….fails to appear for trial, says I’ve toothache, high blood pressure
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – The suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, on Tuesday, went before the Court of Appeal to challenge the decision of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, to defer ruling on two applications he filed to challenge the competence of the six-count charge the Federal Government preferred against him.
Justice Onnoghen, in a notice of appeal he filed through his team of lawyers led by Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, said it was legally wrong for the Mr. Danladi Umar-led CCT panel to order day-to-day hearing of the case against him, when it had yet to determine whether or not it has the requisite jurisdiction to entertain the charge.
He argued that the same panel had in a previous ruling it delivered on February 9, 2018, terminated hearing on a similar charge FG brought against Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court, based on a preliminary objection that was filed by the defendant.
Noting that Ngwuta’s trial was stopped at the preliminary stage, the embattled CJN wondered why his own case would be treated differently by the tribunal.
It will be recalled that the Mr. Danladi Umar-led three-man tribunal had in a bench ruling it delivered on Monday, granted FG the nod to go ahead and call its witnesses to give oral and documentary evidence against Justice Onnoghen who was suspended from office by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 25.
Relying on section 396(2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, and Paragraph 5(5) of its Practice Direction, the CCT panel, said it would not consider the merit of Onnoghen’s objection to the charge till conclusion of the trial.
Insisting that it was empowered under section 396(3) of the ACJA to conduct day-to-day hearing on the matter, the panel, held that ruling on two applications the suspended CJN lodged against his trial, would be delivered alongside judgment on the substantive charge.
However, dissatisfied with the decision of the CCT, the defendant, who failed to appear for the scheduled commencement of full-blown hearing on the case against him, on Tuesday, prayed the appellate court to invoke its powers under section 16 of the Court of Appeal Act, and set-aside the ruling the tribunal delivered against him.
In his three grounds of appeal, Justice Onnoghen maintained that the CCT panel erred in law in its interpretation of section 396(2) of the ACJA, with respect to his application challenging the constitutional jurisdiction and competence of the proceeding before it, “when they deferred ruling on the application to the conclusion of trial when the issue of jurisdiction is a threshold issue which ought and must be determined immediately”.
According to him, “The Chairman and members of the Code of Conduct Tribunal erred in law In the interpretation of Section 396 (2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 1015 when they ruled that the ruling on the applicant’s application challenging the constitutional jurisdiction of the tribunal and the application asking the tribunal’s chairman to rescue himself on grounds that he had demonstrated acts which showed bias and partiality in the proceedings against the appellant, shall be determined along with the final judgment on the merit of the entire case and thereby denied the appellant his right to fair hearing under section 36 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, as amended”.
Meantime, the suspended CJN failed to appear before the tribunal for FG to open its case against him on Tuesday on the premise that he developed an acute toothache that needed urgent medical attention.
To establish his claim, Onnoghen’s counsel tendered a medical report that was issued to him by the hospital where he was said to be receiving treatment.
Upon an inquiry from the tribunal Chairman, FG’s lawyer, Mr. Aliyu Umar, SAN, acknowledged that he was served with a photocopy of the said medical report.
The prosecution counsel told the tribunal that he would have raised an objection against Onnoghen’s failure to appear for his trial on the basis of the medical report, if not for the fact that the doctor indicated that the defendant had a high blood pressure measured at 410/121.
Umar, SAN, said he was therefore constrained to reserve his observation on the medical report, since the doctor equally stated in the letter that the embattled CJN needed a bed rest for at least 72 hours.
Following an agreement by both the defence and the prosecution, the CCT Chairman adjourned the matter till March 18.
FG had in the charge marked CCT/ABJ/01/19, alleged that Onnoghen failed to declare his assets as prescribed by the law, as well as operated five foreign bank accounts, contrary to section 15(2) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.
The tribunal okayed full-blown hearing on the matter after it declined to immediately rule on two applications the defendant filed to challenge his trial.
Specifically, Onnoghen had in his applications, queried the validity of the six-count charge against him, contending that FG failed to respect established judicial precedents by not allowing the NJC to firstly investigate the allegation against him, before it rushed the matter to the CCT.
He argued that failure to channel the petition against him, as well as the outcome of the investigation that was purportedly conducted on assets declaration forms he submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, to the NJC, rendered the charge invalid.
He urged the CCT to abide by a subsisting Court of Appeal decision in Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391, 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.
The embattled CJN maintained that only after the NJC has pronounced against such judicial officer could prosecuting agencies of the Federal Government proceed to initiate a criminal proceeding.
Besides, he drew attention of the tribunal to its judgment that quashed a similar charge against Justice Ngwuta on the ground that the NJC ought to have been allowed to look into the matter before the case was filed.
He stressed that the two judgments were yet to be set aside by the Supreme Court.
Aside challenging powers of the tribunal to entertain the charge which he said was grossly bereft of any merit, Onnoghen, said he was afraid that he would not be accorded fair hearing by the tribunal he described as an appendage of the Presidency.
He insisted that he was entitled to fair hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, under section 36(1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
The defendant argued that the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, which recommended his trial, the Attorney General of the Federation who is prosecuting him, and the tribunal itself, are all answerable to the Executive Arm of the government.
He equally asked the CCT chairman to disqualify himself from the matter considering that he equally has a criminal allegation pending against him.
However, in its three-paragraphed counter affidavit, FG urged the tribunal to dismiss Onnoghen’s objections to his trial, insisting that he acted in breach of the oath he took as a public officer.
It described as porous, the suspended CJN’s argument that he would be denied fair hearing owing to the fact that the tribunal was appointed by the President.
FG maintained that contrary to Onnoghen’s contention, he was not charged for misconducting himself as a judicial officer, but for violating the code of conduct for public officers enshrined in the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
It told the tribunal that it was unnecessary to channel the allegation against the suspended CJN to the NJC, since the CCB was statutorily empowered to investigate and prosecute the kind of infraction that was allegedly committed by the defendant.
FG had since directed the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit, NFIU, to freeze five bank accounts that were linked to the suspended CJN, pending conclusion of his trial.