Since democracy berthed in 1999, more than once, judges in courts of first instance had played into the hands of litigants by scrambling for jurisdiction in volatile public interest causes that were brought before them. In virtually all such cases, the judges ended up to give conflicting verdicts which at all times had dented the image of the judiciary. In this piece, KEHINDE OSASONA, examines one of such cases to underscore why the judiciary must put its house in order.
One of the most fundamental questions of law is whether a given court has jurisdiction to adjudicate on cases. As it were, the issue had become a hot debate and is yet to abate. A case in point is the case which involved former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen.
In that case, it would be recalled that the Federal Government through the Code of Conduct Tribunal had charged Justice Onnoghen before the Code of Conduct Tribunal over failure to fully disclose his assets declaration and illegal maintenance of foreign accounts while holding office. As soon as the case got to court, the legal team of Justice Onnoghen challenged the jurisdiction of the tribunal. Onnoghen’s legal team had argued that whatever allegation the government had against the CJN, it must first be submitted to the National Judicial Council (NJC) before any law court could assume jurisdiction.
Even though the Onnoghen’s case was yet to be heard by the NJC, the tribunal ruled that it had jurisdiction to try the charge preferred against him by the Federal Government.
While proceedings preparatory to the arraignment of the CJN were on-going at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, the CJN and his supporters were also before different courts of first instance to get an order stopping the tribunal from adjudicating on the case.
Specifically, the federal high court in Abuja had issued two separate orders halting the CCT from proceeding with Onnoghen’s trial.
In the same vein, the National Industrial Court and the FCT High Court also gave similar orders, but were not respected by CCT.
The tribunal (CCT) Chairman, Umar Danladi, had said that the tribunal had the powers to proceed with the trial without the interference of the NJC.
The CCT further held that in any event, if it finds out that its decision was wrongly reached, it had the powers to overrule itself.
But legal experts argued that despite the fact that the all the courts in question may be said to lack supervisory control over the CCT, the Appeal Court does.
Setting the record straight
A Lagos-based human rights lawyer, Mr. Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa (SAN), described the entirety of the process before the CCT as “unconstitutional, illegal, null and void,” and ought to be withdrawn.
Adegboruwa claimed that by the provisions of Section 36 (4) of the 1999 Constitution, a citizen who is charged with a criminal offence must be taken to the appropriate forum within the requisite jurisdiction, be it a court of law, a tribunal or such other quasi-judicial organ.
He said, “By Section 153 (1) (i) & (2) of the 1999 Constitution, the National Judicial Council was established for the Federation of Nigeria.
“By Paragraph 20 (b) of Part 1 of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution, the NJC shall ‘exercise disciplinary control’ over all judicial officers, including the CJN.
“The NJC being a quasi-judicial organ established by the Constitution, it is the appropriate forum to first raise any matter against any judicial officer, including the CJN; thus, the NJC has exclusive jurisdiction over all judicial officers, including the CJN.
Arguing further, he added, “By the decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria, no criminal charge can be laid against a judicial officer, including the CJN, in any court of law, without first filing such complaint before the NJC.
“The Code of Conduct Bureau and the Code of Conduct Tribunal are both part and parcel of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and are bound by the decisions of the Court of Appeal in Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria,” Adegboruwa said.
Under Section 287 (2) of the Constitution, the decisions of the Court of Appeal shall be enforced in any part of the Federation, by all authorities and persons and by courts with subordinate jurisdiction to that of the Court of Appeal.
Adegboruwa insisted that the CCB and CCT are both subordinate entities to the Court of Appeal, who are bound to enforce, apply and obey the decision of the Court of Appeal in Nganjiwa v FRN.
“From the foregoing, the criminal charges filed against the CJN before the CCT are illegal, ultra vires, unconstitutional, null and void and should either be withdrawn forthwith by the CCB, discontinued by the AGF by filing a nolle proseque, or struck out by the CCT.
“By virtue of section 36 (5) of the 1999 Constitution, every person (including the CJN) who is charged with a criminal offense shall be presumed to be innocent until the contrary is proved,” he said
Another lawyer’s different posture
But in maintaining a different stance over the issue, a constitutional lawyer and human rights activist, Femi Falana (SAN) came out to condemned the decision of the then CJN Onnoghen to challenge his trial at CCT.
According to Falana, Onnoghen himself stated during the former senate president Abubakar Saraki’s non-asset declaration trial that the CCT was the only forum empowered to try public office holders.
Falana further quoted Onnoghen as saying: “There is no way any court anywhere can stop the prosecution before the code of conduct tribunal that it is exclusively empowered to deal with breaches of code of conduct of public officers,” he explained.
As the jurisdictional debate rages, it would not be out of place to advise that in the interest of the image of the judiciary, judge must be more circumspect in assuming jurisdiction over public interest cases except and until it is very clear that they actually do.
Again, the NJC must put in place a mechanism for sanctioning judges who embarrass the judiciary by assuming jurisdiction over cases they are not empowered to try.