Alex Enumah in Abuja
President Muhammadu Buhari has kept mum over reported notice of retirement sent to him by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, whose fate over alleged false asset declaration trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) would be decided on Thursday by the three-man panel headed by Mr. Danladi Umar.
Following reported indictment by the National Judicial Council (NJC) over a petition filed against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Onnoghen was said to have sent in his notice of retirement, apparently to beat NJC’s recommendation that he be compulsorily retired from service.
Presidency officials had said Buhari, who was abroad on official trip at the time Onnoghen sent in his letter on April 5, would decide whether to accept his voluntary retirement or opt for the NJC recommendation.
The president since his return to the country has, however, been silent on the issue, fueling speculation that he might be awaiting the outcome of the embattled CJN’s trial at the CCT.
The CCT yesterday after the adoption of written addresses by both defence and prosecution lawyers, fixed Thursday for judgement.
On that day, the tribunal would also deliver its rulings on two applications filed by Onnoghen in which he challenged the jurisdiction of the tribunal to hear the suit and the other, which prayed the tribunal chairman to recuse himself from the trial on account of bias.
Justice Onnoghen is standing trial on a six-count charge of false assets declaration.
The Chairman of the three-man panel, Mr. Danladi Umar, yesterday fixed the date for judgment shortly after the defence lawyer, Mr. Okon Efut SAN, and the prosecution lawyer, Mr. Aliyu Umar SAN, adopted their written addresses as their final brief of argument.
The date for judgment was announced almost three months after the CCT scheduled Onnoghen for trial, following a petition written to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) by a non-governmental organisation.
Adopting his address, Onnoghen’s lawyer, Efut, urged the tribunal to dismiss the six-count charge because they were not known to law, adding that the defendant can only be punished for offence known to law.
Onnoghen also asked the tribunal to dismiss the charges against him because the prosecution did not prove the ingredients of the element of the offence of false asset declaration.
Efut particularly faulted the claim of the prosecution that Onnoghen made partial asset declaration, adding that the claim establishes the fact that Onnoghen declared his asset and that if it was done, it raises doubts that must be resolved in favour of the defendant.
He further submitted that from the asset declaration form of Onnoghen, which was admitted by the tribunal as exhibit, it was clear that the claims of Onnoghen were not verified by the CCB as required by law, saying the charges against his client were based on hearsay.
The defence counsel therefore, prayed the tribunal to dismiss the entire charges, discharge and acquit Onnoghen from the alleged offences.
Responding, the prosecution counsel, Umar, urged the tribunal to discountenance the submissions of the defendant as being misconceived.
Umar argued that all the essential ingredients of the charges have been proved beyond all reasonable doubts and urged the tribunal to uphold his submission.
He insisted that Onnoghen did not declare his asset between 2005 and 2015, adding that when he did on December 14, 2016, five bank accounts with Standard Chartered Bank opened between 2009 and 2011 were not declared.
Umar in addition stated that Onnoghen had admitted to the offence in Exhibit 6 when he stated that he “forgot” to declare the bank accounts.
He, therefore, prayed the tribunal to find Onnoghen guilty as charged and convict him accordingly.
Yesterday’s sitting of the CCT did not end without a drama as the camp of the prosecution in the trial had a disagreement as proceedings got underway.
The drama began when the prosecution, led by Umar, and the defence led by Efut, announced appearances for their teams in readiness for the business of the day, which was the adoption of final addresses.
As Umar was making his announcement, a member of his team, Prof. Zainab Duke, attempted to speak to the bench but was shouted down by Umar.
It is not clear what led to argument but Umar was seen shouting at her.
Duke wanted to make an observation but Umar said: “Sit down, I am leading.”
Umar said: “She wants to address the tribunal but I have not given her permission to do that.”
Duke got up to explain to the CCT chairman but she was not audible.
Thereafter, the lead counsel to the federal government applied that her name be removed from appearance.
“I want to apply that her name be withdrawn from appearance,” he said.
Ruling on the application, the CCT chairman said Duke should “take her leave or take her seat at the back bench.”
She walked out of the tribunal after Umar’s ruling. Both prosecution and defence adopted their addresses after which a date for judgment will be fixed.
It would be recalled that President Muhammadu Buhari had on January 25, 2019 suspended Onnoghen as CJN based on an exparte order of the CCT and sworn in Justice Tanko Muhammad to serve in acting capacity.
While the National Judicial Council (NJC) was said to have recommended the compulsory retirement of Onnoghen at its emergency meeting of April 3, 2019 in Abuja, Onnoghen was said to have turned in his notice of retirement to the president the following day.