By Ben Agande, Ikechukwu Nnochiri, Peter Duru, Egufe Yafugborhi, & Davies Iheamnachor
ABUJA — THE Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal, yesterday, cleared the coast for the Federal Government to open its case against suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT.
The appellate court, in a unanimous ruling by a three-man panel, declined to stop further proceedings in the six-count charge the Federal Government preferred against Onnoghen.
It ordered the CCT, which on Monday adjourned hearing of the matter indefinitely to await the Appeal Court ruling, to entertain the suit and ensure speedy hearing.
This happened on a day Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State said the Supreme Court ruling on the suit filed by the National Assembly challenging President Muhammadu Buhari’s suspension of Justice Onnoghen without recourse to the Senate would strengthen Nigeria’s democracy.
Also, some lawyers who attempted to disrupt an Appeal Court session in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, to enforce the the two-day court boycott directive of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, over the Onnoghen issue, were beaten up by litigants as judges declared that they would not be intimidated.
This is even as the Board of Trustees, BoT, of the Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, backed President Buhari’s suspension of Justice Onnoghen, saying allowing the CJN to be tried by the NJC would have amounted to allowing him “seat (sic) in judgment over his own case.”
FG’s charge against Onnoghen
The Federal Government had in the charge marked CCT/ABJ/01/2019 alleged that Onnoghen failed to declare his assets as prescribed by law, and maintained foreign bank accounts. However, Onnoghen, who was last Friday, suspended from office by President Buhari, approached the appellate court to challenge the procedure the CCT planned to adopt in his trial.
In the appeal he lodged on January 15, the suspended CJN maintained that the Mr. Danladi Umar-led tribunal erred in law when it held that the preliminary objection he filed to challenge the competence of the charge would be heard alongside the motion the government filed for him to step-aside as both the CJN and chairman of the National Judicial Council, NJC.
Onnoghen insisted that it was wrong for the tribunal to hear and determine the government’s motion when its jurisdiction to entertain the substantive charge was being challenged. He, therefore, prayed the appellate court to set-aside the decision of the CCT as contained in a ruling its chairman delivered on January 14.
Meantime, before the appeal could be heard, Justice Onnoghen, on January 18, filed a motion wherein he prayed the appellate court to stay further proceedings in the case against him. Based on the motion, the Appeal Court, on January 24, ordered the Mr. Umar-led CCT panel to suspended further proceedings in the matter to enable it consider Onnoghen’s request.
The order of the court came barely 24 hours after the Federal Government secured an ex-parte order from the tribunal, which gave President Buhari the nod to suspend Onnoghen and swear-in the most senior jurist of the Supreme Court, Justice Tanko Muhammad, as acting CJN.
At its resumed sitting, yesterday, the appellate court vacated its initial order that stopped the CCT from taking further steps in Onnoghen’s trial.
The Appeal Court ruling
In the lead ruling delivered by Justice Abdul Aboki, the appellate court held that granting the suspended CJN’s motion would amount to a “fundamental interruption” of a criminal proceeding before the CCT.
It noted that Onnoghen himself had in a judgment he delivered in a case involving a firm owned by former National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic, PDP, Chief Olisa Metuh, Destra Investment Limited, banned the grant of stay of proceeding in criminal matters.
Justice Aboki further recalled that the suspended CJN had in another case that involved the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, identified the CCT as a special court with quasi-criminal jurisdiction.
He maintained that Section 306 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015, expressly forbade courts from granting orders to stay proceedings in criminal cases.
“We cannot run away from the fact that the CCT, which has quasi-criminal jurisdiction, does not have an option than to abide and be apolitical in all proceedings before it,” Justice Aboki added.
Consequently, the appellate court dismissed Onnoghen’s appeal, stressing that the order for stay of proceedings he requested for could not be granted because “an applicant must convince the court that grant of such order will be in the interest of justice”, adding that there was no “special or exceptional circumstance” to warrant the suspension of the case pending against Onnoghen before the CCT.
“The Applicants motion for an order for stay of proceeding is hereby refused”, Justice Aboki ruled.
Nevertheless, the appellate court fixed February 4 to hear the substantive appeal the suspended CJN filed to challenge the decision of the CCT to hear his preliminary objection alongside FG’s motion to remove him from office.
Onnoghen had through his team of lawyers led by Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, contended that his objection and the Federal Government’s motion were mutually exclusive, and as such, could not be heard together.
He argued that the tribunal ought to determine first whether or not it has the requisite jurisdiction to handle the charge against him, before it could proceed to hear any other application.
Specifically, Justice Onnoghen faulted the competence of his trial before the CCT on the premise that the Federal Government failed to allow the National Judicial Council, NJC, to investigate the allegations against him, before it proceeded to prefer a criminal charge against him.
Aside the instant appeal, Justice Onnoghen had also lodged another appeal to challenge the ex-parte order the CCT issued for his suspension.
In the four grounds of appeal filed on Tuesday, Onnoghen argued that the CCT erred in law by granting an ex-parte order for his removal, even when it had yet to determine whether or not it has the jurisdiction to try him.
He therefore applied for, “An order setting aside the order of the tribunal made on January 23, directing the Appellant to step aside as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and a further order that the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria takes all necessary measures to swear-in the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council”.
He maintained that “the exercise of powers over the motion ex-parte without first determining the jurisdiction of the tribunal amounted to unlawful exercise of jurisdiction and therefore void.”
Supreme Court verdict’ll strengthen our democracy — Ortom
Commending Senate President Bukola Saraki, Speaker House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara and leadership of the National Assembly for approaching the Supreme Court over the suspension of Justice Onnoghen, the Benue State Governor stressed that the move would further strengthen Nigeria’s democracy.
