18 April 2019

Nigeria: Issues At Stake As Onnoghen's Trial Ends At CCT

The trial of the retired Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen at the Code of Conduct Tribunal is expected to end in a few hours.

Mr Onnoghen, who became Nigeria's 17th Chief Justice in March 2017, was brought before the Code of Conduct Tribunal on January 14.

He was arraigned by the Code of Conduct Bureau, following a petition brought against him by a group, the Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative, headed by a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress in Enugu State, Denis Aghanya.

Mr Onnoghen was charged on six counts, for allegedly failing to declare some of his accounts in the asset declaration form submitted to the CCB in December, 2016.

According to the charge, Mr Onnoghen also failed to declare his assets after the expiration of his declaration form filled in 2005.

But, Mr Onnoghen, who had noted that he forgot to update the form, told the tribunal that he was not guilty of the charges brought against him.

Legal Tussle

Mr Onnoghen's lawyers told the tribunal the statement made by Mr Onnoghen was not a 'confessional' statement.

They based their submissions on the second paragraph of section 3 (d) of the CCB act.

According to the two paragraphs in that section, the CCB was empowered to "receive complaints about non-compliance with or breach of this Act and where the Bureau considers it necessary to do so, refer such complaints to the Code of Conduct Tribunal established by section 20 of this Act in accordance with the provisions of sections 20 to 25 of this Act:

"Provided that where the person concerned makes a written admission of such breach or non-compliance, no reference to the Tribunal shall be necessary."

Mr Onnoghen's lawyers also argued that the CCB act which formed the basis for Mr Onnoghen's trial was "significantly in conflict with the Nigerian Constitution."

Their cited section 153 and 158 (1) of the Constitution, which empowers the National Judicial Council (NJC) to be solely responsible for the affairs of its judicial officers, including their discipline.

Mr Onnoghen's lawyers also argued that the removal of the CJN , which appeared to be a major request from the prosecution at the tribunal, is only permitted through a decision of the NJC, or by a consensus of two-third majority members of the National Assembly.

According to section 292 (1) of the Constitution: "The CJN can only be removed from office by the President acting on an address supported by two thirds majority of the Senate for his inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment (whether arising from infirmity of mind or body) or for misconduct or contravention of the Code of Conduct."

Mr Onnoghen's lawyers had also questioned the jurisdiction of the CCT to proceed with the matter, since the tribunal itself had suspended a similar matter following the decision of a Court of Appeal.

The Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal had decided during the trial of another judge, Hyeladzira Nganjiwa, that the only body responsible for the indictment of a serving judicial officer was the NJC.

That decision had forced the suspension of the trial of another Supreme Court Justice, Sylvester Ngwuta at the tribunal.

Mr Ngwuta was one of seven judges whose houses had been raided by the State Security Service in October 2016, after President Muhammadu Buhari's government accused them of fraud.

But, the CCT, chaired by Danladi Umar, refused to give a pronouncement on Mr Onnoghen's submission that the tribunal was incompetent to proceed with the trial.

Mr Umar ruled that the tribunal would decide on the matter, while delivering its verdict on the actual application.

Curious Silence

Also the Court of Appeal where Mr Onnoghen had gone with a number of applications regarding his trial had suspended the matter after an initial pronouncement in February that it was reserving the ruling for a later date.

Mr Onnoghen had approached the appellate court to challenge his ongoing trial at the CCT. The retired CJN had also asked the court to nullify the arrest warrant earlier issued against him by the tribunal after questioning the powers of the tribunal.

Mr Onnoghen also asked the appellate court to decide whether the refusal of the tribunal to be bound by its previous decision was legal.

The Court of Appeal, which had dealt with a number of cases within the period, is yet to announce a date almost two months after it suspended the matter on February, 27.

The Court of Appeal is not alone in its decision to maintain a curious silence in Mr Onnoghen's matter.

The NJC, which had taken a decision on Mr Onnoghen's case, had also avoided its usual practice of informing Nigerians about the verdict by stating that "it would first communicate same to Mr Buhari."

Although the council and the presidency avoided informing the Nigerian people about the decision, Mr Onnoghen 'decided' to retire on April 5, following an apparent request by the NJC.

Mr Onnoghen's lawyer, Adegboyega Awomolo, confirmed the information in a telephone interview with PREMIUM TIMES when he explained the reasons for Mr Onnoghen's retirement.

"His position from day one has been that it is only the NJC that can discipline him. Now that the NJC has spoken, out of respect for the NJC and the office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Nigerian Judiciary, he sent his letter of retirement," Mr Awomolo said while explaining the reason for Mr Onnoghen's retirement.

With the current development, the CCT may not be constitutionally empowered to take any further action on Mr Onnoghen, in the light of the allegations brought before the tribunal, if it finds him guilty.

Since the allegations centered mostly on failure to declare his assets, the penalty according to Section 23 of the act was for the tribunal to recommend Mr Onnoghen's removal from office, assuming he had not retired.

The section states that: "the punishment which the Tribunal may impose shall include any of the following- (a) vacation of office or any elective or nominated office, as the case may be;

(b) Disqualification from holding any public office (whether elective or not) for a period not exceeding ten years; and

(c) Seizure and forfeiture to the State of any property acquired in abuse or corruption of office."

However, if the previous decision of the tribunal dictates its expected decision, the CCT will be expected to suspend Mr Onnoghen's trial as it had done in previous circumstances.

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