CCT rules on motion to quash charges March 21
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – The Federal Government, on Tuesday, challenged the powers of the National Judicial Council, NJC, to interfere in the ongoing criminal proceeding it initiated against Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court, before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, in Abuja.
FG had in a 10-count charge marked CCT/ABJ/01/17, alleged that apex court jurist had between June 2, 2011 and July 19, 2016, refused to declare his ownership of 28 plots of land to the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB.
It accused Justice Ngwuta who is also facing another 18-count criminal charge before the Federal High Court in Abuja, of engaging in private business as a public officer, contrary to Section 6(b) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.
FG alleged that Ngwuta’s refusal to declare his assets as a public officer, was contrary to section 15 of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act, Cap C15 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004 and Punishable under Section 23(2) of the same Act.
At the resumed proceeding on the matter on Tuesday, government lawyer, Mr. Abey Mohammed, SAN, urged the tribunal to dismiss a motion the embattled jurist filed to oppose his trial.
Ngwuta had in his motion dated January 9, queried the jurisdiction of the tribunal to try him over charges he said was grossly incompetent.
He argued that by virtue of sections 318, 158(1) and Paragraph 21 (B) of the 3rd Schedule to the 1999 Constitution, the CCT, lacked the requisite jurisdiction to hear and determine the case against him.
The embattled jurist, through his team of lawyers led by a former Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Chief Kanu Agabi, SAN, contended that allegations against him were never referred to the NJC before the criminal charge was entered against him.
He claimed that as a serving judicial officer by virtue of his appointment into the Supreme Court bench, FG, ought to have inline with section 158 of the constitution, allowed the NJC to firstly exercise its disciplinary powers regarding all the allegations in the charge.
Ngwuta further drew the attention of the tribunal to a recent decision of the Court of Appeal in the case FG instituted against Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa of the Federal High Court, wherein the appellate court held that serving judicial officers could not be prosecuted for judicial misconduct or breach of trust, without prior investigation by the NJC.
He insisted that allegations that culminated to the charge against him, were never referred to or determined by the NJC.
However, FG, in a written address it filed in opposition to Ngwuta’s motion, maintained that the tribunal had powers and jurisdiction to try the case before it.
FG stressed that powers the constitution conferred on the CCT, made the Court of Appeal judgement in Nganjiwa’s case, inapplicable to the charge against Ngwuta
It told the tribunal that some “sorrounding circumstances” made Ngwuta’s case peculiar.
“The case before this tribunal is an exception because under section 158(1) of the 1999 the powers vested on this tribunal are similarly vested on the NJC. Making such powers mutually exclusive.
“The NJC cannot interfere on matters that this tribunal is vested with the power to try. They cannot and they should not interfere.
“The applicant is being tried as a public officer and not as a judicial officer. He is not charged for violating his oath of office as a judicial officer, but for violatiing the code of conduct for public officers.
“My lords, Part 2 of the 5th Schedule of the Constitution makes even Justices of the Supreme Court subject to the powers of this tribunal as public officers.
“More over, the defendant is before this tribunal, not as a Justice of the Supreme Court, but as a public officer who we have said had in the discharge of his functions, breached the code of conduct for public officers.
“The toga of the Supreme Court stays with him outside this tribunal. This tribunal cannot be controlled or its powers interferred with by the NJC”, FG’s lawyer argued.
The prosecution equally noted that the appellate court’s decision in Nganjiwa’s case has not been affirmed by the Supreme Court.
“We are very positive that that decision will be voided by the apex court”, the prosecution added, even as he contended that the CCT has unlimited exclusive jurisdiction to try Ngwuta without NJC’s intervention.
“This court cannot at the end of this case, recommend the removal of the defendant if he is found guilty, that is the power vested on the NJC. However, this tribunal can order forfeiture/seizure of assets owned by the defendant.
“Unless the constitution is amended, that decision of the court of appeal cannot be binding on this tribunal. This is however not to say that judgement of the appellate court is not binding on the CCT, what we are saying is that the decision in the relied case is not binding”, Mohammed, SAN, submitted.
After they had listened to both sides, the Mr. Danladi Umar-led two-man panel tribunal which initially stood-down the case for 30 minutes to deliver its verdict, subsequently deferred the ruling till March 21.
It will be recalled that the tribunal had last week Wednesday, threatened to strike out charges against Ngwuta for want of diligent prosecution.
The panel observed that the case suffered series of adjournments at the instance of the prosecution.
Part of the charges against Justice Ngwuta includes that he had “between 2nd June 2011 and 19th July 2016, while serving as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and within the Jurisdiction of this Honourable Tribunal, did make a false declaration of assets” to the CCB when he failed to declare three duplexes at Chinedu Ogah Avenue, Ntezi, Aba in Abakaliki, while being a Justice of the Supreme Court.
He was alleged to have between June 2, 2011 and July 19, 2016, while serving as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria made a false declaration to the CCB when he failed to declare twenty-two plots of land at Chief Igwe Uga Avenue, Abakaliki, as well as failed to declare six plots of land at Frank Okoroafor Avenue, Abakaliki.
Other allegations was that Ngwuta failed to declare Peugeot Saloon with Vehicle No: VRG55513890295200 and Chassis No: VF34B5FV9BS069213, Registration No: ABC566RL and count five revealed that he failed to declare a Wrangler Jeep with Vehicle No: VRG55535620346898 and Chassis No: IJ4GA591581626734, Registration No: RSH526AJ.
As well as allegedly engaging in purchase and sale of rice, palm oil and other related products, while being a Justice of the Supreme Court and thereby committed an offence contrary to Section 6 of the Code Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, Cap C15 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004 and punishable under Section 23(2) of the same Act.
Ngwuta was among seven superior court Judges that were arrested after a “sting operation” the Department of State Service, DSS, conducted between October 7 and 8, 2016.