By Ikechukwu Nnochiri & Joseph Erunke
ABUJA—There was a sharp division among members of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, yesterday, over an application that sought to suspend further proceedings in the six-count charge the Federal Government preferred against Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen.
While chairman of the three-member tribunal, Mr. Danladi Umar, relied on section 306 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015, to reject a motion the CJN filed for his trial to be adjourned sine-die (indefinitely) to await the outcome of a suit he lodged before the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal, a second member of the panel, Mr. William Agwadza Atedze, relied on section 287(3) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, and plethora of Supreme Court decided cases, to insist that the CCT was under obligation to respect four different interim injunctions that restrained all the parties, including the tribunal, from taking further steps in the matter.
Atedze noted that all the cases upon which the interim injunctions were granted, bordered on whether or not the CCT had the requisite jurisdiction to try the CJN on the strength of allegations the Federal Government levelled against him.
The CJN, who for the second time, failed to appear before the CCT to be arraigned on allegation that he failed to declare his assets, as well as maintained domiciliary bank accounts, had through his team of over 80 lawyers, led by former President of Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, drew attention of the panel to the four interim injunctions against his trial.
Olanipekun drew attention of the tribunal to two separate orders from the Federal High Court in Abuja, another injunction from a High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, as well as a retraining order from National Industrial Court.
He, therefore, urged the Umar-led CCT panel to show respect to established precedents and judicial heirarchy by adjourning the trial sine-die.
We’ve right to apply for Onnoghen’s arrest, FG tells tribunal
However, Federal Government’s lawyer, Alhaji Aliyu Umar, opposed the request, insisting that the CCT was not under legal compulsion to adhere to any injunction from either a high court or the NIC.
Umar contended that only the Court of Appeal had supervisory powers over the CCT and not the High Court or the Industrial Court.
Government told the court that it would have ordinarily applied for a warrant of arrest to be issued against the CJN over his refusal to appear for trial, despite the fact that he was personally served with a summon on January 14 to appear before the tribunal for arraignment.
In the lead ruling, the CCT chairman maintained that the tribunal was not constitutionally bound by orders from both the High Court and the NIC and, therefore rejected the CJN’s application.
Umar stressed that section 306 of the ACJA forbade the grant to stay of proceeding in criminal matter.
“This proceeding before us is criminal in nature,” the CCT chairman held, adding that the tribunal was constitutionally empowered to handle cases referred to it by the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB.
He held that all the four interim injunctions that stopped the CJN’s trial amounted to gross infringement of constitutional provisions that empower the CCT to adjudicate on issues that relate to transparency and accountability by public officers.
Nevertheless, the second member of the panel, Atedze, in a dissenting ruling, said it would amount to “judicial rascality and anarchy” for the CCT to proceed with the trial, having been notified of the fact that the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal had been briefed of the facts of the matter.
Atedze relied on several decided cases to insist that all the interim injunctions remained valid and binding on the CCT until they were set aside.
He argued that the CCT had a legal responsibility to enforce every court order in line with the provision of section 287(3) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
He said: “It will be dangerous to proceed with this matter. You cannot build a house without a foundation. It is my contention that steps should be taken at this preliminary stage to first of all resolve the issue of jurisdiction.
“It is my view that I have no other option than to totally concede that every court order is binding until it is set aside. This principle applies even when the order is a nullity. The CCT cannot operate in isolation.
“In order to avoid judicial anarchy, this matter should therefore be adjourned sine-die (indefinitely) so that the particular issue of jurisdiction is resolved once and for all.”
On her part, the third member of the tribunal, Mrs. Julie Abieyuwa Amabor, concurred and adopted the position of the CCT chairman that the trial should proceed with hearing of both Onnoghen’s preliminary objection and FG’s application for him to step aside as the CJN and Chairman of the National Judicial Council, NJC.
Shortly after the ruling, the tribunal adjourned the case till Monday to hear the CJN’s objection to his trial.
Pro, anti-Onnoghen protesters
Meanwhile, over a thousand protesters, yesterday, stormed the CCT, asking the Federal Government to immediately withdraw the charge against the CJN.
The placard and national flag wielding protesters surrounded the perimeters of the tribunal, which is located at Jabi District of the Federal Capital Territory, drumming and chanting in solidarity to the embattled CJN.
Among the protesters were groups of Muslim women, lawyers, Coalition of United Political Parties, CUPP, and several civil society organisations.
Armed mobile policemen were, however, stationed at strategic locations within and outside the CCT premises.
Some of the placards brandished by the protesters read: “Say No To Judicial Anarchy”, “Leave Onnoghen Alone”, “Don’t Tamper with the Independence Of The Judiciary”, “ Who Is Afraid Of Onnoghen”, “Respect Separation of Powers,” among others.
Barely one hour after the pro-Onnoghen protesters arrived, another group, comprising mainly young boys, also stormed the tribunal, asking the CJN to resign.
Some of the placards brandished by the anti-Onnoghen protesters read: “Onnoghen Must Go”, “Resign Honourably And Save The Judiciary From Embarrassment”, “No One Is Above The Law”, among others.