Court halts trial of CJN

The planned trial of Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Walter Onnoghen at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) suffered a setback yesterday as a Federal High Court, Abuja, ordered a halt to proceedings.The CJN, who was facing a six-count charge of alleged false declaration of assets, had been scheduled to appear at the tribunal. He was however absent.

Shortly after the tribunal adjourned till January 22, the Federal High Court granted a prayer for an interim order of injunction, restraining the defendants, whether by themselves or their agents, servants, privies or otherwise howsoever described from arresting, arraigning, prosecuting, charging or trying the CJN, giving effect to charge number CCT/ABJ/01/19 before the second defendant, pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice.

The Incorporated Trustees of International Association of Student Economists and Management filed the motion. Defendants in the matter include the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), CCT, Chairman of the Code Of Conduct Bureau (CCB) and the Inspector General of Police.Justice N.E Maha ordered that in the meantime, parties should maintain the status quo that existed as at yesterday and should not take any steps that would interfere with the subject matter of the suit pending the hearing and determination of the motion on motive. He adjourned the matter till January 17 for hearing.

This was as a lawyer, Chief Malcom Omirhobo, also asked a Federal High Court in Abuja to declare that it is the constitutional duty of the National Judicial Council (NJC) to sanction a CJN for ethical misconduct.In the suit he filed yesterday, Omirhobo joined as defendants, the AGF, NJC, CCT and CCB.He asked the court to determine whether the constitutional power to investigate, discipline and sanction erring justices of superior courts of record, for ethical misconduct, is the exclusive preserve of the NJC.

He sought the court’s interpretation of the CCT’s jurisdiction to entertain the charge against Onnoghen for purposes of arraignment or prosecution for judicial misconduct, without the NJC looking into the allegations.He also sought a declaration that the constitutional power to investigate, discipline and sanction erring justices for ethical misconduct is the exclusive preserve of the NJC.

He furthermore asked for an order compelling the NJC to direct the CCT to discontinue the charge against the CJN; and an order of perpetual injunction restraining the defendants from prosecuting the CJN or any other judicial officer for ethical violation, without following due process of law.No date has been fixed for hearing of the suit.

Meanwhile, at the CCT, Onnoghen’s defence team consisted of a formidable array of over 40 Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN), led by Chief Wale Olanipekun. They included Kanu Agabi, Chris Uche, Yusuf Ali and Adegboyega Awomolo, Tawo E. Tawo, P.O. Oloko, Stephen Adehi, Ola Olanipekun and Dr. Valerie Azinge. The prosecution had one SAN.

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) also tried to join the defence team. Paul Usoro (SAN), the president, sought to announce the association’s appearance. The tribunal however refused to take record on the ground that the matter was only between the Federal Government and Onnoghen.

Giving reasons why the CJN would not be available in court, Olanipekun challenged the competency of the tribunal to hear the matter. “We are not yet at the point of arraignment. The law is not talking of awareness. All I am asking is for the court to uphold the sanctity of the law,” he said.

Citing Section 260 (b) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, he argued that if the defendant had been properly served, he would have appeared in court. He also informed the tribunal of a pending interlocutory application, which ought to be heard and ruled upon before the arraignment.

But the counsel to the Federal Government, Aliu Umar, argued that the notice of summons was duly served on Onnoghen’s personal assistant and that the service was proper enough for him to appear in court. According to him, until a plea is taken, the interlocutory application ought not to be heard or argued.After a heated argument from Olanipekun, the prosecution admitted that the CJN was not properly served and sought an adjournment to serve the defendant properly.

The tribunal chairman, Danladi Umar, gave the prosecution till Wednesday to serve the process.In a statement, the three branches of the NBA in Rivers State yesterday sustained the criticism of Onnoghen’s ordeal, saying: “We condemn in its entity the unlawful manner in which the Federal Government and its agencies have assaulted, ridiculed and degraded the revered office of the CJN and indeed the entire judiciary. We insist that the Federal Government in its fight against corruption must follow the rule of law, especially as it has to do with the proposed arraignment of the CJN or any other judiciary officer.”

But the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) maintained that the law should be allowed a right of way. The spokesman, Lanre Issa-Onilu, told reporters in Abuja: “While we will not be drawn into debates on the legality and sponsored conspiracies of the CCT trial, we insist that our democratic and constitutional institutions must be allowed to operate without interference and undue pressure from partisan and sundry interests as being done by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its cronies.

“The CCT trial is a legal matter; let the law run its course. The CJN must go through the instrumentalities of the courts, more importantly as an institution he represents. Indeed, this is the true test of our constitution and the rule of law. It will deepen democracy.”The spokesperson of the party’s women and youth presidential campaign team, Dr Abdulmumuni Jibrin, also refuted allegations that President Muhammadu Buhari, on account of the CJN’s ordeal, was despotic.

He told a group of journalists during the team’s ‘Operation Sweep The Poling Units’ in Abuja: “It is shocking to hear that we are heading toward dictatorship under the Buhari administration. As far as we are concerned, there is clear evidence that Buhari is the most democratic president we have ever had in the country.”

The leadership of the opposition PDP however insisted the Buhari government was out to destroy democratic institutions. “We thank the judiciary for standing firm for the common man. Without the judiciary, APC would have arrested all Nigerians. They don’t understand; they don’t understand the constitution. They don’t know how to govern in compliance with the rule of law and due process,” PDP chairman, Uche Secondus, told party supporters at a rally in Ondo State.He noted: “If you want to fight corruption, follow due process. We are not against the anti-corruption campaign but you must follow due process. We are not in a military regime, so they must follow due process.”

Also, the PDP’s vice presidential candidate, Mr. Peter Obi, in a statement presented at the party’s Strategy Meeting in Shagamu, Ogun State, warned Buhari against causing anarchy in the country.He added: “In the present case, indications reveal that due process was not followed. For instance, what should be done first in such cases is to write formally to the NJC, and that was not done. In my view, the Nigerian judiciary remains the best of the three arms of government under the present dispensation. It has done tremendously well.

“One begins to wonder whether the handlers of the present regime are unmindful of the extant law that requires the NJC to first investigate judicial officers and, if found culpable, recommend disciplinary measures to the legislature before any arraignment if necessary.”Also, Lagos-based anti-graft group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), urged Buhari to “instruct the AGF and Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami to immediately withdraw the charges against Onnoghen.”

The group in a statement by its senior legal adviser, Bamisope Adeyanju, said the Attorney General should send any allegations of breach of asset declaration to the NJC for investigation.“Mr. Malami should then request Justice Onnoghen as the chairman of the NJC to recuse himself, so that the next most senior justice at the Supreme Court can preside over the process and set up a panel to investigate the allegations against Justice Onnoghen, to ensure fairness and justice in the matter.

“We believe that enforcing asset declaration provisions would help to prevent corruption and abuse of office and ensure transparency in public officers including judges. But the government should follow due process of law, and allow the NJC to consider the allegations against Justice Onnoghen first before pushing for prosecution, should there be any relevant admissible evidence. This would help to accord Justice Onnoghen his entire rights through laid down process.

“The moral guilt or the legal guilt of Justice Onnoghen should be left for the judicial process to decide, as he is presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction. For now, the fundamental question is whether he is afforded the due process of law, as he is constitutionally and legally entitled to. This is our interest in this case, and this should be the interest of every lover of justice.”


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