Onnoghen Goes on Appeal as CCT Rejects High Courts’ Orders

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Walter Onnoghen
Walter Onnoghen

•Adjourns to January 28 for motion on jurisdiction

Davidson Iriekpen in Lagos and Alex Enumah in Abuja

The lead counsel to the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), has vowed to appeal yesterday’s ruling by the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), dismissing the orders of three high courts and the National Industrial Court that restrained it from proceeding with the arraignment of Onnoghen by the Code of Conduct Bureau.

The four courts had in separate rulings restrained the CCT from proceeding with the arraignment of the CJN pending the suits brought before them.

After taking arguments yesterday from both Onnoghen and the federal government’s lawyers, the CCT had in a split decision held that the orders of the four courts were not bidding on it and slated next week Thursday for hearing on the motion challenging its jurisdiction.

Olanipekun, who spoke to THISDAY last night, said the notice of appeal to be filed at the Court of Appeal in Abuja was already in progress and would be filed any time soonest.

He added that while appeal would not necessarily be about Onnoghen, it is about strengthening Nigeria’s jurisprudence.
The CCT in the split decision of two to one had discountenanced the orders of the courts on the grounds that the orders were made by courts of equal jurisdiction and the CCT is a special court empowered to handle exclusively the issues relating to assets declaration.

The position of the CCT was made by the Chairman, Mr. Danladi Umar, and was supported by another judge, Mr. Juli Anabor, who aligned herself with the chairman’s position, while a third judge, Mr. Williams Atedze, gave the dissenting judgment.

Umar had in his ruling held that those who obtained the orders of the High Court were busybodies because they are not parties in the matter at the tribunal.
He maintained that the orders of the high courts and that of the National Industrial Court are null and void on account of being inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution, adding that section 246 makes it crystal clear that the tribunal has unquantified jurisdiction to hear any assets declaration case as may be referred to it by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).

Umar also disagreed with the request to adjourn the trial indefinitely, on the grounds of a pending appeal at the Court of Appeal, contending that section 306 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA), 2015, did not make provisions for stay of proceedings in a criminal matter and that in the instant case, it shall not be entertained.

The second member of the panel, Atedze in his dissenting ruling, held that it would result to judicial anarchy for the tribunal to proceed with the trial in view of the four subsisting court orders and the pending appeal at the Court of Appeal.

According to him, orders are binding on the tribunal until they are set aside in view of section 287(3) of the 1999 Constitution, which allows court orders to be enforced in all parts of the county, stressing that the CCT cannot operate in isolation.

“Having summarised argument from both parties, it is my submission that CCT as a creation of law is bound by the existing court orders to avoid judicial anarchy,” he held.
But Olanipekun speaking with THISDAY yesterday, disagreed with the majority ruling, describing the CCT’s declaration of the orders of the Federal High Court and National Industrial Court as null and void as strange to Nigeria’s jurisprudence.

He said, “We will appeal the ruling of the CCT not because of Justice Onnoghen, but in the interest of the country’s jurisprudence. The Court of Appeal has to espouse on the issue. In my little knowledge of the law, I have never heard where an order of court will be declared null and avoid by another court.

“The notice of appeal is almost ready and would be filed any moment from now.”
The federal government had slammed a six-count charge of false asset declaration against the CJN.
Onnoghen had earlier been scheduled for arraignment last week, January 14 but, the arraignment could not take place due to improper service of the charge on him, forcing the tribunal to adjourn to January 22.

However, between the last adjourned date and yesterday, when the matter came up for hearing, three different courts and the National Industrial Court, Abuja had all given orders, restraining the CCT from going ahead with the trial.
First was Justice Evelyn Maha of the Federal High Court Abuja, who on January 14, issued an order exparte restraining the defendants, including the tribunal from taking any further steps on the matter pending the hearing of the main suit. The order was extended to January 28.

Similarly, Justice Sanusi Kado of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria on same January 14, ordered all parties to maintain status quo, pending the hearing of the suit challenging the alleged move by the federal government to remove Onnoghen from office as CJN owing to the charges filed against him at the CCT.

Justice Kado on January 21, while extending the order till January 29, ordered that the enrolled order and the Motion on Notice be served on the CCT chairman through substituted means and pasted on the office of the tribunal.

While Justice Valentine Ashi of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court in his ruling on an exparte brought before it ordered parties to maintain status quo as it existed on January 15, Justice Inyang Ekwo of the Federal High Court, Abuja restrained President Muhammadu Buhari, the Attorney-General, the CCT and other defendants from taking further steps in the matter of the CJN pending the hearing of the substantive suit before the court.

But reacting to the orders of the four courts yesterday, the CCT in a split decision of two to one, discountenanced the orders of the court on the grounds that the orders were made by courts of equal jurisdiction, and the CCT is a special court empowered to handle exclusively the issues relating to assets declaration.

