Drama, As Onnoghen is Forced to Take Plea in the Dock

  • Suspended CJN refuses to sit down, gets bail
  • CCT vacates arrest order

By Alex Enumah in Abuja

The suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, was eventually arraigned at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) yesterday on six count charge of refusal to declare his assets as required by the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) Act for public officers in the country.

Onnoghen was originally billed for arraignment at the Tribunal on January 14 but had refused to appear in court on the grounds that the Tribunal lacked jurisdiction to entertain the matter. He also challenged the jurisdiction of the Tribunal both at the CCT and the Court of Appeal in Abuja.

However, following the CCT’s order to the Inspector General of Police and the Director General of the Department of State Services (DSS) to arrest Onnoghen and produce him in court on February 15, for his arraignment, Onnoghen finally appeared before the Tribunal.

He drove into the premises in a convoy with some of his personal aides around 9.40am and was received by a team of his lawyers, including Chief Chris Uche SAN, Paul Erokoro SAN, Ogwu Onoja SAN, among others.

Shortly after Onnoghen entered the courtroom at exactly 10.20am, members of the CCT, led by the Chairman, Danladi Umar, entered also and commenced sitting with Umar apologising to counsel for starting proceedings some minutes before the scheduled time of 10am.

While counsel to the federal government, Ibrahim Musa informed the Tribunal that the issue of the day was the arraignment of the defendant, Onnoghen’s lawyer, Chris Uche SAN, stood up to request that the CJN takes his plea outside the box but Umar declined, pointing to the dock and asked Onnoghen to enter into the dock for the charges to be read to him.

Onnoghen obliged him and beaming with smiles entered the dock. He, however, refused to seat when the CCT Chairman asked him to, insisting that he was okay and would only make use of the seat if and when the need arose.

Consequently, Umar directed that the charges be read to him to which he pleaded not guilty.

Between the reading of the first charge and the 6th, there were several stops occasioned by the need of the Chairman and another member of the Tribunal, Juli Anabor to settle on how to proceed.

Following his plea of not guilty, Onnoghen’s lawyer asked the Tribunal to release the defendant on bail on self-recognition, which was immediately granted.

Uche, similarly prayed the Tribunal to discharge his client from the bench warrant issued against him since he voluntarily made himself available to the Tribunal for his arraignment.

Responding, Umar, accordingly held that the bench warrant issued on February 13 for Onnoghen’s arrest, either by the Inspector General of Police or the Director General of the Department of State Services, (DSS), is vacated and set aside. He added a caveat that the defendant must make himself available throughout the trial.

Following the setting aside of the bench warrant, the defendant applied for an adjournment in the hearing of all the pending motions in view of the elections coming up February 16 and March 2.

Drama, however, ensued when the Tribunal Chairman unilaterally fixed February 21 as the adjourned date.

Umar rebuffed all appeals by defence counsel to change the date, for not just being inconvenient for the parties but also that the matter was coming up at the Court of Appeal on that day.

Uche also impressed upon the Tribunal that both the defence and prosecution had earlier agreed on either March 11 or 18, but Umar was adamant, insisting that what he had written he cannot erase.

It took the intervention of the second member of the Tribunal, Anabor to make Umar change his mind and adjourned till March 11, 2019, for the hearing of all pending applications.

Speaking with newsmen shortly after the adjournment, Onnoghen’s lawyer said, “Today, February 15, is a sad day for Nigeria, a sad day for the Judiciary and a sad day for the rule of law”, lamenting that it was unfortunate for Onnoghen to be treated in flagrant disregard to due process of law.

Uche told newsmen that Onnoghen had been made to suffer indignity with the way he was made to take his plea in the charges against him.

He said that the struggle by concerned lawyers in the country is for the maintenance of the rule of law, separation of powers and survival of the Judiciary.

“The world will soon know the truth that there is more to the trial of Onnoghen before this Tribunal”, he said.

Also speaking, counsel to the Federal government, Ibrahim Musa, agreed that February 15 is a sad day for the legal profession but said that the law must take its course.