Onnoghen Suffers Setback as Appeal Court Refuses to Stay Trial at CCT

Walter Onnoghen
  • Lawyers’ boycott stalls CJN’s case at industrial court
  • CUPP, pro-democracy groups petition UN, AU
  • Rhodes-Vivour may emerge new chief justice

Alex Enumah and Kingsley Nwezeh in Abuja

The Court of Appeal Wednesday dampened the hope of suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, for reprieve, refusing to stay proceedings at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), where the CJN is scheduled for arraignment for alleged asset declaration offences.

Instead, the appellate court dismissed the appeal filed by Onnoghen and asked him to return to his scheduled arraignment at the CCT.

Relief could also not come from the National Industrial Court (NIC) as the boycott of courts by lawyers directed by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) stalled its proceedings in a suit challenging the suspension of Onnoghen by President Muhammadu Buhari.

But as the legal fireworks continued across the courts, opposition political parties led by Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) and a coalition of pro-democracy groups in Nigeria have petitioned the United Nations and the African Union Commission over the suspension of the CJN.

They have also commended the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union for identifying with Nigerians on the matter.

The Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) had filed a six-count charge at the CCT against Onnoghen for alleged asset declaration offences.

But Onnoghen in a motion on notice asked the Court of Appeal to halt his trial on the grounds that the tribunal erred in law when it adjourned on January 14 to rule on both his motion on jurisdiction as well as that of the federal government asking the tribunal to order his suspension as the CJN pending the determination of the charges against him at the CCT.

But in a unanimous decision delivered yesterday, the three-member panel of the Court of Appeal led by Justice Abdul Aboki, held that the prayer of Onnoghen that his trial be put on hold runs contrary to the provisions of Section 306 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015.

Justice Aboki, who read the lead ruling cited the case of the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, in which Onnoghen himself at the Supreme Court, declined to stay Saraki’s trial on the same grounds that Section 306 of the new law did not permit a stay of criminal trial.

According to him, there were no special circumstances in which Onnoghen’s prayer would be granted in the appeal argued by his counsel, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN).

The appellate court in the ruling, aligned with the federal government that the suspended CJN’s request for stay of proceedings ought to be refused.

The court, accordingly, dismissed the appeal seeking to stop the CCT from taking further steps in the six-count criminal charges filed against Onnoghen.

Justice Aboki said the earlier stay of proceedings granted on January 24 to enable the court consider the Motion on Notice for stay had lapsed.

The judge, however, said the applicant’s Notice of Appeal challenging the tribunal’s decision to hear two of the federal government’s motions together had been filed before it.

He said the new appeal was challenging an exparte order made by the tribunal that led to Onnoghen’s suspension as the CJN and Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC).

The judge said the appeal was also challenging the decision of the president to appoint an Acting CJN and Chairman of the NJC.

“In the circumstances, the court hereby adjourns the hearing of the appeal until February 4.’’
The federal government had in a motion before the tribunal asked for an order for Onnoghen to step aside as the CJN.

The government also sought the tribunal’s order to empower the president to swear in the most senior justice of the Supreme Court as acting CJN.

The stance of the tribunal to entertain the above mentioned motions together led Onnoghen to file the motion for stay of his trial pending the determination of his motion challenging the jurisdiction of the tribunal.

Olanipekun had approached the appellate court praying for an order restraining the tribunal from continuing with the matter.

He insisted that his client’s motion challenging the jurisdiction of the tribunal should be treated first before any other proceeding could happen.

Malam Umar Aliyu (SAN), counsel to the federal government, had objected to such order of trial, adding that the defendant must take his plea by being arraigned before any motion could be heard.

Aliyu had also argued that the prosecution’s application urging the tribunal to order the suspension of the CJN pending the determination of the petition should also be entertained immediately after Onnoghen had taken his plea.
According to him, nothing stops the tribunal from also hearing his client’s motion asking for an order to allow the president appoint an acting CJN pending the determination of the case.

