Godwin Tsa, Abuja
After a heated court session characterised by hot verbal exchanges, the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) has ordered the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, who was absent at the tribunal for the third consecutive time, to appear before it on February 13.
The tribunal insisted that it would not entertain any application from the suspended CJN until he takes his plea on the six-count criminal charge filed against him by the Federal Government.
Chairman of the tribunal, Justice Danladi Umar, said it was wrong for Onnoghen to stay away and challenge the jurisdiction of the tribunal to adjudicate over the charges against him.
Umar, who made reference to a plethora of Supreme Court cases, held that a defendant in a criminal matter must first mount the dock and enter his plea to the charge, before any application could be heard.
In addition, he relied on the provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA), 2015, to maintain that the tribunal would not hear Justice Onnoghen’s applications until he appears to enter his plea to the charge against him.
The CCT, subsequently, ordered the defence team to ensure that Onnoghen appeared before the tribunal next week Wednesday for arraignment.
“Under the ACJA, a defendant who is served with a charge and represented by lawyers must take his plea before raising any objection. I want to say that the presence of the defendant is needed at this tribunal,” Umar said, adding, “The defendant has continued to stay away from this tribunal. I am going to grant this adjournment at the instance of the prosecution and defence, but must state that the defendant must attend court at the next adjourned date so that all the issues will be resolved in his presence.”
Before the decision was reached, there was a volley of words between Umar and counsel to the suspended CJN, Chief Awomolo Adegboyega (SAN), over the issue of adjournment.
It all started when Onnoghen’s lead counsel, Awomolo, prayed the tribunal to temporarily suspend the trial since the National Judicial Council (NJC) had taken steps on the issue.
The senior lawyer informed the tribunal that the same petition that precipitated the charge against his client was now before the NJC.
He said, “In the circumstance, I humbly pray your lordships to tarry for a while so that the defendant will not suffer double jeopardy. It is in the interest of justice to allow the NJC to take a decision before proceeding with the case. I believe that the integrity of this tribunal will be further enhanced if this application is granted.”
Responding, the prosecution counsel, Alhaji Aliyu Umar, said he was not opposed to the adjournment request but expressed concerns over what he termed “consistent absence” of the suspended CJN at the tribunal.
He threatened that his client (the federal government) would apply for an arrest warrant, should Onnoghen fail to appear before the tribunal on the next adjourned date.
Irked by the turn of events, the tribunal chairman insisted on proceeding with the trial by allowing the parties to argue the preliminary objection the suspended CJN filed to challenge the jurisdiction of the tribunal to try him. He also accused Onnoghen’s counsel of deliberately employing delay tactics in a bid to frustrate the trial.
Awomolo, who was visibly infuriated by the tribunal chairman’s remarks, and who also ordered him to sit down, retorted that he was not a baby lawyer to be shouted down by the CCT chairman.
While stressing the need for mutual respect between the bar and the bench, Awomolo said: “I have spent over 45 years at the bar and more than 25 years as a SAN. I will not stand and allow anyone to disrespect me in front of junior lawyers. I take serious exception to that.”
Not deterred, the CCT chairman said, “My position is that you have to move your application today, if you don’t, I will ask the prosecution to move its own application for interlocutory injunction against the defendant.”
In a bid to douse the tension, the prosecution counsel persuaded the tribunal to stand down the matter for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, about 10 minutes after, the panel reconvened and adjourned the case till next week Wednesday. Before the adjournment, Onnoghen’s lawyer apologised to the CCT panel over his outburst.
The prosecution counsel equally tendered an apology on behalf of members of the bar.
In his remarks, the second member of the CCT panel, Mr. William Atedze, said the tribunal was also minded to apologise for the initial refusal to adjourn the matter as agreed by both the defence and the prosecution.
Meanwhile, the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal yesterday shifted hearing on the appeal the suspended CJN filed before it, till next week Tuesday.
A three-man panel of justices of the court, led by Justice Stephen Adah, adjourned to enable it to consolidate different appeals revolving on the charge entered against Onnoghen. When the matter was called up for hearing, Onnoghen’s lawyer, Chief Chris Uche, SAN, drew the attention of the court to the different appeals that border on the same subject matter.