By Wandoo Sombo, Martins Odeh
Abuja, Jan. 14, 2019
The Federal High Court Abuja, has asked the Federal Government to put on hold plans to arraign the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT.
The Federal Government through the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, filed six counts of non-declaration of assets charges against Onnoghen.
However, ruling on two separate ex parte applications on Monday, Justice N.E Maha, ordered parties to maintain status quo until Jan. 17.
“That in the meantime, parties shall maintain the status quo that exists as at today, Jan. 14, and shall not take any steps that will interfere with the res or subject matter of the suit pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice.
“That the defendants shall be served with all the processes filed in this suit and shall appear on Jan. 17 for the hearing of the motion on notice.”
One of the applications was filed by the Incorporated Trustees of International Association of Students Economists and Management, while the other application was filed by Incorporated Trustees of the Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative.
Those joined as defendants in the suit are; the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Abubakar Malami, the Chairman of CCT, Danladi Umar, and the National Judicial Council, NJC.
Others are the Inspector-General of Police, Mr Ibrahim Idris, and the Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki.
The Incorporated Trustees of International Association of Students Economists and Management had in its application, asked for an interim injunction restraining the defendants from arresting, arraigning, prosecuting or trying the CJN pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice filed together with the ex parte application.
The suit has been adjourned until Jan. 17.
In another development, the arraignment of Justice Onnoghen, at the CCT in Abuja could not take place on Monday as earlier scheduled because Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), Counsel for Onnoghen raised an issue on improper service of the summons on the CJN.
Olanipekun also argued that his application challenging the jurisdiction of the court to entertain the charges should be heard in the absence of his client.
“We have an application on behalf of the defendant filed Jan.14 challenging the jurisdiction of this Tribunal to sniff the countenance of this petition.
“ There are precedents and laws that mandate court to hear interlocutory applications in criminal matters without the defendant in court.
“The absence of the defendant in court is not intentional. He is not here because he was not served with the summons to be here.
“We have taken the liberty of the news of his summons to be in the Tribunal to file our protest application challenging the jurisdiction of the court.
“Sections 123 and 124 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) mandate criminal summons to be served on the defendant personally and not by substituted means.
“The argument by the prosecution that the defendant was served through his Senior Special Assistant, one Sunday. O. must be immediately discountenanced,’’ Olanipekun said.
Malam Umar Aliyu (SAN), Counsel for Federal Government, however, raised objections to Olanipekun’s submissions, adding that the defendant was duly served.
He said that there was no existing laws shielding a defendant from being arraigned in a criminal matter.
Aliyu, therefore, went ahead to urge the tribunal not to entertain the defendant’s motion challenging the jurisdiction of the court until he had taken his plea.
After much argument, the prosecutor re-shaped his prayers by urging the tribunal to order a re-service on the defendant.
Giving his ruling, Mr Umar Danjuma, Chairman of the Tribunal, ordered that the defendant be served the summons afresh.
Danjuma, therefore, adjourned the proceedings until Jan.22.
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) recalls that an Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative (ARDI), a Non-Governmental Organisation, filed the petition against Onnoghen at the CCB.
Mr Dennis Aghanya, Executive-Secretary of the organisation, who made the copy of the petition available to NAN on Saturday in Abuja, said the body had acted as a whistle blower.
Aghanya said the petition, which was filed on Jan. 7, was an offshoot of a painstaking investigation into the dealings of the CJN.
The 6-count charge had among other things accused Onnoghen of violating the CCB/CCT Act by engaging on false and non declaration of his assets.
NAN reports that a total of 45 Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) and 55 members of the outer-bar were in court to represent the CJN.
Meanwhile, Speaker of the House of Representatives Hon Yakubu Dogara, has called for caution in the charges filed against Hon. Justice Onnoghen.
In a statement issued Sunday, Hon Dogara said that while the House awaits further briefing from relevant agencies, nevertheless, it is important that due process is followed because Nigeria is a country governed by laws and not the dictates of men.
He noted that the House is not less zealous in the fight against corruption but said to commence a matter of that grave magnitude with a media trial is pregnant with innuendos least needed by the polity at this sensitive time.
The Speaker asserted that Nigeria is a country governed by laws with clearly spelt out procedures and processes for their activation and not the dictates of men. It is important that people in authority should excercise power with decorum and not plunge the nation to needless crises as Nigeria is not a banana republic.
“This is a matter that affects another arm of government and its head which should be treated with caution so as not to send the wrong signal that there is a political undertone or other ulterior motives to the issue.
“As we raised our voice when the National Assembly was invaded by hooded security men last year, it is incumbent on us as the legislature to voice our concerns because we operate under system where three arms of government are co – equal branches and enjoy a measure of independence guaranteed by the Constitution.”
“As we approach the general elections, it is incumbent on the prosecutorial authorities to exercise caution and treat matters of this nature with utmost circumspection.”
The CCT, meanwhile, has adjourned to Tuesday January 22, the proceedings in the non-declaration of assets charge against Justice Onnoghen.
The adjournment came following the agreement of all parties that the charge and summons was not properly served on the CJN who did not appear at the Tribunal
The Federal Government has employed the services of a former Commissioner of Justice in Kano State, Aliyu Umar, to head the team of prosecutors, while a leading Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Wole Olanipekun is the Lead counsel to the defendant.
Umar was also the prosecutor during the trial of Senate President Bukola Saraki and his deputy, Ike Ekweremadu before an FCT High Court
The tribunal chairman had at exactly 10am when the charge marked CCT/ABJ/01/19, was called up, demanded to know why the CJN was not in court and if he was served with the charge.
Responding, Umar, the prosecutor told the court that the CJN was served through one of his personal assistants.
“When we went to his house, he directed his personal assistant to collect the charge on his behalf. His personal assistant endorsed it, so he has been served”, Umar who led five other government lawyers, told the tribunal.
However, Chief Wole Olanipekun, who led many Senior Advocates of Nigeria and other lawyers, told the tribunal that the CJN had filed a motion dated January 14, challenging jurisdiction of the tribunal to try him.
He said: “My lord we are not just challenging jurisdiction, we are even challenging the jurisdiction of this tribunal to even sniff that charge”, Olanipekun submitted.
Olanipekun further challenged the competence of service of the charge, insisting that under sections 123 and 124 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, criminal charge ought to be personally served on a defendant.
Meanwhile, after a clerk of the Tribunal, following a query from the Chairman, confirmed that the charge was received on behalf of the CJN, by one Sunday O. Osai who was identified as his personal assistant, the prosecution counsel, applied for FG to be allowed to effect another service of the charge on Justice Onnoghen.
The prosecution, however, pleaded the court to direct that the charge should not be handed to another person aside the CJN.
Following arguments over legal technicalities for about an hour, the Chairman of the tribunal, Justice Danladi Umar directed that the six-count charge against the CJN should be served on the CJN personally before adjourned date, next Tuesday January 22, 2019.
He also directed that all the interlocutory applications would be heard on the next adjourned date.
Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) sighted at the CCT as part of the defence team of the Chief Justice of Nigeria included: Wole Olanipekun, Adegboyega Awomolo, Kanu Agabi, Chris Uche, Yusuf Ali, Garba Tetengi, Effiong Offiong, Kehinde Ogunwumiji, Paul Erokoro, Tawo Tawo, Victoria Awomolo, Sebastine Hon and Chukwuma-machukwu Ume among others.