Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) has ordered that further proceedings in the trial of suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Mr Walter Onnoghen be conducted on a day-to-day basis.
Tribunal Chairman Danladi Umar, in a bench ruling yesterday also elected to reserve, till the conclusion of the trial, decisions on applications by Onnoghen, which challenged the tribunal’s jurisdiction and another asking Umar to recuse himself from the case.
Umar cited Section 296(2)&(3) of Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) to support the position he took.
The CCT Chairman’s decision was unexpected by many, because shortly before delivering his bench ruling, he had sought the views of lawyers on both sides on how the tribunal should proceed in view of the provision of Section 296(2) of the ACJA vis a vis the applications just argued.
Umar had sought the lawyers’ views after the tribunal took arguments from both sides in relation to the two applications by Onnoghen.
In his contribution, lead prosecution lawyer, Mr Aliyu Umar, said, by the provision of Section 296(2), the tribunal could reserve its ruling in the application that challenged its jurisdiction.
He said the tribunal cannot afford to proceed without ruling on the other application, querying the tribunal chairman’s integrity and demanding that he excuse himself from further proceedings on grounds of likely bias.
On his part, lead defence lawyer, Mr Adegboyega Awomolo, said, in view of the issues raised in both applications, which are contesting the tribunal’s jurisdiction and the integrity of its Chairman, and his ability to be fair in his handling of the case, the tribunal cannot proceed without first, ruling on both applications.
After listening to both lawyers, the CCT Chairman proceeded, there and then, to write his ruling, which he delivered about 20 minutes later, refusing to adopt either of the positions suggested by Umar and Awomolo.
He said that in line with the provision of Section 296(2) of the ACJA, the tribunal has the powers to consider any motion or application challenging its jurisdiction or the competence of a charge pending before it, along with the substantive case and makes its ruling at the time of the delivery of judgment.
The CCT chairman said: “It is to be noted that, in view of the sensitive position of the third arm of government, that is the judiciary, which is the formidable arm of government, and in consideration of the importance of the judicial arm of government, which is at the heart of the stability of the nation, it is imperative that the tribunal expedite proceedings in this trial in order to prevent anarchy, lawlessness and chaos.
“The tribunal deems it fit to treat this matter with utmost dispatch, hence the need to accelerate the hearing and determination of all motions and the substantive matter together and render its decision.”
Umar further said the tribunal “shall be strictly guided by the provisions of the ACJA 2015, which encourages speedy trial of proceedings.”
The chairman proceeded to order that all rulings in the applications argued before the tribunal, shall be ruled upon, along side the substantive case, in accordance with the provision of Section 296(2) of the ACJA.
He added that, in accordance with the provisions of Section 296(3) of ACJA and Paragraph 5(5) of the Practice Direction of the tribunal, and in View of the fact that both applications of the defendant bother on the jurisdiction of the tribunal, the tribunal shall henceforth conduct the case on day-to-day basis.
Umar further said: “In view of the above observations, the tribunal hereby orders that ruling in the two applications of the defendant/applicant, shall be reserved and delivered along with the decision of the tribunal on the substantive trial.
“In view of the provision of Section 296(3) of ACJA, the proceedings in this case shall be conducted day-to-day. In view of the foregoing, the tribunal hereby adjourn this matter till tomorrow, the 12th of March, 2019 for continuation of hearing of the substantive case,” Umar said.
As he ended his ruling, Umar did not wait for the contributions of the two members of the tribunal’s three-man panel before announcing the closure of proceedings for the day.
As he walked towards his chambers, with the two members of the panel in toe, Onnoghen, who had sat quietly in the dock for the better part of the proceedings, stood up and walked toward his lawyers, with whom he conferred briefly before walking out of the tribunal’s sitting venue, into his waiting car parked close to the main entrance of the tribunal’s courtroom.
At the commencement of proceedings, shortly after 10am, Onnoghen, who sat among some lawyers, on the front seat to the right of the courtroom, walked briskly into the dock.
In the dock, Onnoghen chose to stand, prompting CCT Chairman to direct officials of the tribunal to fetch a chair for him.
When a security official of the tribunal offered a chair, some individuals, who accompanied the defendant to the court rejected it. Instead, one of them brought a collapsible chair from outside the courtroom and set it behind the defendant, who was still standing.
Onnoghen, who stood for over an hour, later sat on the chair, brought by his aides, for the better part of the proceedings.
Before arguing the defendant’s applications, Awomolo identified five applications, which his client filed, but chose to argue only two. He said while event has overtaken two, one should be left in the tribunal’s file till a later date.
He elected to argue the one asking the tribunal Chairman to recuse himself and the other challenging the tribunal’s jurisdiction.
In relation to the application seeking Umar’s exclusion from the proceedings, Awomolo said its substance relates to the doubt whether the defendant would be accorded fair hearing in view of the question surrounding the independence and impartiality of the tribunal.
He added that the application raised two major points, one of which was that the proceedings before the tribunal “is afflicted with major vires and constitutional issues.
Awomolo noted that his client doubt the capacity of the tribunal to exercise fairness and independence in its handling of the proceedings where every major player in the case are agents of the Executive arm of government.
In a counter argument, Umar (the prosecution lawyer) urged the tribunal to reject both applications, arguing that they were without merit.
Umar argued that the question about whether or not CCT Chairman should be excused from the proceedings was already on appeal before the Court of Appeal, which has reserved judgment on the appeals filed by Onnoghen on that and other issues.
“We submit that the Court of Appeal has the power to direct that this matter be heard by other members of the tribunal should it feels that the Chairman is biased,” Umar said.
He further submitted that the defendant/applicant did not, in his filings, demonstrate any act of bias on the part of the Chairman or any member of the tribunal.
The lead prosecution lawyer urged the tribunal to depart from its decision in the Ngwuta case and proceed to hear the case against Onnoghen.
He argued that the decision in Ngwuta case was given in error, and asking the tribunal to uphold that decision is like asking it “to continue to proceed in error.”