…as FG calls witness, tenders evidence
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – The Federal Government, on Monday, produced its first witness, Mr. James Opala, a Senior Investigation Officer of the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, to testify against the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, who was accused of failing to declare his assets.
Opala, who is the star prosecution witness, was a member of a team of investigators that uncovered alleged infractions in asset declaration forms the CJN submitted before the CCB.
FG, through the witness, tendered the first set of exhibits it said would establish allegations it levelled against Onnoghen at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT.
Aside allegation that he failed to declare his assets as prescribed by the law, in the six-count charge marked CCT/ABJ/01/19, FG, alleged that Onnoghen operated five foreign bank accounts, contrary to section 15(2) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.
Led in evidence by the prosecution counsel, Mr. Aliyu Umar, SAN, the PW-1, tendered before the CCT, a copy of the petition that led to Onnoghen’s trial.
The petition dated January 7, 2019, which was sent to the CCB by a civil society group under the aegis of Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative, was admitted in evidence by the Mr. Danladi Umar-led three-man panel tribunal, and marked as Exhibit 1.
FG equally tendered in evidence, two asset declaration forms the suspended CJN submitted in 2014 and 2015.
Meanwhile, before the asset declaration forms were admitted, Onnoghen, through his lawyer, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, alleged that it was tampered with.
Onnoghen insisted that the Form 001 he filled in 2014 and 2015, were no longer the way he submitted it to the CCB.
He queried why the hitherto bound documents appeared “in loose form” before the tribunal, alleging that it was tampered with, with some of the pages missing.
Nevertheless, Awomolo said he would raise his client’s objection to the admissibility of the documents, in his final written address.
“We have some reservation on the documents, we will not object in the interest of justice but we have reservations that would be addressed at the end of the day”, he added.
Earlier, Apala, who was led in evidence by the prosecuting counsel, told the tribunal that: “On January 9, 2019, I was in my office at the Code of Conduct Bureau that morning when I received a call from my superior, Samuel Madojemu, who happens to be a member of the (investigation) team.
“He directed that I investigate a petition. Having done the required processes – routine investigation – case file was opened and investigation plan was drawn.
“The petition was authored by Chief Dennis Aghanya of the Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative, alleging breach of Code of Conduct for Public Officers, including non-declaration of assets and false declaration of assets, against the Hon. Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, GCON, the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
“Thereafter, the team wrote to the Federal Political Officers Unit (of the bureau), Asokoro, requesting the defendant’s asset declarations received from 2000 to 2009.
“The department responded. The two asset declaration forms were examined and filed in the case file”, he added.
It will be recalled that the tribunal had in a bench ruling on March 11, granted FG the nod to call witnesses and tender evidence against Justice Onnoghen who was suspended from office by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 25.
Relying on section 396(2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, and Paragraph 5(5) of its Practice Direction, the CCT panel, said it would not consider the merit of objections Onnoghen raised to challenge the competence of the charge against him, till conclusion of the trial.
Insisting that it was empowered under section 396(3) of the ACJA to conduct day-to-day hearing on the matter, the panel, held that ruling on two applications the suspended CJN lodged against his trial, would be delivered alongside judgment on the substantive charge.
Decision of the tribunal to commence day-to-day hearing on the matter was however thwarted by the suspended CJN who failed to appear for trial on March 12 over a claim that he suffered toothache and high blood pressure.
His lawyer tendered a medical report that indicated that he was mandated by his Doctor to observe a 72-hour bed rest by his doctor.
The suspended CJN, same day, lodged an appeal to challenge the decision of the tribunal to proceed with the trial despite a motion he filed to challenge its jurisdiction to entertain the charge against him.
In his three grounds of appeal, Justice Onnoghen maintained that the CCT panel erred in law in its interpretation of section 396(2) of the ACJA, with respect to his application challenging the constitutional jurisdiction and competence of the proceeding before it, “when they deferred ruling on the application to the conclusion of trial when the issue of jurisdiction is a threshold issue which ought and must be determined immediately”.
According to him, “The Chairman and members of the Code of Conduct Tribunal erred in law In the interpretation of Section 396 (2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 1015 when they ruled that the ruling on the applicant’s application challenging the constitutional jurisdiction of the tribunal and the application asking the tribunal’s chairman to rescue himself on grounds that he had demonstrated acts which showed bias and partiality in the proceedings against the appellant, shall be determined along with the final judgment on the merit of the entire case and thereby denied the appellant his right to fair hearing under section 36 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, as amended”.
Specifically, Onnoghen had in his objection, queried the validity of the six-count charge against him, contending that FG failed to respect established judicial precedents by not allowing the NJC to firstly investigate the allegation against him, before it rushed the matter to the CCT.
He argued that failure to channel the petition against him, as well as the outcome of the investigation that was purportedly conducted on assets declaration forms he submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, to the NJC, rendered the charge invalid.
He urged the CCT to abide by a subsisting Court of Appeal decision in Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391, to the effect that any misconduct attached to the office and functions of a judicial officer, must first be reported to and handled by the NJC, pursuant to the provisions of the laws