By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
There is palpable anxiety within the judiciary, as the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT is set to deliver judgment on the non-assets declaration charge the Federal Government preferred against the resigned Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen.
The Mr Danladi Umar-led three-man panel tribunal which had earlier announced that it will deliver the judgment by 9 am today has however deferred it till 12noon.
Though the embattled former CJN arrived the CCT at about 8.40am ahead of the verdict, no member of the prosecution team was available when the panel conveyed its decision to shift the delivery time.
Onnoghen who had waited in his black SUV Jeep, left with his convoy, immediately he was notified of the development.
A handful of his lawyers and aides were also at the tribunal which is situated within the Jabi District of Abuja.
It will be recalled that the tribunal had on Monday, reserved judgment on the matter after FG and Onnoghen adopted their final written arguments on Monday.
Whereas Onnoghen urged the tribunal to discharge and acquit him, insisting that the FG failed to prove that he committed an offence that is known to the law.
On the other hand, FG, asked the CCT to convict and impose maximum punishment on the former CJN, contending that it successfully established that he acted in breach of the code of conduct for public officers in the country.
The tribunal said it would also on Thursday, delivering a ruling on two applications the erstwhile CJN filed to challenge the competence of the criminal proceeding the government initiated against him.
FG had in the charge marked CCT/ABJ/01/19, alleged that Onnoghen’s failure to properly declare his assets, was in violation of section 15(2) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.
It further alleged that the ex-CJN who was suspended from office by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 25, operated five foreign bank accounts, contrary to the code of conduct for public officers.
However, in opposition to his trial, Justice Onnoghen, queried the validity of the charge against him, stressing that FG violated established judicial precedents by not allowing the National Judicial Council, 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.
More so, the defendant 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.
He maintained that only after the NJC had pronounced against such judicial officer could prosecuting agencies of the Federal Government proceed to initiate a criminal proceeding.
Justice Onnoghen drew the attention of the tribunal to its judgment that quashed a similar charge against another Justice of the Supreme Court, Sylvester 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 from challenging powers of the tribunal to try him, Onnoghen said he was afraid that he would not be accorded fair hearing by the tribunal which he described as an appendage of the Presidency.
He insisted that he was entitled to a fair hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, under section 36(1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
The defendant argued that the 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.
Nevertheless, the tribunal, in a ruling on March 11, relied on section 396(2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, and Paragraph 5(5) of its Practice Direction, and held that it would not consider the merit of Onnoghen’s objection to the charge, till conclusion of the trial.
While FG closed its case against the ex-CJN after it produced three witnesses to testify before the tribunal, the embattled former CJN who initially proposed to also call three witnesses to defend the charge, announced his decision to close his defence after his driver testified to the fact that he was present when the defendant submitted his assets declaration forms at CCB’s head office in Abuja.
Onnoghen had on April 4, resigned his position as CJN, shortly after the NJC, sent a report of if its investigation into the allegation against him, to President Buhari.