Defence team kicks as conduct tribunal orders Onnoghen to open defence Monday
Proceedings ended abruptly and on a rowdy note yesterday at the resumed hearing in the trial of suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) as his lawyers protested what they viewed as the highhandedness of the tribunal Chairman, Danladi Umar.
Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), who led the team of lawyers for Onnoghen, accused the CCT Chairman of oppressing the defendant and his lawyers when, shortly after delivering a ruling on the no-case submission made by the defendant, Umar insisted that the suspended CJN must open his defence on Monday (April 1, 2019).
Awomolo told Umar: “Stop oppressing us. This is not justice.” He repeated the statements about three times when the CCT Chairman refused to yield to his appeals that the defendant be afforded sufficient time to prepare for his defence and be allowed to return next week Friday.
While Awomolo was still on his feet, pleading with the tribunal Chairman to reconsider his position, Umar stood up, announced that the proceedings had been adjourned till Monday and walked away, leaving the two other members of the tribunal to scamper after him.
As Umar and the other members of the tribunal walked out of the tribunal’s sitting venue, many lawyers in the defence team shouted in protest, saying: “This is not how to do justice.”
A dejected Awomolo, who appeared to have been taken aback by Umar’s conduct, said: “If this is justice, then, God bless Nigeria,” a statement he repeated about four times.
Proceedings had commenced earlier in the day on a friendly note, with the tribunal Chairman exchanging pleasantries with lawyers to both the prosecution and defence when the case was called.
Shortly after, Awomolo argued the defendant’s no-case submission and urged the tribunal to discharge and acquit his client on the grounds that the prosecution was unable to establish a prima facie case against the defendant.
Read also: Protest as CCT orders Onnoghen to open defence on April 1
Awomolo faulted the entire evidence led by the prosecution and exhibits tendered and urged the tribunal to hold that it is not worth it calling on Onoghen to defend himself.
He said the entire proceedings had become a nullity because the process leading to the commencement of the trial did not comply with the procedure provided for in the CCB’s Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 2017.
Awomolo made a lengthy submission, during which he cited many decided cases, including a 2013 ruling by the tribunal (a copy of which he later offered the tribunal), urged the tribunal to be guided by past decisions.
At the conclusion of his submission, the CCT Chairman commended Awomolo for his brilliant and “well-articulated” argument.
Prosecution lawyer, Aliyu Umar, offered a counter-argument and urged the tribunal to reject Onnoghen’s no-case-submission and order him to enter defence.
The prosecution lawyer said the prosecution’s case was simple and relates mainly to the defendant’s failure to declare his assets.
He said: “We are not accusing him of having $300m in his accounts. What we are saying is that he failed to declare his assets on his appointment as Justice of Supreme Court and that he operated domiciliary accounts since 2009 and 2010 without declaring them.”
After listening to the arguments by parties, the tribunal Chairman, to the dismay of most of those at the proceedings, announced that ruling would be delivered in two hours’ time.
When the tribunal resumed around 2pm, Umar read his ruling, in which he rejected the submission by Awomolo.
He rejected Awomolo’s argument that the process leading to the filing of the charge was not in accordance with the procedure provided in the CCB’s SOP.
Umar noted that the SOP, which was a creation of the former board of the CCB, led by Sam Saba, was no longer in use because it had been abused by that board.
CCT Chairman said the operations of the CCB was currently being guided by the Constitution since it has discarded the SOP, which he said the former board abused.
The CCT Chairman accused the defendants of deploying technicalities to prevent the hearing of the case despite the glaring evidence, suggesting that the defendant has a case to answer.
Umar said the tribunal was not bound by technicality, but was interested in always ensuring justice.
He refused the no-case submission and said the tribunal was convinced that the prosecution had established a prima facie case, warranting the defendant to enter his defence if he has any.
The tribunal Chairman added: “The defendant himself made a written admission, without duress, that he forgot to declare the domiciliary accounts maintained in Standard Chartered Bank. That is, the euro account, the dollar account, the pound sterling account and the two naira accounts.
“His confessional statement is more than enough to warrant the defendant to enter defence, if he has any.
“The tribunal shall never be swayed from exercising justice, no matter whosoever appeared before it, irrespective of his/her status in life. After all, all of us are from the same source – dust.”
Umar added that by the evidence led by the prosecution through its three witnesses, and the documents tendered, including the statement by the defendant, “where he confessed that he forgot the accounts and that he made mistakes in not declaring the accounts,” are sufficient to make the tribunal demand that the defendant defend himself against the charges.
He said the need for the defendant to defend himself was “to clear his name, because the name has been tainted so much.” He proceeded to reject the no-case submission and ordered the defendant to “enter a defence.”
At the conclusion of the ruling, Awomolo applied that a certified true copy (CTC) of the ruling be made available to the defendant to enable him prepare for his defence. Awomolo prayed the court to allow the defendant return next week Friday for his defence.
The tribunal Chairman assured Awomolo that the tribunal’s registry will make the ruling available to him before the close of work yesterday. He directed the defendant to return on Monday for his defence; a decision the defence lawyer pleaded with Umar to reconsider.
Awomolo pleaded with the tribunal Chairman to remember that the Constitution provides that a defendant was entitled to adequate time and materials to prepare for his defence.
While Awomolo was still on his feet, appealing to the tribunal Chairman to reconsider his position in relation to the next adjourned date, Umar, who appeared unmoved by all that the lead defence lawyer was saying, sprang up from his seat and said: “That is the decision of the tribunal. Come and open your defence next Monday. The case stands adjourned to Monday.”
At that point, Awomolo stopped begging the tribunal Chairman and told him to stop oppressing the defendant and his lawyers.
Umar did not respond to Awomolo. He simply turned away and walked straight out of the tribunal’s sitting venue, leaving everyone dazed.
As Umar walked away and other members of the tribunal in toe, a dejected Awomolo said: “If this is justice, I pray for Nigeria.”
He later had a little altercation with the lead prosecution lawyer, Aliyu Umar, who he accused of not intervening when the tribunal Chairman was imposing a date on the defendant. Umar shot back at Awomolo, saying he did nothing wrong.
The suspended CJN is being tried on a six-count charge of non-disclosure of assets. He has however appealed yesterday’s ruling of the tribunal rejecting his no-case submission.
In the notice of appeal filed at the registry of the CCT, shortly after the ruling, the defendant raised five grounds of appeal, in which he faulted the tribunal’s decision and urged the Court of Appeal to, among others, set aside the ruling.