Godwin Tsa, Abuja
The trial of the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) was stalled on Tuesday following his absence in court on medical grounds.
The Federal Government had in the charge marked CCT/ABJ/01/2019 alleged that Onnoghen failed to declare his assets as prescribed by law, and for maintained foreign bank accounts.
The former Chief Justice has pleaded not guilty to the charges and has been admitted to bail on self recognizance.
However, at the resumed trial on Tuesday, Onnoghen was absence in court for the trial.
Onnoghen’s lead counsel, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, explained to the tribunal that Onnoghen’s absence was occasioned by a toothache and high blood pressure, which was reported to be around 210/121.
Awomolo tendered a medical report from Ideal Medical Services, Abuja, where Justice Onnoghen was said to have been treated, to convince the Tribunal.
The medical report, signed by one Dr Francis Uche, the Medical Director of the hospital, recommended, among other things, that Onnoghen observe 72 hours of bed rest for his high blood pressure to be properly monitored.
Reacting to the development, counsel to the Federal government, Aliyu Umar, SAN, acknowledged receipt of the medical report, saying the health of the defendant is crucial and should be considered by the Tribunal.
“I have read the medical report concerning the defendant and I have reserved an observation that I would have made,” Umar said.
“This is because the health of the defendant is equally important to the prosecution to proceed. More importantly when the report stated that the high blood pressure of the defendant is 210/121.
“As an old man, I know what this means. There is, therefore, sufficient reason for the absence of defendant in court today. And by the medical report, it is recommended that he should be given 72 hours bed rest.
“In view of the ruling of this tribunal for the trial to proceed on daily basis, and taking into consideration the health condition of the defendant, I apply that the case be adjourned till next Monday, March 18, to enable the defendant have sufficient rest as recommended by his doctor,” Umar submitted.
He informed the Tribunal that, although his witnesses were in court and that he was ready to proceed with the trial, but had to concede to an adjournment because of the importance of the health of the defendant.
In his short ruling, Tribunal chairman Danladi Umar agreed with the position of the prosecution and the medical report and shifted the trial till March 18.
When the trial resumed Monady, Onnoghen, who made his second appearance before the Tribunal, expressed fears that he could not get a fair hearing due to the Tribunal being an appendage of the Presidency, Onnoghen having been suspended as Chief Justice of Nigeria by President Muhammadu Buhari in January.
Justice Onnoghen canvassed his arguments through his team of lawyers made up of Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, Chief Chris Uche, SAN, Sabastine Hon, SAN, and Edward Ashiakaa, SAN.
Chief Awomolo, who lead Onnoghen’s defence team, insisted that his client was entitled to fair hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, under section 36(1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
He argued that it was against the tenet of fair hearing to be an accuseer and the judge in your own case.
Awomolo explained 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 government.
“The tenet of fair hearing is that no one should be a judge in his own case. It is our position that the principle of natural justice, equity and good conscience requires that the defendant’s right to fair hearing deserve a thorough examination by this tribunal,” Awomolo stated.
The senior defence counsel noted that the Chairman of the tribunal, Mr Umar, had in a recent letter to the National Judicial Council (NJC) made it clear that he was only answerable to the Presidency.
“We agree with that position. In the interest of justice, we urge my lords to hold that, from circumstances demonstrated in the affidavit, without freedom and impartiality of the tribunal, right of fair hearing of the defendant would be jeopardised,” Awomolo said.
On the second leg of his objection, Onnoghen challenged the validity of the charge on the basis that the Federal Government failed to respect established judicial precedents by not allowing the NJC to firstly investigate the allegation against a judicial officer before heading to court.
On this point, Awomolo argued that failure to forward the petition against his client to him as well as the outcome of an 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.
Onnoghen, thereafter, argued that only after the NJC has pronounced against such judicial officer could prosecuting agencies of the Federal Government proceed to initiate a criminal proceeding.
In addition, Justice Onnoghen drew the attention of the Tribunal to a judgement it delivered on May 15, 2018, wherein it quashed a similar charge the 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.
Responding, prosecution counsel, Mr. Aliyu Umar insisted that Justice Onnoghen, who was suspended from office by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 25, conducted himself in breach of the oath he took as a public officer.
His position was contained in a three-paragraph counter affidavit, wherein he urged the Tribunal to dismiss Onnoghen’s objections to his trial.
The prosecution lawyer described as porous Onnoghen’s argument that he would be denied fair hearing owing to the fact that the Tribunal was appointed by the President.
“We submit that the defendant failed to demonstrate any bias against either the chairman or any member of the tribunal. We urge the tribunal to dismiss this application as lacking in merit,” Umar argued.
The prosecution urged the Tribunal to overlook its previous decision in Justice Ngwuta’s case, saying it was made in error. There is a difference between a judicial misconduct and a public officer not complying with provisions of the law.
“The powers of this tribunal is much more than that of a mere disciplinary body. It has powers under the constitution and therefore CCB & Tribunal Act.
“In the case of Ngwuta, the attention of the tribunal was not drawn to its powers under the constitution. Now that its attention has been drawn to it, the tribunal cannot with respect proceed in the error”.
Umar 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.
He argued that it was unnecessary for his client to approach the NJC with the allegation against the suspended CJN, for consideration, since the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) was statutorily empowered to investigate and prosecute such infraction.
Umar consequentl urged the Tribunal to proceed with a full-blown hearing of the charge against Onnoghen.
In his bench ruling, Chairman of the CCT, Mr Danladi Umar, relied on section 296(2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015, and Paragraph 5(5) of the Practice Direction of the CCT, and held that ruling on Onnoghen’s objections would be delivered alongside the substantive judgement.
Mr Umar equally held that the Tribunal was empowered under section 396(3) of the ACJA to conduct day-to-day trial of the matter.
He said the decision to conduct the trial with utmost dispatch was owing to the sensitive nature of the case and the pivotal role the leadership of judiciary plays in ensuring stability and preventing the nation from descending into lawlessness and chaos.
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.
Meanwhile, the Federal government has through the office of the AGF, already directed the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) to freeze all the accounts, pending conclusion of the trial.
Onnoghen had in his statement of defence insisted that he legitimately earned “huge funds” that were allegedly traced to the five bank accounts.
He justified a series of deposits that were linked to the accounts, saying they were proceeds from his trade in foreign exchange (forex), AGRICODE, as well as proceeds of his investments.
FG listed the accounts under investigation as Account No. 5001062686 (Euro) Standard Chartered Bank) (SCB), Account No. 5001062679 (Pound Sterling) (SCB), Account No. 0001062650 (Dollar) (SCB), Account No. 0001062667 (Naira) (SCB), and Account No. 5000162693 (Naira).
Onnoghen was suspended barely eight hours after he announced his decision to inaugurate judges that will take charge of the 2019 election petition tribunals. President Buhari swore in the next most senior jurist on the apex court bench, Justice Tanko Muhammad, to take over as the Acting CJN.