…says FG failed to secure NJC’s approval
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA—-The Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, sitting in Abuja, on Tuesday, struck out 10-count charge the Federal Government preferred against Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court who was accused of concealing some of his private assets.
FG had in the charge marked CCT/ABJ/01/17, alleged that Justice Ngwuta 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 the apex court jurist 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.
However, before full-blown hearing could commence on the matter, the defendant, via a 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 National Judicial Council, 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 the 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, even as it argued that under section 158(1) of the 1999 constitution, the powers vested on CCT were similarly vested on the NJC, making such powers mutually exclusive.
“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.
“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”, FG’s lawyer, Mr. Abey Mohammed, SAN, argued.
Meanwhile, ruling on the matter on Tuesday, the Mr. Danladi Umar-led two man panel tribunal, upheld Justice Ngwuta’s argument and struck out charges against him.
While discharging the defendant, a member of the panel, Mr. William A. Atedze who read the ruling of the tribunal, held that Ngwuta being a serving judicial officer, was under the management, control and discipline of the NJC.
He maintained that NJC is a body whose independence from external control or interference is constitutionally provided for by section 158 (1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
“What this means is that any allegation of official misconduct will first have to be referred to the National Judicial Council to the exclusion of any other body, court or Tribunal’’, the CCT held.
The tribunal dismissed FG’s position that the Supreme Court had yet to uphold the appellate court decision in Justice Nganjiwa’s case which Ngwuta relied upon.
The CCT held that the Court of Appeal verdict in the case against Justice Nganjiwa would remain extant till it is vacated.
“Judicial precedent is bidding for as long as it is subsisting and until such precedent is overturned by a higher court”, the tribunal ruled.
It will be recalled that the Federal High Court in Abuja had earlier dismissed a separate 18-count money laundering charge that FG also slammed against Justice Ngwuta.
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.
Part of charges FG filed against him before the CCT included 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 he 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.