Alex Enumah in Abuja
The trial of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, was yesterday stalled at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) in Jabi, Abuja, due to sudden sickness he was said to have developed.
Onnoghen is being prosecuted by the federal government on a six-count charge bordering on failure to declare some of his assets as required by the code of conduct for public office holders.
He pleaded not guilty to the charges and was granted bail on self-recognition.
At Monday’s proceedings (less than 48hrs ago), CCT’s Chairman, Danladi Umar, ordered that Onnoghen’s trial would be on a day-to-day basis in line with the provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015 that aims at speedy prosecution of criminal matters.
However, at the resumed hearing yesterday, Onnoghen was absent in court for the trial.
His lead counsel, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo SAN, explained to the tribunal that Onnoghen’s absence was occasioned by a tooth-ache and high blood pressure, which was said to be around 210/121.
The senior counsel tendered a medical report from Ideal Medical Services, Abuja where the defendant was said to have been treated.
The medical report signed by one Dr Francis Uche, the Medical Director of the hospital, recommended among others that Onnoghen must observe 72 hours bed rest for his high blood pressure to be properly monitored.
Reacting to the development, counsel to the federal government, Mr. Aliyu Umar SAN, who admitted having a copy of the medical report, told the tribunal that though it was within his right to proceed with the trial, nevertheless he acknowledged that the health of the defendant was also very important.
He subsequently prayed the tribunal to adjourn trial till March 18 to enable Onnoghen have sufficient rest as recommended by his doctor.
The prosecution counsel informed the tribunal that some of the witnesses he intends to call in the matter were present in court and that he was ready to proceed with the trial, but in the light of the ill health of the defendant, he would concede to an adjournment.
In his short ruling, the tribunal chairman, Umar, agreed with the position of the prosecution and the medical report and shifted the trial till next Monday.
Meanwhile, Onnoghen has appealed Monday’s decision by the CCT to delay ruling in his applications challenging its jurisdiction and its impartiality in the criminal case against him.
The CJN, in a three-ground notice of appeal filed on Tuesday, argued the CCT erred in law in its interpretation of Section 369(2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) when it ruled that its decision in the applicant’s applications shall be given at the point of judgment.
The suspended CJN argued that it was wrong for the CCT to refuse to deliver ruling after hearing the application challenging “constitutional jurisdiction” of the tribunal to hear and determine the charges filed against him.
He also faulted the tribunal for withholding its decision on the other application which challenged the “independence and impartiality of the chairman of the tribunal as his conduct in the proceedings showed bias and prejudiced against the appellant.”
Onnoghen argued that Section 396(2) of ACJA could only be the basis for adjourning rulings on such interlocutory applications till the conclusion of trial if the applications had to do with the validity of the charges filed against the defendant.
He stated that his applications “raised a threshold issue of jurisdiction which should not wait until the conclusion of trial” adding that it “did not relate to the validity of the charges”.
“The decision (deferment of rulings) is a violation of the right of the appellant to fair hearing,” the notice of appeal also stated.
Onnoghen noted that the same CCT, had in an earlier proceedings in the case of Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, delivered ruling in similar application.
He added that the CCT erred in the interpretation of Section 396(3) of the ACJA when objections of the appellant to impartiality and independence of the tribunal, particularly the Chairman, whose conduct in the proceedings gave indication of bias and absence of independence in the determination of the right of the appellant.
Onnoghen argued that the application he filed “is not one of the interlocutory applications covered by Section 396(4) of the ACJA. The decision is a violation of the right of the appellant to fair hearing.”
He urged the Court of Appeal to allow his appeal and “set aside the order of the tribunal made on March 11, 2019”.
Onnoghen also urged the Court of Appeal to proceed to invoke the provisions of Section 16 of the Court of Appeal Act, which he noted, empowers the court to hear and determine the applications in respect of which the CCT declined to rule.