The Federal High Court sitting in Abuja, has stopped move by the federal government to drag the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, before the Code of Conduct Tribunal over alleged non-declaration of assets.
In her ruling, Justice Evelyn Maha restrained the federal government from going ahead with the planned arraignment, following two ex-parte applications that were moved by two separate groups.
The CJN is facing a six-count charge of non-asset declaration.
But when the matter came up yesterday, the defendant did not appear before the tribunal because, according to him, he was not personally served the summon, following which the CCT Chairman, Mr. Danladi Umar, ordered that he be properly and personally served.
Thereafter, the CCT adjourned till January 22 when the defence team is expected to argue the issue of jurisdiction.
Court stops CCT
However, in a simultaneous ruling yesterday, Justice Maha restrained all parties from further actions.
Whereas the first application marked FHC/ABJ/CS/27/2019 was filed by Incorporated Trustees of the Centre for Justice and Peace Initiative, the second application marked FHC/ABJ/CS/28/2019 was lodged before the court by the Incorporated Trustees of the International Association of Students Economists and Management.
Named as defendants in the suit were the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, Chairman of the CCT, the National Judicial Council, the Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Ibrahim Idris, and the Senate President Bukola Saraki.
Whereas the first application was moved by Mr. Rasheed A Lawal-Rabana, SAN, the second motion was moved by Mr. Jeph Njikonye.
Ruling on the applications, Justice Maha ordered all the parties to maintain the status quo ante till January 17 when the case was adjourned to.
The court further ordered service of all the relevant processes on the defendants to enable them appear on the adjourned date.
The trial judge further warned that no steps should be taken by any of the parties in respect of the planned trial of the CJN, pending the hearing and determination of the two suits before her.
At the tribunal
Earlier at the CCT, after a heated controversy over whether or not the CCT has the jurisdiction to try the Justice Onnoghen, the matter took off yesterday at Dakinbiu, Abuja, with the tribunal chairman, adjourning sitting till January 22.
Ahead of the failed trial, security was beefed up in and around the premises of the CCT, as armed policemen were seen stationed at strategic positions around the court to prevent a possible breakdown of law and order.
The CJN was however not at the tribunal, because, according to his legal team, the nation’s chief judicial officer was not properly served.
However, at the tribunal yesterday, the issue of jurisdiction which lasted for about one hour became a subject of legal firework between the prosecution and defence counsel.
Leading a defence team of over 89 SANs, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, said his team was at the tribunal to contest the issue of jurisdiction.
They include; 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 numerous others.
Making his submission, Olanipekun said: “My lord we are not just challenging jurisdiction, we are even challenging the jurisdiction of this tribunal to even sniff that charge.”
Asked why Onnoghen was not at the tribunal, Olanipekun said, the CJN did not necessarily have to be present, having filed a motion to challenge the tribunal’s jurisdiction.
The defence team further submitted that from the earlier account given by the court official during the proceedings, the CJN was not personally served with the charges and summons, even when the law requires that the defendant should be served personally.
According to him, before a serving judicial officer could be prosecuted in the law court over any offence, he must have been investigated, indicted and sanctioned by the National Judicial Council (NJC).
NJC is a creation of section 153 of the 1999 Constitution with statutory powers to hire and fire erring judicial officers.
Olanipekun also argued that the latest judicial decision in Kangiwa vs Federal Government of Nigeria on the issue was clear to the effect that no trial against a serving judge could stand, except such judicial officer had been sanctioned by the NJC.
He further contended that the federal government, which hurriedly dragged him to court, never complied with the requisite, thereby robbing the tribunal the jurisdiction to hear the case.
But in a counter argument, the prosecuting counsel, Aliyu Umar, SAN, who also prosecuted Senate President Bukola Saraki during a similar trial, contended that the law only requires the defendant to be aware of the pending charges.
Although the seasoned prosecutor made a heavy weather out of the CJN’s absence, the defence team nonetheless, asked him to do the right thing first by serving him personally before they would address the issue of jurisdiction comprehensively.
Umar, a former Attorney General of Kano state, stressed that it was the CJN’s choice to ask his aide to receive the charges and summons on his behalf.
“By what the registrar has said, although the defendant was the one who directed his personal assistant to accept service on his behalf and what the law says is that he must be personally served.
“We agree that that the service should be properly done. The processes should be served personally on him.
“If, after the service is done, and the defendant is not present, we can then argue whether or not he needs to be present on the grounds that he has filed a motion challenging the jurisdiction of the court,” Umar submitted.
