FG under pressure to withdraw charge
As S-Court hears Senate’s suit against Buhari Tuesday
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
As the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, in Abuja, resumes hearing on the six-count charge pending against the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, his defence team, have expressed fears over alleged plot to issue a bench warrant for his arrest.
A member of Justice Onnoghen’s legal team comprising of over 48 Senior Advocates of Nigeria, who spoke to Vanguard Sunday night, expressed apprehension over alleged plan to persuade the Mr. Danladi Umar-led CCT panel to order security agencies to arrest the suspended CJN.
The senior lawyer who pleaded anonymity, maintained that the motion was already prepared and ready to be moved on Monday, should Justice Onnoghen fail to appear before the CCT for his trial.
It will be recalled that that the suspended CJN, who is facing prosecution over allegation that he failed to declare his assets as prescribed by the law, as well as operated foreign bank accounts, had on two separate adjourned dates, declined appearance summons the tribunal issued against him.
While he declined to appear for arraignment on January 14 on the premise that the summon was not personally served on him, the Defendant, on January 21, equally failed to appear before the tribunal which he argued was bereft of the requisite jurisdiction to try him.
He contended that FG’s failure to channel the petition against him, as well as the outcome of the investigation that was purportedly conducted on his assets declaration forms by the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, to the National Judicial Council, NJC, legally invalidated the charge it entered against him at the CCT.
Onnoghen stressed that FG failed to abide by existing judicial precedent as encapsulated in a recent Appeal Court decision in Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391(CA), to the effect that any misconduct attached to the office and functions of a judicial officer, must first be reported to and handled by the NJC, pursuant to the provisions of the laws.
Meantime, following his repeated absence for his scheduled trial, FG, on the last adjourned date, said it has the right to apply for a bench warrant to be issued against the suspended CJN.
“We have the right under Paragraph 6(6) of the Code of Conduct Tribunal Practice Direction to apply for warrant of arrest”, government’s lawyer, Alhaji Aliyu Umar told the tribunal.
He said FG decided not to make the application at that time so as not to overheat the polity in view of the exalted position of the defendant.
Vanguard learned last night that Onnoghen who has gone to the Court of Appeal to challenge his trial, may not appear before the tribunal on Monday, a situation that could warrant an application for his arrest.
Meanwhile, the Justice Abdul Aboki led three-man panel of Justice of the Court of Appeal is set to hear Onnoghen’s appeal.
The appellate court had in a ruling on January 30, vacated its initial order that stopped the CCT from taking further steps in Onnoghen’s trial.
The appellate court held that staying further proceedings in the matter would amount to a violation of extant laws regulating criminal trials in the county.
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 gave the lead ruling, 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.
Though the appellate court ordered accelerated hearing of the charge against the defendant, it fixed today to hear Onnoghen’s appeal challenging the procedure adopted by the tribunal.
The suspended CJN is challenging the decision of the CCT to hear the preliminary objection he lodged against his trial, alongside FG’s motion for an order to compel him to step aside as both the CJN and Chairman of the NJC.
Besides, Justice Onnoghen also lodged another appeal to query the legal competence of an ex-parte order the CCT issued on January 23, which President Muhammadu Buhari relied upon to suspend him from office.
Among his grounds of appeal, Justice Onnoghen, argued that the Mr. Umar-led CCT erred in law by granting an ex-parte order for his removal, even when its jurisdiction to entertain the six-count charge the federal government levelled against him was being challenged.
He applied for, “An order setting aside the order of the tribunal made on the 23rd of January, 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”.
The suspended CJN argued 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”.
In another development, the Supreme Court, has fixed Tuesday to hear a suit the Nigerian Senate lodged to challenge President Buhari’s powers to unilaterally suspend the CJN.
In the suit marked SC.76/2019, the Senate asked the apex court to declare the suspension of Onnoghen without support of two-thirds majority of the Senate, as a violation of section 292(1)(a)(i) of the constitution.
The suit, having raised constitutional issues, will be handled by a seven-man panel of Justices that will be constituted by the Acting CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad.
Specifically, the Senate, is praying the apex court to issue an order restraining the two defendants in the suit, President Buhari and the Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr Abubakar Malami, from continuing or repeating the violation of the constitution and disregarding the power of the Senate in respect to the suspension of the CJN.
It is seeking for, “A declaration that the suspension, by the President, of Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen from his office as Chief Justice of Nigeria on or about January 25, 2019, without an address calling for the removal, supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate is in violation of section 292(1)(a)(i) of the constitution and therefore null and void.
“An order rescinding or setting aside the suspension of Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen from his office as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and restoring him to the said office.
As well as, “An order restraining the defendants from continuing or repeating the violation of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and disregarding the powers of the Senate at the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
Neverthless, pressure has continued to mount on the Federal Government to withdraw the charge against Onnoghen following the recent intervention of the NJC in the matter.
The NJC had at the end of its emergency meeting last week, handed Justice Onnoghen seven working days to respond to corruption allegations against him.
The legal body equally gave the same number of days to the Acting CJN,
Justice Muhammad, to explain why disciplinary action should not be taken against him for submitting himself to be sworn-in by President Buhari as Onnoghen’s replacement.
Basically, the NJC, directed the suspended CJN to respond to a petition that was lodged against him by one Zikhrillahi Ibrahim of Resource Centre for Human Rights & Civil Education.
The petitioner accused Onnoghen of being in possession of funds and properties that are way beyond his legitimate earnings.
On the other hand, the Council, asked the Acting CJN, to respond to two separate petitions that were entered against him by a group under the aegis of Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative, as well as by a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Chief Olisa Agbakoba, SAN.
Agbakoba had in his petition, urged the NJC to determine the propriety of Justice Muhammad, accepting to be sworn-in by the President in place of the suspended CJN, despite being aware of the implication of his conduct.
According to Agbakoba, by submitting himself to the President to be sworn-in as acting CJN, Justice Muhammad, lent himself to constitutional infraction by the executive arm of government.
He recalled that Justice Muhammad was a member of the panel that sanctioned Justice Obisike Orji of Abia State for allowing himself to be sworn-in as Abia State Chief Judge by the state’s governor, without recourse to the NJC.
Agbakoba accused the Acting CJN of engaging in an act of judicial misconduct.
The Council said it had also forwarded another petition against the CCT Chairman, Mr. Umar, to the Federal Judicial Service Commission, FJSC.
A group under the platform of Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative, had urged the NJC to sanction the CCT boss for engaging in “reckless abuse” of his judicial powers.
NJC noted that the FJSC was the appropriate constitutional body empowered to deal with issues the petitioner raised against the CCT Chairman.
The Nigerian Bar Association had earlier raised a three-man team headed by one of its former Presidents, Chief Wole Olanipekun, to seek ways to persuade FG to drop charges against Onnoghen.