JUSTICE Walter Onnoghen, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), scheduled for arraignment for alleged false assets declaration charges, was not anywhere around the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) yesterday.
His lawyers, led by Wole Olanipekun, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), told the CCT that the CJN was not properly served the summons. He is to be personally served tomorrow.
CCT Chairman Danladi Umar called Justice Onnoghen’s case at about 10:08am. But the CJN did not attend yesterday’s proceedings at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), scheduled for his arraignment on charges of non-declaration of assets.
Olanipekun, SAN, led a retinue of lawyers, including 46 senior advocates, to defend the nation’s chief law officer.
At the commencement of proceedings and the mention of the charge marked: CCT/ABJ/01/2019, lead prosecution lawyer Aliyu Umar (SAN) informed the tribunal that the defendant had been served with the charge and that the day’s business was for the arraignment of the defendant.
Umar, however, noted that the defendant was absent and prayed the tribunal to inquire from the defendant’s lawyers why he did not attend proceedings.
He argued that having been served, the defendant had no reason to refuse to attend proceedings.
When Umar asked why his client was absent, Olanipekun said he (the CJN) was not properly served with the tribunal’s summons.
Olanipekun also said his client had filed an application at the Federal High Court, challenging the court’s jurisdiction. He asked that the application be taken without the CJN’s presence.
He cited many decisions of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal to support his argument that while a defendant is challenging a court’s jurisdiction or the competence of the charge against him, such a defendant need not attend court.
He said: “The position of the law is that where a defendant in criminal trial is challenging jurisdiction, he does not need to appear in court.”
Olanipekun also cited sections of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) to support his argument that his client was entitled to personal service of the court summons.
He faulted the information by the tribunal’s registrar that the CJN directed his (CJN’s) Personal Assistant (PA) to accept the court summons on his behalf.
Olanipekun said while the information by the court official confirmed that personal service was not effected on his client, the acceptance of the summons by an aide to the CJN did not qualify as personal service, which is required under Section 123(a) of the ACJA.
He argued that under Section 124 of the ACJA, there is need for the prosecution to obtain the leave of the tribunal where it could not effect personal service on the defendant.
Olanipekun said he was surprised that the prosecution was talking of arraignment when proper service had not been effected on his client and he (the defendant) is appearing in protest to challenge the tribunal’s jurisdiction.
On the Chairman’s question whether or not the defendant was not aware of the pendency of the charge, Olanipekun said awareness is not the issue, but that the proper procedure provided in the law must be complied with.
Responding, Umar argued that no law allows a defendant to stay at home and challenge the jurisdiction of the court.
He contended that Sections 123 and 124 of the ACJA provide for personal service on the defendant.
Umar added that since the defendant directed that his PA should accept the summons, it ought to be taken that he had waived personal service.
He later suggested that the tribunal direct that a fresh service of the summons be effected personally on the CJN, a suggestion accepted by all. Tribunal Chairman Umar ordered a fresh service on the CJN and adjourned till January 22 for the hearing of all pending applications.
The CJN was charged with six counts of false asset declaration by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) on January 10.
The charges followed a petition brought against him by a group, the Anti-corruption Research and Data Based Initiative, headed by Denis Aghanya.
In a statement, the CCT said it received the request for the trial of Justice Onnoghen on Friday and had slated yesterday to commence with the matter.
But a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja yesterday stopped the planned arraignment of the CJN before the CCT.
Ruling on two ex parte applications, N.E Maha, a judge, ordered parties to maintain status quo till January 17.
He ruled that the defendants should be served with all the papers filed and that they should appear in court at the next hearing.
‘Law no respecter of person’
A lawyer, Iyabo Awokoya, said the law should be no respecter of persons. With that foundation, please follow me on this journey.
She said: “He needs to resign since he knows he cannot be sacked. That is the right thing to do.
“As for me, I would continue to urge the FGN to bring all these issues to the public, not minding the times or seasons. We need to hold public officers accountable & they need to hold themselves accountable. The CJN, having admitted wrong doing needs to resign honourably. If you support anything else other than the CJN to resign you are biased, corrupt and an enemy of the country.”
CJN not above the law, says Ogunye
Another lawyer, lawyer , Jiti Ogunye, said the CJN is not above the law.
