Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen
From: Godwin Tsa, Abuja.
In a split decision of two to one, the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) has refused an application by the Chief Justice of the Federation (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen for an indefinite adjournment of his trial.
Justice Onnoghen who was absent in court had through his legal team anchored by Chief Wole Olanikpekun, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), asked the tribunal to adjourned indefinitely, proceedings in the six-count criminal charge filed against him by the Federal government.
While the tribunal Chairman, Justice Danladi Umar and Justice Julie Annabor refused to grant the application for an indefinite adjournment of the proceedings as requested by the defence counsel, Justice William Agwadza on the other hand dissented and granted the application for stay of proceedings.
Olanikpekun who moved the application argued that in view of the various court orders by the Federal High Court and the National Industrial Court restraining the tribunal from taking further steps in the case, it was proper and appropriate for the tribunal to comply with such orders which he said were subsisting.
In addition, he informed the tribunal of the pendency of an appeal by the CJN before the Abuja division of the Court of Appeal in urging the court to adjourn proceedings and await the outcome of the appeal.
He argued that it would breach the legal principle of starie decisis (matters pending before court) and amount to an act of rascality for the tribunal to proceed having been aware of the appeal before the appellate court.
Olanikpekun who was in the company of over 40 Senior Advocates of Nigeria cited some case laws in urging the tribunal to adjourn the trial sine dine (indefinitely).
Olanikpekun submitted: “I owe a duty to inform the tribunal about the subsisting orders of the Federal High Court and the National Industrial Court restraining the tribunal to maintain status quo ante.
“I also owe a duty to inform the tribunal the defendant is now before the Court of Appeal which sat on the matter on Monday. The Attorney General of the Federation was represented by a counsel who asked for an adjournment and the matter was adjourned to Thursday this week.
“The counsel to the AGF told the Court of Appeal that there was no need for another order of injunction.”
“The tribunal is therefore enjoined and mandated to honour and obey all the orders that have been made and serve on the tribunal, until they are set aside,” as doing otherwise would amount to judicial rascality, ” Olanikpekun submitted.
But in opposition to the application, the prosecution counsel, Aliyu Umar (SAN), urged the tribunal to refuse the application and order the Chief Justice of Nigeria to step down from his position.
He argued that as a court of coordinate jurisdiction, the decisions of the Federal High Court and the National Industrial Court are not binding on the tribunal.
Describing the CCT as a unique and creation of the 1999 Constitution, he contended that the Federal High Court and the National Industrial Court have no supervisory powers over it.
“This tribunal is under the supervision of the Court of Appeal and is not bound by the decisions of the Federal High Court and National Industrial Court.
“The Code of Conduct Tribunal is unique and independent and cannot enforce or comply with the decision of the Federal High Court,” Umar submitted.
In his ruling on the issue, the Chairman of the CCT, Justice Danladi Umar, held that the tribunal is not bound by the orders of the Federal High Court and National Industrial Court.
“The orders issued by the Federal High Court and National Industrial Court are not binding on the tribunal which is established by the 1999 Constitution under the third schedule to adjudicate on matters relating to matters of assets declaration by public officers.
“Therefore, any order from Federal High Court and National Industrial Court cannot stop the tribunal. This would be a crystal violation of the constitution and therefore null and void.
“The 1999 Constitution is a ground norm. Where the tribunal gives a decision, the appeal by whichever party lies as a right to the Court of Appeal.
“The Code of Conduct Bureau was established to receive complaints about non-declaration, investigate and refers matters to the tribunal.
“It further contravened the provisions of the constitution that the orders of the Federal High Court were obtained by some busybodies who do not have locus standi and therefore lacked merit.”
As regards the appeal by the CJN at the Court of Appeal, Justice Danladi held that going by the provisions of Section 306 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA), 2015, proceedings in criminal matters cannot stay.
“The defendant counsel is therefore ordered to move his motion of preliminary objection. Let me say that courts and tribunals are enjoined to guide their jurisdictions jealously.”
In his minority ruling, another member of the tribunal, Justice William Agwadza held that it would result to judicial anarchy for the tribunal to proceed with the trial in view of the four subsisting court orders and the pending appeal at the Court of Appeal.
According to him, orders are binding on the tribunal until they are set aside in view of Section 287(3) of the 1999 Constitution which allows court orders to be enforced in all parts of the county, stressing that the CCT cannot operate in isolation.
“Having summarised argument from both parties, it is my submission that CCT as a creation of law bound by the existing court orders to avoid judicial anarchy,” he held.
He further held that the issue of jurisdiction of the tribunal to entertain the charge against CJN must first be resolved, adding that status the quo must be maintained by adjoining proceedings sine die until all contending issues were resolved.
Although the chairman ordered that the motion challenging the jurisdiction of the tribunal to be moved immediately, counsel to the defendant, Chief Olanipekun however, informed the tribunal that the response of the complainant, Federal government, was served on him late Monday and as such needed time to study the response and then filed a reply on point of law.
Counsel to the Federal government, Umar, agreed that the government’s response was served late on the defendant, prompting the chairman to adjourned further proceedings till Monday, January 28.
Meanwhile, some groups under the platform of Lawyers in Defence of Democracy and National Interest Defenders staged a protest outside the courtroom against the trial of the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
Speaking at the rally, National Coordinator of National Interest Defenders, Ikenga Ugochinyere, described the charges against the CJN as an attempt by President Muhammadu Buhari to remove Justice Onnoghen and replaced him with Justice Tanko Ibrahim for the purpose of rigging the 2019 elections.
He said: “All members of the presidency cabal would be personally held responsible if for any reason there is a breach of peace and the country descends into anarchy.”