Opposition political parties in the country under the aegis of the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) and a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), have protested the order handed down to the Inspector General of Police (IG) and the Director-General of the Department of State Services (DSS) by the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), to arrest and produce the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, in court within 48 hours.
While Agbakoba expressed shock, describing the order as a subversion of the rule of law and due process, CUPP accused the presidency of intensifying efforts to clamp down on the CJN and use the ‘’stage-managed offence’’ to intimidate the judiciary and divert attention from the incompetence of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led government.
Meanwhile, the National Judicial Council (NJC) yesterday constituted a five-man committee to investigate the various petitions against Onnoghen and the acting CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad.
The CCT Chairman, Mr. Danladi Umar, had yesterday issued the bench warrant against Onnoghen following his absence in court for arraignment.
The tribunal had at its last sitting on February 4, ordered Onnoghen to make himself available in court on February 13, for arraignment over alleged failure to declare his assets.
When the matter came up yesterday, Onnoghen was not in court and his lawyers led by Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), prayed the court to take all pending applications relating to the trial, particularly the issue of the tribunal’s jurisdiction to hear the matter.
The senior counsel insisted that the issue of jurisdiction must be determined one way or another before the tribunal could proceed to take further motions.
He, therefore, prayed the tribunal to allow the issue of jurisdiction being the foundation of the trial to be resolved in the interest of justice.
But counsel to the federal government, Mr. Aliyu Umar (SAN), opposed the application by Onnoghen’s counsel and insisted that the issue of the defendant’s absence in court to take his plea, must be addressed first.
He said until the defendant appears physically in court, the issue of jurisdiction and other motions cannot be taken, adding that while in court, Onnoghen has the right to refuse to take plea but has no right to refuse to appear in court.
The counsel recalled that since January 14, when Onnoghen ought to have been arraigned, he was not in court, adding that even after the service of the charge had been effected on him in person, he still did not appear in court.
The government lawyer, who cited authorities to support his submissions, promised to make the authorities available to the tribunal to enable it arrive at a just conclusion.
However, in a surprise move, the CCT chairman brought out a written ruling and read almost immediately the government lawyer concluded his argument.
In the ruling, Umar ordered that a bench warrant be issued against Onnoghen for his arrest either by the Inspector General of Police or the Director-General of the Department of State Services and to produce him before the tribunal this Friday.
Umar said Onnoghen must be in the dock tomorrow unfailingly, adding that he must first submit himself to the jurisdiction of this tribunal and raise whatever objection he has to the trial thereafter.
He said: “I recall at the last adjournment I said that the defendant must appear in court today. My memory is intact, but since he has chosen not to be in court, this tribunal has no option other than to use machinery at its disposal to compel the appearance in court.
“For this reason, bench warrant is hereby issued to the Inspector General of Police or the Director General of the Department of State Services to produce him before this tribunal on Friday. He must be in the dock on Friday unfailingly.”
Shortly after the ruling, the federal government lawyer drew the attention of the chairman to the fact that, the Friday is an eve of the presidential election but, Umar dismissed the information and insisted that Onnoghen must be brought before him on the next adjourned date.
Umar, who did not allow the two other members of the tribunal, William Atedze and Juli Anabor, to make input or react to the ruling announced that the matter be adjourned till Friday.
Onnoghen’s Arrest Move to Steal People’s Votes, CUPP Alleges
Reacting to the warrant of arrest issued against Onnoghen by the CCT, the CUPP accused the presidency of intensifying efforts to clamp down on the CJN and use the ‘’stage-managed offence’’ against the CJN to intimidate the judiciary and divert attention from the incompetence of the Buhari-led APC government.
The CUPP’s spokesperson, Mr. Imo Ugochinyere, who issued a statement in Abuja said that the order and planned arraignment of the CJN few hours to election is a ‘’failed plot to use Buhari’s fake anti-corruption fight’’ to lure voters into believing that the president is fighting corruption.
The CUPP said: “With this order, President Muhammadu Buhari has taken his naked dance in the market place to a ridiculous level. 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 Nigerian voters and cover the president’s incompetence few hours to election.”
The coalition stated that it is also an attempt to divert attention from electoral violence being allegedly planned by the ruling All Progressives Congress.
The coalition calls for a mass protest across the 36 states of the federation on Friday, being the day scheduled for the arraignment of the CJN.
It said: “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, states and at the federal level.
‘’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.”
CCT Has Gone Too Far, Says Agbakoba
In his reaction to the CCT’s order, Agbakoba, expressed shock, describing it as a subversion of the rule of law and due process.
He added that since the CCT was aware that the NJC is considering the petitions against Onnoghen the same charges before it (CCT), it ought to have waited for the outcome of the pending matters.
Agbakoba said: “I am shocked that the CCT will issue a bench warrant for the arrest of Hon. Justice Onnoghen, knowing full well that its jurisdiction to try the case has been challenged and the application on challenge is on the CCT docket, and no hearing has occurred.
“The CCT is aware that there is now before the National Judicial Council, a petition against Justice Onnoghen on exactly the same charges at the CCT. The CCT ought to await the outcome of the pending matters in the NJC, Appeal Court and Federal High Court.
“The conduct of the CCT subverts the rule of law and due process.”
NJC Constitutes Five-man Panel to Probe Onnoghen, Muhammad
Meanwhile, the NJC Thursday constituted a five-man committee to investigate the various petitions against the CJN and the acting CJN Muhammad.
The committee is headed by Justice SA Akintan, a retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
The panel according to the NJC’s Information Director, Soji Oye, is to work expeditiously, determine all the petitions and responses and report to council for a final decision.
Also, the council, in line with its rules and regulations has forwarded a new petition written against the Acting CJN Muhammad, by the Action People’s Party (APP) for his response within seven working days.
“In continuation of its emergency meeting, the National Judicial Council accepted the result of the preliminary assessment of the petitions against Justice W.S.N. Onnoghen, and Justice I.T. Muhammad, 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”, the statement read in part.
In a related development, the Court of Appeal has adjourned hearing in the three appeals filed by Onnoghen till February 25.
Counsel to the federal government, Oyin Koleosho, applied for an adjournment of the hearing of the matter on the grounds that the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, had directed that the matter be taken over by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Aliyu Umar.
Counsel to Onnoghen, Chris Uche (SAN), however opposed the request for adjournment on the grounds of the urgency of the matter.
Justice Abdul Aboki, who presided over a three man Panel, granted the application and adjourned till February 25.