Governor Ortom noted that the leadership of the National Assembly had also demonstrated true patriotism by leading the legislature to seek interpretation of the Apex Court to the Presidency’s unfortunate sacking of the CJN.
In a statement through his Chief Press Secretary, CPS, Terver Akase, the Governor said: “Nigerians are patiently waiting to know the Court’s verdict, whether or not the decision of the Presidency to suspend the CJN amounts to usurpation of the powers of Senate as provided for in Section 292 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
“It is only when due process, the rule of law and separation of powers are respected by the three arms of government that the country’s democracy can grow. I, therefore, urge Nigerians to reject impunity and high-handedness in any disguise and be prepared to vote without the fear of intimidation during the coming elections.”
ACF backs Buhari
Meanwhile, The Board of Trustees, BoT, of the Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, has backed President Buhari’s suspension of Justice Onnoghen, saying allowing the CJN to be tried by the NJC would have amounted to allowing him “seat (sic) in judgment over his own case.”
In a communiqué issued at the end of its meeting in Kaduna, the forum said by his conduct, the CJN has demonstrated that his personal interest supersedes that of the nation.
The statement read: “The ACF notes that the allegation against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, are that he failed to comply with the expressed provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act, to wit, failure to declare his assets on assumption of office as Justice of the supreme Court and as the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
“That when he was made to declare his assets as demanded by law, he failed to declare all of them. Following the discovery of these infractions, the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, swiftly referred the matter to the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, which made an order for the temporary suspension of the CJN in the interest of natural justice. However, this action by the CCT has provoked intense controversy.
“Yet, from a reading of all the facts of the matter, ACF cannot defend the position taken by the Hon. Justice Onnoghen, especially his insistence that he should first be tried by the National Judicial Council, of which he is Chairman. To do so would have allowed him to seat in judgment over his own case.
“ACF deeply regrets the conduct of Justice Onnoghen, particularly his refusal to step aside and allow the due process o f the law to take its course. He has created the impression that his personal interests in this matter supercede that of the judiciary and the nation.
“On their part, law enforcement agencies must strive to always execute their tasks in neat and professional manner in order to avoid creating perceptions of partisanship. In the end, Nigeria cannot hope to develop and take its rightful place in the comity of nations unless and until we learn to respect our laws and enforce them fairly and consistently.”
Drama, as NBA attempts disruption of A-Court sitting in Rivers
There was drama, panic and violence as members of the NBA Rivers State, invaded the Appeal Court in Port Harcourt to disrupt the session. The NBA members, who stormed the court, however, were beaten up by litigants.
This is just as the court adjourned till Thursday, January 31, hearing of pending motions for the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to be served the hearing notice.
On January 28, the Court of Appeal adjourned till yesterday, to hear the motion of Stay of Execution on the judgment of a Federal High Court, which barred the All Progressives Congress, APC, in Rivers State from fielding candidates for the 2019 elections.
The adjourned date coincided with the two days boycott of court proceedings declared by NBA nationwide over the Justice Onnoghen saga. When the Court resumed yesterday to commence hearing, the NBA in the state, led by its chairman, Sylvester Adaka, arrived with placards.
The NBA protesters were halted by the judge of the court, who said protest into a court room was unethical, urging the protesters to sit and express their griefs. The court had following the nature of the APC matter, in view of the forthcoming general election, decided to take appearance and regularise processes and then adjourn till (today) Thursday for hearing.
However, the NBA protesters, who had been briefed by the judges, returned minutes later to disrupt the court proceedings, asking their colleagues to leave the court room. Peeved, angry litigants at the Appeal Court pounced heavily on the chairman of NBA, Port Harcourt, Adaka, and chased the protesting NBA team out of the court room, causing fear among the judges and APC big wigs, who were in court.
This is incivility, we won’t be intimidated — Judges
The Court of Appeal panel described the incident as an act of incivility, adding that it was aimed at intimidating the court.
Presiding judge, Justice A.A. Gumel, said it was unethical for the bar to attempt to disrupt the sitting of the bench, adding that the court ought to be respected.
Gumel said: “You have seen people barge into our proceeding. This is incivility. We will not be intimidated. We will do our work. We are here to do a solemn job and we will give justice. The bar is entitled to respect the bench and the bench should carry the bar along. If the ethical behaviours handed to us by our fathers are maintained we will make headway. It is about all the courts and administration of justice and not just the Appeal Court in Rivers State.”
We’re not aware of boycott notice
Also, Justice Isaiah Akeju, the second in the panel noted that the panel was not officially notified of the boycott order by the NBA, adding that notice ought to have been served on the bench to that regard.
Akeju said: “Advice your colleagues that it is not in their best interest to disrupt the sitting of the bench. We are not aware because they did not inform us. What stops them from doing a small notice to us on the issue?”
The third judge in the panel, Justice Mustafa, said the act displayed in court would remain in the mind of the court. “This will remain in our memory. It is important for the bar to respect the bench. No lawyer is expected to misbehave. We are happy that the pandemonium did not extended to the bench.’’
Thugs zeroed in on me — Adaka
On his part, Sylvester Adaka said: “Today we were continuing our peaceful boycott of courts as directed by our national secretariat and national executive committee in our meeting of Monday, January 28, 2019.
“While we were at the court of appeal, I peacefully addressed the justices of the court of appeal to rise in continuation of our peaceful boycott of the court and also appealed to lawyers to leave the court premises.
“But while we were there in court, a couple of thugs in the court premises attacked the lawyers there, the thugs zeroed in on me and and a couple of lawyers.
‘’If not for the intervention of my colleagues around, I don’t know what would have happened.
“The court was sitting and continued sitting even after the attack on us and we felt that in an atmosphere that was charged like that, the court should have at least reasoned to allow tempers cool.”