He said: “If an ordinary Nigerian forgets to declare his assets, the same judiciary will cast him into kirikiri. God will judge our Judiciary and its officer for introducing sentiments into this while some of our brothers are dying in prisons just for urinating in the public. God will judge all una double standards. When he sacked and compulsorily retired many judges, it was all good and fine but he himself is now above the same law he swore to uphold. We want a better Nigeria and yet we continue to speak with two mouths. Our judiciary is our greatest problem in this country. When it favours them, they will quickly make reference with advanced democracies and right now nobody has been able to tell us any country whereby the chief justice is above the law.”
Akure NBA chair: CJN bound by Code of Conduct
Ogunye’s position is supported by Ola Dan Olawale, the Chairman of the Akure branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).
He said: “It is without much ado that one can safely submit that the Chief Justice of Nigeria, His Lordship Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen is a Public Officer. His Lordship is also bound by the provisions of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers as contained in the Constitution of the Federal Republic.
“What is the AGF proposing to do? Nothing but complying with the law. Then why the hullabaloo? Those who oppose the step being taken by the Federal Government have advanced basically three arguments. First, they claim that independence of the judiciary is paramount. They have however forgotten to differentiate between the person of Mr. Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen as a Nigerian who is not above the law and who could commit offence: a Nigerian who is not immuned and who is not better than many others His Lordship had tried and sentenced. The proponents of independence of the judiciary have failed, whether by commission or commission, to see that the office of the CJN is what is meant by judicial independence and not the person in the office. They have refused to appreciate the necessity of subjecting every person to equal treatment before the law, knowing that failure to so do portends great risk to our commonwealth.
“The second reason being put forward by defenders of His Lordship, Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen CJN is that the timing of the arraignment is suspect. According to them, the proposed charge is akin to an attempt by the ruling political party to compromise Election Petitions. This argument, every trained legal mind who agree, is fallacious. An offence can only be reported and tried when discovered. The CJN must be prepared to face and stand trial. And the burden is on His Lordship to prove his innocence as Paragraph 11.3, Part 1 of Schedule V of the 1999 Constitution deems a defendants guilty until the contrary is proved.
“Admittedly, the premise upon which the third argument is based is true but the conclusion drawn therefrom is false. The premise of the argument is that the Federal Government cannot remove the CJN without following due process, that is through the JSC. Yes, that is the law and it has received judicial backing in the case of NGANJIWA v. FRN, However, the conclusion drawn by anti-prosecution of Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen CJN is fallacious. Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen CJN cannot be removed except by recommendations of the National Judicial Service Commission. His Lordship can however be prosecuted by the Code of Conduct Bureau and a conviction by the Bureau can be a basis for NJC’s recommendation for removal.
“Let us allow the rule of law and not the law of rulers. Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen is just another Nigerian who should subject himself to laws that govern all Nigerians.”
Gana, Obi, Ekweremadu urge caution
Presidential Candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Prof. Jerry Gana, Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu and the Vice-Presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Mr. Peter Obi yesterday cautioned the Federal Government against the trial of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).
The former minister of Information, who briefed reporters in Abuja on the state of the nation, said the Federal Government should follow the rule of law in Onnoghen’s case.
Gana said: “The obvious violation of the Constitutional provisions on the trial and removal of the CJN embedded in Article 292 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (As Amended) raises the suspicion that the proposed arraignment and trial of the CJN over alleged failure to fully declare his asset is premeditated.”
Obi decried what he tagged “Intimidation of the Judiciary”, and asking “Where is Due Process?” Obi spoke yesterday at Shagamu, Ogun State where he represented Alhaji Atiku Abubakar at the Strategy Meeting of the PDP and in reaction to the orchestrated arraignment of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) on allegations bordering on assets declaration.
“It is also revealing that this scenario is not novel in today’s Nigeria. It is the same CJN that was also subjected to all manner of traumatic experience before his emergence as head of the Nigerian Judiciary. From the way and manner we are going, the judicial arm that helps to defend, guide, guard and direct democracy and its institutions is being overawed, intimidated and undermined preparatory to the General Elections. Wherein lies our hope in Nigeria?”
Ekweremadu urged the Federal Government to immediately withdraw the charges against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, and also apologise to the nation’s judiciary.
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