Challenging Tribunal’s Jurisdiction, Onnoghen Stays Away from Arraignment
•CCT orders fresh service of summons, adjourns till Tuesday
•Two courts halt trial
•CJN must face prosecution, says APC
Iyobosa Uwugiaren, Shola Oyeyipo and Alex Enumah in Abuja
The much advertised arraignment of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, for alleged non-declaration of assets did not happen yesterday as the CJN stayed away in protest, challenging the jurisdiction of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) to try him.
Leading lights of the legal profession, including Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, Dr. Yusuf Alli, SAN and 45 other silks, stood in defence of Onnoghen and were ready for legal foot walks before the tribunal adjourned hostility till Tuesday so that the CJN could be properly served the processes.
By the time Olanipekun concluded the defence team’s preliminary objection to the trial, two courts, the National Industrial Court and Federal High Court, sitting in Abuja had stopped the arraignment all together. But in spite of the groundswell of opposition to the failed arraignment, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) insisted on the prosecution of the CJN, claiming that fight against corruption is the substantive issue to be tackled.
At the tribunal sitting at Abuja High Court, Jabi, Abuja, lawyers and other protesters, who blamed the federal government for Onnoghen’s predicament, stormed the premises to register their disapproval over the manner the CJN was to be arraigned.
The tribunal, following an application by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), had scheduled yesterday for the arraignment of the CJN.
The federal government is prosecuting the CJN on a six-count criminal charge, bordering on non-declaration of his assets.
However, when the matter was called up at 10a.m. yesterday, Onnoghen was not present in court for the arraignment.
Olanipekun, who led the defence team, informed the tribunal Chairman, Mr. Danladi Umar, that the defendant had filed an application challenging the jurisdiction of the tribunal to entertain the suit.
Olanipekun also informed the court that the defendant was not in court because he had not been served with the summons of the tribunal.
Although the prosecution counsel, Mr. Aliyu Umar (SAN), argued that service was effected on the CJN, claiming that the registrar of the court informed him that the CJN directed his personal secretary, one Sunday O. to accept service on his behalf.
But Olanipekun insisted that in a criminal charge, service must be made personally on the defendant, adding that the CJN opted not to appear before the tribunal in protest.
“The law is well settled, where the defendant is challenging the jurisdiction in a criminal matter, he does not have to appear. The non-appearance is on protest. We are not yet on the matter of arraignment,” he said, stressing, “The tribunal should uphold the dignity and sanctity of the law.”
The chairman of the tribunal had initially argued that there was no law that allows a defendant to say he is not appearing because he is protesting.
He, however, in conceding the defectiveness of the service, urged the court to redirect service on the defendant with a directive that the service be made personally on the CJN.
Subsequently, thetribunal adjourned the matter till Tuesday, January 22 for the arraignment of Onnoghen and the hearing of all applications relating to the matter.
The CJN in the application, which would be taken at the next adjourned date, is asking the tribunal for an order striking out or dismissing the suit against him in its entirety as constituted in charge number: CCT/ ABJ/01/19.
The defence counsel said their request was predicted on the grounds that the applicant is a judicial officer, a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and, presently the Chief Justice of Nigeria, saying the constitution makes ample provisions for the appointment and removal of judicial officers, particularly a justice of the Supreme Court, and more particularly, the CJN.
The defence in the application further noted that no allegation of any misconduct whatsoever has been made against the applicant by the respondent, and none (allegations) has been referred to the National Judicial Council (NJC) by the respondent.
In addition, the defendant said no address supported by 2/3 majority of the Senate has been presented to the President of Nigeria for the discipline or removal of the applicant from office.
Amidst heavy presence of security personnel at the tribunal, the venue of the scheduled arraignment was condoned off as early as 8a.m. by security operatives, who carried out screening of persons going into the premises of the tribunal.
No fewer than 50 Senior Advocates of Nigeria, alongside dozens of other lawyers, attended the proceedings in line with the call by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) President, Paul Usoro, SAN, to show solidarity with the CJN.
One of the charges read: “That you, Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen, CJN, GCON between June 8, 2005 to December 14, 2016 being a public officer, serving as a Judicial Officer of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria failed to declare and submit a written declaration of all your assets and liabilities within the prescribed period of (3) months after being sworn-in as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria on the 8 day of June, 2005 and you thereby contravened the provisions of section 15(1) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act Cap 15 LFN 2004 and punishable under section 23(2) a, b and c of the same Act.”
Onnoghen was also accused of falsely declaring his assets by omitting to declare funds in his domiciliary accounts as well as an e- saving accounts both in local and foreign currencies, all in Standard Chartered Banks, Wuse, Abuja.
Massive Solidarity for Onnoghen
Over 400 protesters from the South-south region, including members of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) and a group of young lawyers, under the auspices of Advocate for Peoples’ Right and Justice (APRJ) registered their grievances with the legal procedure, alleging that it was an orchestrated attack on the judiciary and the South-south region.
