The Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) yesterday ordered the Inspector General of Police (IGP) and the Director General, Department of State Services (DSS) to arrest and produce the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen, in court within 48 hours.
The Chairman of the tribunal, Danladi Umar, issued the bench warrant against Onnoghen for being absent from court where he was to face arraignment, against earlier warning.
The tribunal, at its February 4 sitting, had insisted that Onnoghen must make himself available in court at the next adjourned date, being yesterday, for arraignment before any other motion could be entertained.
Justice Onnoghen was charged to court for allegedly failing to declare his assets.
At the resumed sitting of the tribunal yesterday, the suspended CJN was not in court. Rather, his team of lawyers led by Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN) prayed the court to take all pending applications relating to the trial, particularly that of the tribunal’s jurisdiction to hear the matter.
The senior counsel insisted that the issue of jurisdiction must be determined one way or another before the tribunal could proceed to take further motions. He, therefore, prayed the tribunal to allow the issue of jurisdiction, which is the foundation of the trial, to be resolved in the interest of justice.
But counsel to the Federal Government, Aliyu Umar (SAN), opposed the application by Onnoghen’s counsel, insisting that the issue of the defendant’s absence in court to take his plea must be addressed first.
He stated that until the defendant appeared physically in court, the issue of jurisdiction and other motions would not be taken.
According to Umar, Onnoghen has the right to refuse to take plea but has no right to refuse to appear in court.
The counsel recalled that since January 14, when Onnoghen ought to have been arraigned, he has not appeared in court. He added that even after the service of the charge had been effected to Onnoghen in person, he still did not appear in court.
Danladi insists that Onnoghen court apperance is mandatory
Immediately he concluded his argument, the CCT boss brought out a written ruling and began to read.
He read from the document, an order that a bench warrant be issued against Onnoghen for his arrest either by the IGP or the DSS boss and to produce him before the tribunal on Friday.
Umar held that Onnoghen must be in the dock on Friday unfailingly.
According to him, the embattled CJN must first humble himself before the jurisdiction of Danladi’s tribunal before raising whatever objection he has to the trial thereafter.
He said: “I recall at the last adjournment that I insisted that the defendant must appear in court today.
“My memory is intact. But since he has chosen not to be in court, this tribunal has no option than to use machinery at its disposal to compel his appearance in court.
“For this reason, a bench warrant is hereby issued to the Inspector General of Police or the Director General of the Department of State Services to produce him before this tribunal on Friday. He must be in the dock on Friday unfailingly.”
Shortly after the ruling, the Federal Government lawyer drew attention of the tribunal’s chairman to the fact that Friday is the eve of the presidential election, but Umar dismissed the information and insisted that Onnoghen must be brought before him on the next adjourned date.
Without allowing the two other members of the tribunal to make input or react to the ruling, Umar announced that the matter be adjourned till Friday and arose.
In a reaction, former president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Dr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), said the CCT went too far by issuing the arrest warrant, despite that its jurisdiction to try the case has been challenged by the National Judicial Council (NJC).
In a statement yesterday, Agbakoba said: ”I am shocked that the Code of Conduct Tribunal will issue a bench warrant for the arrest of Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen, knowing full well that its jurisdiction to try the case has been challenged and the application on the challenge is on the CCT docket, and no hearing has occurred.
”The CCT is aware that there is now before the NJC, a petition against Onnoghen on exactly the same charges at the CCT. The CCT ought to await the outcome of the pending matters in the NJC, Appeal Court and Federal High Court. The conduct of the CCT subverts the rule of law and due process.”
In a related development, the NJC has constituted a five-man panel to investigate petitions written against the suspended Onnoghen and the Acting CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad, in line with Rule 20 (1) of its regulations.
The council, in continuation of its emergency meetings yesterday, also forwarded a new petition written against Justice Muhammad by the Action People’s Party (APP) to him for his response within seven working days.
According to a statement yesterday by the Director of Information, NJC, Mr. Soji Oye, the council found that the preliminary assessment of the petitions against the two justices showed that the allegations were worthy of further investigation and should not be terminated under Rule 17 of the Judicial Discipline Regulations of the council.
The new investigation committee, set up pursuant to Rule 20 (1) of the Judicial Discipline Regulations, is under the chairmanship of a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice S. A. Akintan.
The NJC directed the panel to work expeditiously to determine all the petitions and responses, and report the same to the council for a final decision.
Meanwhile, a mild drama ensued at the Kaduna High Court, yesterday, when the judge asked a defence lawyer not to link the case of Onnoghan to the asset declaration suit involving Governor Nasir el-Rufai.
When the case between Today Publishing Company and el-Rufai came up for continuation, the Chairman, Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), Justice Mohammed Isa, whose warrant of arrest was ordered, could not appear physically in court.
When the representative of the CCB chairman, Temitope Adeyemi, was asked by the defence lawyer to present the asset declaration documents to the court for the case to progress, he said they were not handy .
Adeyemi, an official of the Kaduna State council of CCB, said he resumed office in November 2018, and needed time to recover the documents so requested, and bring them to the court at the next adjournment.
“I didn’t come to court with any document. The chairman said I should take a new date for him to recover the documents and bring them to the court. There is crisis, the staff members were on strike.” He promised to make them available at next sitting.
At this point, the defendant’s lawyer, Andrew Abuul, queried why the CCB that was able to produce the asset declaration documents of Justice Onnoghan with speed, could not produce the ones of el—Rufai to the court.
Swiftly, the judge, Mario Mohammed, intervened by cautioning the defence lawyer against linking Justice Onnoghen’s case to that of el-Rufai asset declaration, saying that was why the court took time to sign the arrest warrant against the CCB chairman. The court session was later adjourned till May 2, 2019 by the judge.