The prosecuting counsel, therefore, urged the CCT to direct a fresh service on the CJN.
Upon the prosecuting counsel’s admission that the defendant was not duly served, the CCT Chairman, Mr. Umar ruled that the tribunal would hear Onnoghen’s motion challenging the jurisdiction of the tribunal at the next proceedings.
Consequently, the tribunal directed that the CJN be personally served, and adjourned the case till January 22.
Withdraw charges, Eweremadu to FG
Meanwhile, Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu, has urged the federal government to withdraw the charges against the CJN and also apologise to the nation’s judiciary.
In series of posts on his social media handles, @iamekweremadu, in the early hours of yesterday, Ekweremadu, who described the charges as extremely dangerous for the nation’s democracy, emphasised the need to eschew every form of intimidation against other arms of government, especially their leaderships, to enable them play their constitutional roles in the overall interest of the nation.
The senator noted that the integrity of the Nigerian judiciary remained intact despite obvious constraints.
He said: “I consider the charges against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, His Lordship, Justice Walter Onnoghen, as ill-advised and dangerous, especially after similar attempts at the leadership of the National Assembly failed.
“This is extremely dangerous for democracy and can only divide the country further as well as alienate us as country very low in upholding the rule of law and independence of the judiciary.
“I advise the Attorney General of the Federation to immediately withdraw the charges and apologise to the judiciary. We certainly can’t travel this road.”
Obaseki on S/south govs’ meeting
In a related development, the Edo state Governor, Godwin Obaseki, has described the Abuja meeting of his fellow South-south governors on the CJN’s travails as political.
The Edo governor however said he will support any meeting, devoid of political colouration, that genuinely seeks to improve the welfare of people of the region and elsewhere in the country.
The South-south governors on Sunday met over alleged false assets declaration charges against the CJN who hails from the geo-political zone.
In a communiqué issued at the end of the meeting, the governors in attendance (all PDP), asked the CJN to shun the arraignment.
However, speaking through his media aide, Crusoe Osagie, Governor Obaseki, who was absent at the meeting, said the meeting was PDP governors gathering and not a meeting of South-south governors.
Crusoe said: “Obaseki will not attend a PDP Governors’ meeting like the one held in Abuja last Sunday.
“He will attend meetings that are not politically-tainted, and called to proffer time-tested solutions to the developmental challenges faced by the millions of Edo and other people of the south-south region.”
C/River NBA kicks
In a related development, the Cross River chapter of the Nigerian Bar Association, the state of origin of the CJN, yesterday shut down all the courts in the state to protest the CJN’s trial.
The protesting lawyers said they shut down courts in the state to support Nigerians, including South-south governors who have condemned the development and are opposing it.
In its seven-point communiqué after an emergency general meeting held in Calabar, the state NBA said, “the three branches of the NBA in the state have observed with dismay the ongoing unconstitutional attempt by the executive arm of the federal government of Nigeria to coerce, intimidate and desecrate the judicial Arm of the government vide the proposed arraignment of the CJN.”
The communiqué was signed by NBA chairmen of Calabar, Ogoja and Ikom branches, Emmanuel Idaka, Daniel Ofre Okulo and Ojong Agbor respectively.
Others who appended their signatories include Ntufam Mba E. Ukweni SAN, Elder E.O.E. Ekong, NsikakIkpeme, Marc Enahme, Hon Mark Obi, Leo Murphy, Williams Anwan, F. O. Onyebueke, Nkoyo Amah, Chief Orok Oyo, James Ofem.
They said: “We wholly adopt the position of the NBA on the issue as contained in the statement issued and signed by the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Chief Paul Usoro SAN.
“We condemned in its entirety the unlawful manner in which the federal government and its agencies have assaulted, ridiculed and degraded the revered office of the CJN and indeed the entire judiciary in the country by the orchestrated media trial of the CJN Justice W. S. N. Onnoghen.
“Whilst not condoning corruption in all its ramifications, we insist that, the rule of law must be followed by the federal government of Nigeria in its avowed fight against corruption, especially as it has to do with the proposed arraignment of the CJN or any other judicial officer in the federal republic of Nigeria as laid down in the locus classicus of Nganjiuva vs.Federal Republic of Nigeria 2017.
“It is pertinent to draw the attention of the initiators of this bizarre transaction to the fact that the removal of the Chief Justice of Nigeria is regulated by the mandatory provisions of section 292(1)(a)(1) of the constitution, 1999.”