Leading the APRJ protesters, Mr. Pelumi Olajengbesi said their angst is that the case against the CJN was being spurred by some forces somewhere.
He said, “There is a finger from somewhere, not just trying to deal with the CJN but the entire judiciary. Our protest is to send a signal to the Nigerian government that Nigerian lawyers disapprove of any attempt to intimidate the judiciary and that it will be resisted.
“It is clear that this case is geared to achieve a premeditated objective, which is to embarrass the CJN out of office without following the laid down procedure stipulated by the law. And we urge every Nigerian to reject this ploy in its entirety.”
The aggrieved lawyers carried placards with inscriptions such as: “Nigerians want independent judiciary,” “Restore confidence in the law,” “No assault, intimidation and desecration of our democracy,” “No to tyranny and election manipulation,” “Save our judiciary.”
Though they were disallowed from accessing the premises of the tribunal, the outraged citizens carried placards with inscriptions such as ‘Ijaw youths say no to the intimidation of the judiciary,’ ‘Let the rule of law prevail,’ ‘Government: Is it South-south vs. North?’ ‘South-south says no to intimidation,’ stayed outside the venue to vent their obvious angers.
Lawyer and presidential hopeful on the platform of All Grassroots Alliance (AGA), Mr. Chuks Nwachukwu, who spoke with THISDAY was particularly elated that members of the NBA stood in solidarity with the CJN.
“From what I can see, from the proceedings, I am glad that the bar came to support the CJN. They stood solidly behind him. Everybody knows that this is about the profession, rule of law and the administration of justice in Nigeria.
“If the CJN is taken down on an improper application, it is not good for our judicial system. It is the first time we are seeing such thing,’’ he stated.
Describing his understanding of the proceedings in the court, an Abuja -based lawyer, Mr. Chris Makpu, said, “The tribunal and the prosecution are on the same page, playing the script of the government with a bid to achieve their ill-motivated purpose and, which if allowed, will not only take us a step backward in our democracy but will also be a slap on the judiciary.”
Meanwhile, Justice Maha of the Federal High Court, Abuja yesterday temporarily halted the arraignment of Onnoghen, before CCT.
In a short ruling on two separate ex-parte applications brought before the court, he ordered parties to maintain status quo, pending the hearing and determination of the exparte motion.
The judge, before adjourning the matter till January 17, also ordered that the defendants to be served with all the processes – filed, and appear in court at the next hearing.
In the suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/27/2019 and filed by incorporated trustees of the Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami; the Chairman of CCT, Umar; the National Judicial Council, the Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Ibrahim Idris, and the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki were joined as defendants.
The other suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/28/2019 and filed by the incorporated trustees of the International Association of Students Economists and Management, has as defendants, Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Malami; the CCT, the CCB, the Chairman of CCT, Umar; and the Inspector-General of Police, Idris.
While the ex parte application in the suit FHC/ABJ/CS/27/2019 was moved by Mr. R.A Lawal-Rabana, SAN, before Justice Maha on Monday, the ex parte application filed in the suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/28/2019 was moved by Mr. Jeph Njikonye.
The CJN will also be challenging the jurisdiction of the CCT to entertain the suit, when the matter resumes on January 22.
SERAP Asks AGF to take complaints against Onnoghen to NJC
An anti-corruption group, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), has urged President Muhammadu Buhari to instruct the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, to immediately withdraw the charges against Onnoghen and refer any allegations of breach of asset declaration to the NJC for investigation.
The organisation said, “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.’’
In a statement today by SERAP senior legal adviser, Mr. Bamisope Adeyanju, the organisation said, “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.”
Onnoghen Must Face Trial, Says APC
At a news conference yesterday in Abuja, APC wondered whether there is an unholy alliance between the PDP and the CJN, accusing the PDP of always being quick to defend corruption.
The party said in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Malam Lanre Isa-Onilu, “Following the notice of the charges preferred against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, by the Code of Conduct Bureau at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has been on overdrive vituperating over an issue that should at best be left to the judiciary to resolve.
“While we would not want to be lured into discussing issues that are presently before the courts and for, which any respectable political party hoping to hold positions of responsibility should restrain itself, we regret to suggest that the PDP’s attempt to hoodwink Nigerians into believing that there is a political motive behind the allegation brought against the CJN might itself be indicative of some unholy alliances.
APC added that while it would not be drawn into debates on the legality and sponsored conspiracies of the CCT trial, the democratic and constitutional institutions must be allowed to operate without interference and undue pressure from partisan and sundry interests.
The ruling party said that the CCT trial is a legal matter, and the law must run its course, advising the CJN to go through the instrumentalities of the courts, more importantly as an institution he represents.