By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA- The suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, on Tuesday, failed to appear before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, for the Federal Government to open its case against him.
Onnoghen, through his team of lawyers led by Chief Adegboyega Awolowo, SAN, notified the Mr. Danladi Umar-led three-man panel tribunal that he developed an acute toothache he said needed urgent medical attention.
To establish his claim, counsel to the suspended CJN who is answering to a six-count charge, 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, 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 indicated that the embattled CJN would need a bed rest for at least 72 hours.
Meanwhile, following an agreement by both the defence and the prosecution, the CCT Chairman, Mr. Umar, reluctantly adjourned the matter till March 18.
It will be recalled that the tribunal had on Monday, granted FG the nod to call its witnesses to prove its allegations against Justice Onnoghen who was suspended from office by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 25.
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.
The panel which relied on section 396(2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, and Paragraph 5(5) of the Practice Direction of the CCT, held that ruling on Onnoghen’s applications would be delivered alongside the substantive judgement.
The tribunal further held that it was empowered under section 396(3) of the ACJA to conduct day-to-day trial of the matter.
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 a judgement it delivered on May 15, 2018, wherein it quashed a similar charge that FG brought against a Justice of the Supreme Court, Sylvester Ngwuta, on the premise that the NJC ought to have been allowed to look into the matter before the case was filed.
He stressed that the two judgements 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.
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 Onnnoghen’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.