Abuja — It was a great relief Thursday for the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, as the criminal charges filed by the federal government against him over alleged non-declaration of assets at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), suffered a setback following an order by the Court of Appeal in Abuja that the tribunal should stay further proceedings in the trial, pending its ruling on January 30, 2019.
The three-member panel of the appellate court gave the order after taking submissions from counsel in the application filed by the CJN seeking a stay of proceedings of the trial at the CCT.
In a swift reaction to the ruling, opposition political parties under the aegis of the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP), lauded the Court of Appeal for the restraining order, describing it as a victory for democracy and the rule of law.
Onnoghen had in the application filed on his behalf by his lawyer, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), asked the Court of Appeal to restrain the CCT from going ahead with the trial slated for January 22.
He also asked the court to stop the suit requesting him to step down as the CJN.
The federal government had slammed a six-count charge on the CJN bordering on failure to declare his assets.
However, the CJN was not in court on January 14, the initial date set for his arraignment, citing improper service of the tribunal's summons, prompting the tribunal to adjourn to January 22 for his arraignment and the hearing of Onnoghen's motion, challenging the tribunal's powers to entertain the matter.
While various groups and individuals had approached the Federal High Court and the National Industrial Court (NIC) to obtain interim orders stopping the trial, Onnoghen on his own approached the Court of Appeal, Abuja division, for an order of stay of proceedings pending the hearing and determination of his suit, challenging the tribunal's jurisdiction of the matter.
Delivering ruling on January 21 on the CJN's application, the appellate court held that there was no need for another order and adjourned till January 24 for hearing of Onnoghen's motion on notice.
In a short ruling Thursday, the presiding judge, Justice Abdul Aboki ordered that, "this ruling is adjourned till Wednesday, January 30, the tribunal is ordered to stay all proceedings".
Earlier, while moving the application on stay of proceedings on CCT/ABJ/01/2019 between the federal government and the CJN, Chief Wole Olanikpekun (SAN) had prayed the court to grant the stay pending the determination of the appeal against the order of the tribunal made on January 14.
Olanipekun informed the tribunal that the issue involved is jurisdictional, constitutional, and to save the judiciary.
He contended that there was an urgent need to preserve the subject matter (res), emphasising that the situation deserves the intervention of the court and added that "the subject is strong, unique and needs to be preserved".
Olanipekun, who took time to narrate the history of the case and all that transpired at the tribunal, also informed the Court of Appeal that the tribunal had refused to obey the orders of four courts, including the National Industrial Court.
The tribunal, he added, had said it was not bound by the fact that this appeal is pending before the Court of Appeal, even as the Court of Appeal is ceased of the matter.
He, therefore, urged the court to order stay of proceedings on the matter at the CCT in the interest of the subject matter, constitution and the institution of the judiciary.
He also prayed the court for an accelerated hearing of the appeal.
Responding, counsel to the federal government, Oyin Koleoso, urged the Court of Appeal to dismiss the application for lack of merit, because if the appeal succeeds it will not terminate the case before the tribunal.
According to him, "The grievances that initiated the appeal are no longer there. If their request is granted, how then would their application be taken."
The CCT had adjourned to January 28, for the hearing of Onnoghen's motion on jurisdiction, after it rejected the orders of four different courts stopping the trial.
In a split judgment of two to one, the tribunal held that the orders of the courts stopping the trial at the tribunal were null and void, since the CCT is a unique creation of the constitution and as such cannot be subjected to the orders of the High Court and industrial court being courts of equal jurisdiction.
CUPP Says It's Victory for Democracy, Rule of Law
Meanwhile, opposition political parties under the aegis of the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP), has lauded the Court of Appeal for the restraining order, describing it as a victory for democracy and the rule of law.
The national spokesperson of CUPP, Imo Ugochinyere, in a statement made available to journalists in Abuja, said the opposition parties stood for the independence of the judiciary and would fight to protect such sacred institutions from being destroyed.
The statement read, "The CUPP received with joy the news of the ruling of the three-man panel of the Court of Appeal which sat in Abuja and restrained the Danladi Umar-led CCT from continuing with the trial of the CCT pending the determination of the main motion.
"The opposition sees the ruling as victory for democracy and rule of law and a fatal blow to the All Progressives Congress (APC) political barbarians who are desperate to annex the Supreme Court to the list of their already destroyed national institutions.
"We advise APC to build a private court for their members as the Nigerian court cannot be intimidated to submit to the leadership of the outgoing ruling party.
"The opposition coalition stands for the independence of the judiciary and will fight with the last drop of its blood to protect such sacred institutions from being destroyed."