The Code of Conduct Tribunal on Wednesday ordered the police and the Department of State Services to arrest the suspended and embattled Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, and produce him before it on Friday.
But Onnoghen hurriedly headed for the Appeal Court in Abuja on Wednesday and asked the court to stop his arrest as ordered by the CCT.
The Coalition of United Political Parties has also fixed a nationwide protest for Friday to protest the directive that Onnoghen should be arrested by security agents.
The tribunal chairman, Danladi Umar, made the order in a ruling on the prosecution’s application for the issuance of the arrest warrant on the grounds that Onnoghen had continued to snub the tribunal by refusing to obey summons to answer to the charges of non-declaration of assets preferred against him by the Federal Government.
However, as of the time of filing this report at about 5pm on Wednesday, the suspended CJN had not been arrested as he was still occupying his official residence in the Three Arms Zone. The Punch reports.
It was learned that the CJN would avert any possibility of his arrest by reaching an agreement with the security agencies to voluntarily submit himself to the CCT on Friday.
While CCT’s proceedings were ongoing, the National Judicial Council was also meeting to review the pre-assessment report on the petitions written against Onnoghen and the acting CJN, Tanko Muhammad.
NJC’s Director, Information, Mr. Soji Oye, said in a statement issued at the end of the “continued emergency meeting” on Wednesday, that the council constituted a five-man panel to investigate the allegations leveled against Onnoghen and Muhammad.
One of the petitions was reportedly authored by a civil society group, the Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative, and its Executive Director, Mr Dennis Aghanya.
The allegations in the petition sent to the NJC were said to be replica of the petition sent to the Code of Conduct Bureau which informed the six counts filed before the CCT accusing the suspended CJN of failure to declare some bank accounts with huge funds in foreign currencies as part of his assets.
The other petition sent to the NJC was said to be by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission accusing Onnoghen of having some suspicious lodgements of huge funds in his bank accounts.
The petition sent to the NJC against Muhammad was said to have been authored by a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), who requested that he be sanctioned for submitting himself to President Muhammadu Buhari to be sworn in as the acting CJN without any recommendation by the NJC.
The NJC said in its statement on Wednesday that a fresh petition was sent against Muhammad by the Action People’s Party.
It said Muhammad was given “abridged seven days” to respond to the APP’s petition.
The NJC’s statement said the council took the decision to set up a five-man committee to investigate both Onnoghen and Muhammad after accepting “the result of the preliminary assessment of the petitions” written against the duo.
It said the council considered the “petitions to be worthy of further investigation.”
The statement read in part, “In continuation of its Emergency Meeting, the National Judicial Council accepted the result of the preliminary assessment of the petitions against Hon. Mr Justice W. S. N. Onnoghen, (GCON) and Hon. Mr Justice I. T. Muhammad, (CFR) that the petitions were worthy of further investigation and should not be terminated under Rule 17 of the Judicial Discipline Regulations of the Council.
“Consequently, the council constituted a five-member Investigation Committee pursuant to Rule 20 (1) of the Judicial Discipline Regulations under the Chairmanship of Hon. Mr. Justice S. A. Akintan, (CON), a retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
“A new petition against Hon. Mr. Justice I. T. Muhammad, (CFR), by the Action People’s Party (APP), was referred to the Hon. Mr. Justice for his comments within abridged seven days.
“Council directed the Investigation Committee to work expeditiously, determine all the petitions and responses and report to the council for a final decision.”
Earlier at the CCT, the tribunal chairman, Danladi Umar, had in his ruling, dismissed the objection by the lead defense lawyer, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), to the application by the prosecution for the issuance of bench warrant against Onnoghen.
The lead prosecuting counsel, Mr. Aliyu Umar (SAN), had orally applied for the arrest warrant following Onnoghen’s absence from the tribunal for the fifth time since January 14, 2019.
Umar, who anchored his application for Onnoghen’s arrest on section 6(1) of the Practice Direction of the CCT, also opposed the call on the three-man tribunal by the defense to hear all pending applications.
The prosecuting lawyer maintained that by virtue of section 396(2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015, no objections could be raised against the trial by the defendant until his arraignment.
The prosecuting counsel said Onnoghen having not taken his plea; the tribunal could not hear his objection to the charges.
Awomolo, in response, argued that Onnoghen was not duty-bound to appear in court while he was still challenging the jurisdiction of the tribunal to entertain the case.
He cited various judicial authorities to back his submissions.
The defense lawyer urged the tribunal to give Onnoghen the opportunity of hearing all his three pending applications, in the same manner, it accorded an opportunity to the Federal Government in granting the ex parte application for the suspension of the CJN even while there was no prosecuting counsel to move it.
In a dramatic manner, the tribunal chairman, immediately after the close of arguments by both sides, reached into his file for a hand-written ruling full of quotations of various Supreme Court and Court of Appeal’s authorities which he cited in issuing an arrest warrant against the suspended CJN.
The tribunal chairman noted that the CJN had no justification to be absent from the Wednesday’s proceedings when the tribunal had earlier on February 4, ordered him to appear unfailingly.