The position of the CCT was made by the Chairman, Danladi Umar and was supported by Justice Juli Anabor, who aligned herself with the chairman’s position, while Justice Williams Atedze gave the dissenting judgement.

“Having analyzed the situation, I have come to the conclusion that the order issued by the Federal High Court and the National Industrial Court is not binding on the tribunal. This is because the tribunal is established by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria under the 3rd schedule to adjudicate on matters relating to asset declaration”, he said.
“It is imperative to state that the tribunal is empowered by the constitution to adjudicate on matters of asset declaration exclusive of any other court and so therefore any other court cannot stop the tribunal from continuing with the case before it”.

Umar in his ruling also pointed out that those who obtained the orders of the High Court were busy bodies because they are not parties in the matter at the tribunal.
He maintained that the orders of the High Courts and that of the National Industrial Court are null and void to the extent of their inconsistency with the provisions of the Constitution, adding that section 246 makes it crystal clear that the tribunal has unquantified jurisdiction to hear any assets declaration case as may be referred to it by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).

Umar also disagreed with the request to adjourn the trial indefinitely, on the grounds of a pending appeal at the Court of Appeal, adding that section 306 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, did not make provisions for stay of proceedings in a criminal matter and that in the instant case, it shall not be entertained.

The other member of the three-man panel of the CCT, Atedze in his dissenting ruling held that it would result to judicial anarchy for the tribunal to proceed with the trial in view of the four subsisting court orders and the pending appeal at the Court of Appeal.

According to him, the orders are binding on the tribunal until they are set aside in view of section 287(3) of the 1999 Constitution, which allows court orders to be enforced in all parts of the county, stressing that the CCT cannot operate in isolation.
“Having summarised argument from both parties, it is my submission that CCT as a creation of law, is bound by the existing court orders to avoid judicial anarchy”, he held.

He further held that the issue of jurisdiction of the tribunal to entertain the charge against CJN must first be resolved, submitting that status quo must be maintained by adjoining proceedings sine die until all contending issues are resolved.
Although the Chairman ordered that the motion challenging the jurisdiction of the tribunal be moved immediately, counsel to the defendant, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, however, informed the tribunal that the response of the complainant, federal government was served on him late Monday and as such needed time to study the response and then filed reply on point of law.

Counsel to the federal government, Aliyu Umar, SAN, agreed that the government’s response was served late on the defendant, prompting the Chairman to adjourned further proceedings till Monday, January 28.
Earlier, Umar who led nine other government counsels informed the tribunal that the business of the day was to arraign Justice Onnoghen and hear two applications.

One of the applications, he said, was filed by the prosecution, praying the tribunal for an order directing CJN Onnoghen to step aside from office, while the second application by the defendant is challenging the jurisdiction of the Tribunal to hear the suit.

The prosecution lawyer, while observing that Onnoghen was not present in court, said since the arraignment cannot take place without the defendant being in court it is pertinent to find out if the defendant was served with the charge.
Responding, Olanipekun who led 43 other Senior Advocates and 80 lawyers, disagreed with the prosecution that the matter was adjourned for arraignment. He said it was adjourned specifically to hear two pending applications.

He said, however, that there have been intervening orders between the last sitting and today.
He informed the tribunal of the various orders by the Federal High Court Abuja, the National Industrial Court Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory High Court and Federal High Court Abuja restraining the parties including the Code of Conduct Tribunal and Chairman, who are also parties to the suits from proceeding with the trial pending the determination of the suits.

Olanipekun further informed the tribunal that CJN Onnoghen is also a party to the suits in which the Federal High Court had ordered the parties to maintain status quo.
He said that a senior counsel in the defence team had written the tribunal and furnished it with all the processes filed in the four suits and the respective orders of each of the Courts.

Besides, Olanipekun who informed the tribunal of Justice Onnoghen’s appeal at the Court of Appeal, urged the tribunal to adjourn the matter indefinitely pending the determination of the matter at the appellate court.

He also urged the tribunal to respect the orders of the courts, restraining it from taking further steps until all pending issues are resolved
However, the government lawyer, while conceding that the Court of Appeal may have taken over the case by virtue of Onnoghen’s appeal there, he submitted that there was no order from the Court of Appeal stopping the tribunal from proceeding with the matter.
Umar also submitted that the tribunal is not subjected to the supervision of the Federal High Court and the Industrial Court hence their orders cannot be binding on the tribunal.

Umar said if he would have to concede to the Court of Appeal and allow the matter at the tribunal to be adjourned indefinitely, then he would have to move application asking Onnoghen to step aside as the CJN pending the determination of the matter.
He pointed out that the government application is not seeking to remove Onnoghen from office but that he stepped aside as CJN pending the determination of the charges against him.

However, counsel to the defendant urged the court to dismiss the government submissions, stressing that the issue of jurisdiction must first be resolved before the tribunal can entertain any application by counsel.
At this stage, the CCT Chairman announced a short adjournment to enable the tribunal take a decision on the restraining orders of the four courts.