes ago was an unfortunate one. As a minister in the temple of justice, I want to sincerely apologise to the tribunal. “There are occassions when this type of issues arise. I ask for your forgiveness”, Awomolo pleaded. Similarly, FG’s lawyer, Umar, tendered an apology on behalf of members of the bar. In his remarks, the second member of the CCT panel, Mr. William Atedze, said the tribunal was also minded to apologise for the initial refusal to adjourn the matter as agreed by both the defence and the prosecution.
“May, I, on behalf of the Chairman, also apologise to the parties. You know the pressure this matter has generated and we are still in the learning process. We want to apologize and to say that this type of thing will never happen again”, he added. In a related development, the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal, on Monday, shifted hearing on the appeal the suspended CJN lodged before it, till next week Tuesday.
A three-man panel of Justices of the appellate court led by Justice Stephen Adah, adjourned to enable it to consolidate different appeals revolving on the charge FG entered against Justice Onnoghen. When the matter was called up for hearing, Onnoghen’s lawyer, Chief Chris Uche, SAN, drew attention of the court to the existence of different appeals that border on the same subject matter. Justice Onnoghen who was suspended from office by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 25, had gone before the appellate court to challenge the procedure the tribunal adopted for his trial.
He challenged the decision of the CCT to hear the preliminary objection he lodged against his trial, alongside FG’s motion for an order of interlocutory injunction to compel him to step aside as both the CJN and Chairman of the NJC. Besides, Justice Onnoghen also lodged another appeal to query the legal competence of an ex-parte order the CCT issued on January 23, which President Buhari relied upon to suspend him from office and appoint the next ranking Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Tanko Muhammad, as the Acting CJN.
Among his grounds of appeal, Justice Onnoghen, argued that the Mr. Umar-led CCT erred in law by granting an ex-parte order for his removal, even when its jurisdiction to entertain the six-count charge the federal government levelled against him was being challenged. He applied for, “An order setting aside the order of the tribunal made on the 23rd of January, directing the Appellant to step aside as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and a further order that the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria takes all necessary measures to swear-in the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council.”