He said, “In view of the above, therefore, the tribunal, having given an order, on the last adjournment, directing the defendant/accused person to surrender himself before the raising of any objection about the validity of the charge against him and the tribunal; having given the accused person/defendant the opportunity to surrender himself on Wednesday (today), the tribunal has no option but to use every machinery at its disposal to compel the attendance of the accused person/defendant in court.
“Therefore, in the circumstance, the tribunal hereby issues a bench warrant to the Inspector-General of Police and or the Director General of the Department of State Services to apprehend the accused person/defendant and bring him to the tribunal on Friday (tomorrow) for the arraignment of the defendant/accused person.”
Meanwhile, the Justice Abdul Aboki-led three-man panel of the Court of Appeal in Abuja, on Wednesday adjourned the hearing of Onnoghen’s three pending appeals till February 20.
The adjournment followed a request by the Federal Government represented by Mr Oyin Koleosho, a lawyer in the Federal Ministry of Justice.
Koleosho had told the court that his request for an adjournment was based on the directive of the Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr Abubakar Malami (SAN), that the private lawyer prosecuting Onnoghen before the CCT, Mr. Aliyu Umar, should take up the prosecution of the appeals from the lawyers of the Ministry of Justice.
Onnoghen’s legal team led by Chief Chris Uche (SAN) had opposed the respondent’s application for adjournment but was over-ruled by the court.
The court then adjourned the matters till February 20.
One of the CJN’s three appeals is challenging the jurisdiction of the CCT to hear the charges against him.
Another of the appeals is challenging the exparte order on which President Buhari relied on to suspend the CJN and appoint Justice Muhammad as the acting CJN.
The third appeal challenges the CCT’s refusal to be bound by the orders made by the Federal High Court and the National Industrial Court directing the tribunal to halt the CJN’s trial.
Onnoghen on Wednesday asked the Appeal Court in Abuja to stop his arrest.
The suspended CJN, who faulted the CCT’s decision to arrest him, based his argument on 11 grounds.
The suspended CJN said his decision to be absent from the CCT was not in disobedience to any order as no order to compel his attendance was served on him.
He said the tribunal erred by ordering his arrest when the application challenging its jurisdiction to hear and determine the complaints of the respondent had not been heard.
The court document read in part, “The appellant (Onnoghen) has a pending motion challenging the competence of the charge preferred against him and the jurisdiction of the tribunal to entertain same.
“Until the issue of the CCT jurisdiction being challenged by the appellant is heard and determined, the physical presence of the appellant to take his plea is not mandatory or necessary.
“The order of the bench warrant is a breach of the respondent’s right to appellant’s right to liberty under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended).”
Onnoghen said that the CCT contravened Section 266(b) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act when it ordered his arrest as the Act clearly states that an appellant has a right to be absent from court during the argument of an interlocutory application.
Onnoghen challenged the decision of the CCT chairman not to step down despite calls for him to recuse himself due to a pending corruption charge against him and “likelihood of bias.”
Onnoghen asked the Appellate Court to “give an order setting aside the order of the tribunal made on February 13, 2019; an order for the constitution of a different panel at the CCT to try him and an order dispensing his presence from the CCT.”
Arrest order ridiculous, we’ll protest against it on Friday – CUPP
But the CUPP has declared a nationwide protest for Friday to protest the CCT’s directive that Onnoghen should be arrested by security agents.
The protest, it said, would coincide with the day Onnoghen’s trial was expected to start at the CCT.
The coalition’s spokesman, Imo Ugochinyere, stated this in a statement on Wednesday.
He was reacting to the arrest warrant issued by the CCT chairman, Umar, against Onnoghen.
He said, “It is ridiculous that a government that has been promising free and fair elections can be planning to arraign the country’s CJN on Friday, 24 hours to the country’s presidential election.
“We see this as a last minute effort to divert attention, confuse the Nigerian voters and cover the President’s incompetence few hours to the election.
“It is also an attempt to divert attention from electoral violence being planned by the ruling All Progressives Congress.
“We, therefore, call for a mass protest across the 36 states of the federation on Friday, (tomorrow) being the day scheduled for the arraignment of the CJN.
“Friday is dedicated as a National Action Day Against the rampaging Dictator. All Non-Governmental Organisations, activists and political parties should hold rallies at their local government areas, state and at the federal levels.
“All lawyers, activists, youths and opposition politicians must stage protests and remain vigilant from Friday till Sunday to avoid the political barbarians using the CJN matter to divert attention and sneak in to steal the will of the people.”
The CUPP had earlier on Wednesday said it had uncovered a fresh plan by the Presidency to forcefully remove Onnoghen before Saturday.
It alleged that the Presidency was threatening Onnoghen to resign immediately or risk being arrested ahead of the election.
Ugochinyere made the allegation in a statement in Abuja.
He said, “The opposition is armed with evidence of a failed attempt around 11 pm on Tuesday night to force the CJN to sign a draft resignation letter taken to him by a former Attorney-General of the Federation.
“The Senior Advocate of Nigeria was sent to threaten the CJN to avert a planned arrest and humiliation by signing his resignation as the President has directed that he must step down before the Saturday election for the acting CJN, Tanko Mohammed, to have his illegal appointment regularised before Saturday election.”