Lawyer’s Boycott Stalls CJN’s Case at Industrial Court

Meanwhile, the directive by Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), calling on its members to boycott the courts for two days stalled the hearing of a suit challenging the trial of Justice Onnoghen at the National Industrial Court, Abuja.
The suit, which is challenging the jurisdiction of the CCT was slated for hearing yesterday.
The court had on January 14 granted an interim order brought via a motion exparte application against the tribunal by Mr. Peter Abang, a lawyer and concerned Nigerian.

At the resumed hearing of the substantive suit, the judge, Justice Sanusi Kado, informed the defendant counsel, Mr. Abdullahi Abubakar, representing the Attorney-General of the Federation that there was a letter from the claimant’s counsel before the court.

Kado also said the letter from the counsel, Mr. James Igwe (SAN), asked for a new date, adding that his absence was due to NBA’s directive to lawyers to boycott courts in protest of Onnoghen’s suspension.
The judge thereafter adjourned the matter until February 7 and directed that hearing notices should be served on all parties.

The NBA had reached a resolution to boycott courts nationwide on Tuesday January 29 and Wednesday January 30, after its National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting on Monday in Abuja.

Joined as co-defendants are CCB, CCT chairman, Mr. Danladi Umar, Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation and the National Judicial Service Commission (NJC).

Others are the Federal Judicial Service Commission, the Inspector-General of Police, Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, and the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki.

CUPP, Pro-democracy Groups Petition UN, AU Commission

In another development, opposition political parties led by Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) and a coalition of pro-democracy groups in Nigeria have petitioned the United Nations and the African Union Commission over Buhari’s suspension of Onnoghen.

They have also commended the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union for identifying with Nigerians on the matter.

Their position was contained in separate letters written to the bodies by the Save Democracy Coalition, copies of which were made available to journalists in Abuja on Wednesday.
The letters dated January 27, 2019, were signed by the lead activist, Imo Ugochinyere.

In the letters addressed to the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres and the Chair of AUC, Moussa Faki, the activists sought the intervention of the two bodies in rebuking Buhari and seeking reversal of the suspension.
The letter read, “We humbly request the intervention of your good office in rebuking and seeking the reversal of President Muhammadu Buhari’s dictatorial ‘suspension’ of Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria in stark contravention of the Nigerian constitution.

“As it appears to every reasonable man, the ‘suspension’ and ‘replacement’ of Justice Walter Onnoghen is to activate a backdoor mechanism for the successful rigging of the general elections in Nigeria by turning the judiciary into a rubber stamp to legitimise any rigging perpetrated, particularly with President Buhari’s cousin in the top hierarchy of the national electoral body.”

The group added, “Our plea is concise and definite: please stand with us and with the good people of Nigeria in the trying days ahead.”

In the letters addressed to President Donald Trump of US and Donald Tusk of European Council, the group commended them for the concerns they raised over the matter. They urged them to ignore what they called the ranting of the Buhari administration “and see it as an attempt by a dictatorial regime that has lost the goodwill of the people to desperately hang on to power.”

Rhodes-Vivour May Emerge New CJN

Meanwhile, strong indications wednesday emerged that Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour could emerge the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), if the National Judicial Council (NJC) sanctions the acting CJN, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad.
Justice Muhammad was appointed last Friday following the suspension of Justice Onnoghen.

With the NJC’s decision to look into the petitions filed against Justice Onnoghen and Justice Muhammad, the consensus among senior lawyers is that both justices should be recommended for retirement to give the judiciary a break from the politicisation of the crisis presently rocking the office of the CJN.

The NJC rose from its emergency meeting in Abuja on Tuesday, giving Onnoghen and Muhammad seven days to respond to petitions written against them.
THISDAY gathered that if this becomes the case, then the Lagos State-born Justice Rhodes-Vivour, who is third most senior will be nominated as the new CJN.

The petition against Justice Muhammad seeks to have him punished for accepting to become acting CJN despite knowing that Buhari lacked the power to unilaterally suspend Onnoghen and to appoint him as acting CJN.

The top five Supreme Court Justices of the Supreme Court today are: Justice Onnoghen, Justice Muhammad, Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, Justice Mary Odili and Justice Olukayode Ariwoola.