It was an unusual proceeding yesterday before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) in Abuja as the most senior judge in the country was put on trial, with the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, pleading to a six-count charge.
This is the first time in the history of the nation’s judiciary, when the must senior jurist would be subjected to a court trial. Onnoghen is charged with the breach of code of conduct in relation to his alleged failure to declare some assets linked with him, as required for public officers.
Smartly dressed in suit and tie, 69-year-old Onnghen stood in the dock for the entire one-hour long proceedings, during which the charge was read to him, to which he pleaded not guilty, following which tribunal Chairman, Danladi Umar, admitted him to bail on self-recognisance.
The tribunal had, at its previous sitting on February 13, issued a bench warrant against Onnoghen, directing either the Inspector General of Police (IGP) or the Director General of the State Security Service (SSS) to arrest him and produce him on February 15.
As against the tone of the tribunal’s order, the suspended CJN attended Friday’s proceedings on his own. He arrived the CCT’s sitting venue at Jabi, Abuja, around 9.40am, driven in his official vehicle, with his security aides in tow.
On alighting from the car, he was immediately led to the packed spacious hall, where he sat on the front pew, to the left side of the hall, close to the main entrance, with some senior lawyers sitting to his right and left.
No known Justice of either the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal was present. Normal court businesses went on smoothly at the Supreme Court. A panel of four Justices, led by Justice John Okoro sat on cases and delivered judgments in about 13 cases, when The Nation visited. Other Justices on the panel were Centus Nweze, Paul Galinje and Amina Adamu Augie.
Many senior lawyers, who had appeared before the CCT as part of the defence team, like former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Kanu Agabi (SAN), Wole Olanipekun (SAN), Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), Victoria Awomolo (SAN), were absent yesterday.
The size of the defence team was also smaller yesterday, with the number of Senior Advocates, whose names were announced, not up to 10. The size of the audience was also smaller than the attendance recorded before yesterday.
Proceedings commenced around 10.35am when members of the tribunal took their seats, following which the tribunal Chairman directed an official to call the case.
When the charge marked CCT/ABJ/01/2019 was called, Onnoghen stood up from his seat. His lawyer made move to address the court, but was interjected by tribunal Chairman.
Pointing towards the dock, Umar insisted that the defendant must step into the wooden cubicle before further businesses could be conducted, a directive Onnoghen promptly complied with and walked briskly into the dock.
While in the dock, the defendant chose to stand, he rejected the chair offered by a security official of the tribunal, on the instruction of the Chairman.
On realising that the defendant was standing, Umar said: “Please give him a chair to sit (pointing to a policeman attached to the tribunal). Let him sit down. My Lord, please sit down.”
In response, Onnoghen, standing, with his hands held behind him, said: “Thank you sir. I don’t need it (the chair) now. When I need it, I will ask for it,” he smiled as he spoke. The defendant did not request for the chair while the proceedings lasted.
Upon a request by the lead prosecuting lawyer, Musa Ibrahim, the six-count charge was read to the defendant, with him pleading not guilty to all the counts.
After his plea, lead defence lawyer, Chris Uche (SAN), applied for bail on self-recognisance, for the defendant. Uche also prayed the tribunal to vacate the arrest warrant issued against his client, which he said was no longer necessary because the defendant voluntarily attended the tribunal’s sitting.
The prosecuting lawyer did not object to any of the applications, following which Umar granted them, but emphasised that he was granting them on the condition that the defendant would always attend subsequent proceedings.
Uche subsequently prayed the tribunal for an adjournment. He noted that election was a day away, and that he needed to travel to his constituency, where he planned to cast his vote.
Though counsel for the prosecution and defence agreed to have the case adjourned until March 18, this year, it took a lot of pleadings, by both lawyers, for the tribunal Chairman, who had chosen February 21 as the return date, to reluctantly agree to March 11 this year for the hearing of all pending applications.
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