The Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) yesterday issued a bench warrant for the arrest of the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen for undermining the tribunal.
Ordering either the Inspector General of Police (IGP) or the Director General of the Department of State Services (SSS) to arrest Justice Onnoghen, CCT Chairman Danladi Umar said he (Onnoghen) was given an opportunity to submit himself, but he declined.
Umar said: “The tribunal, having given an order on the last adjournment, directing the defendant/accused to surrender himself before the raising of any objection about the validity of the charge against him.
“And, the tribunal, having given the accused/defendant the opportunity to surrender himself today, the tribunal has no option other than to use all the machinery at its disposal to compel the attendance of the accused/defendant in court.
“Therefore, in the circumstance, the tribunal hereby issues a bench warrant to the Inspector General of Police and or the Director-General of the Department of State Services (DSS) to apprehend the accused/defendant and bring him to the tribunal on Friday for the arraignment of the defendant/accused person.”
Umar gave the order, after listening to arguments on the application for a warrant of arrest.
Earlier, when the case was called, an official of the tribunal had noted that the defendant was absent.
Leading the defence team, Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN) told the tribunal that the National Judicial Council (NJC) and the Court of Appeal in Abuja were simultaneously sitting yesterday on cases relating to the suspended CJN.
Awomolo urged the tribunal to only take argument on all pending applications, particularly those challenging its jurisdiction and competence, and adjourn to a later date for ruling.
Lead prosecution lawyer Aliyu Umar (SAN) objected to Awomolo’s application and urged the tribunal to compel Justice Onnoghen to attend its proceedings before the hearing of any pending application.
Umar drew the tribunal’s attention to the fact that the defendant was not present. He noted that the defendant has never attended proceedings despite being served with the charge and the summons.
He argued that Section 396(2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice (ACJA) provides that it is when the defendant has taken his plea that any motion by the defendant could be raised.
He said Section 6(1) of the tribunal’s Practice Direction directs that where the defendant fails to appear on the day fixed for arraignment, he must be compelled to attend proceedings.
Umar added: “I hereby apply for a warrant of arrest of the defendant. By the provision of Section 396(2), all the motions are not ripe for hearing, until the defendant is present.”
Awomolo objected to the prosecution’s application for the issuance of an arrest warrant against the defendant.
He noted that the case was not adjourned till Wednesday for arraignment, but for the hearing of pending applications.
Awomolo said: “We are saying that the application for bench warrant is persecution on the part of the prosecution. We are urging the tribunal to reject such invitation to be involved in the persecution of the defendant.
“What we are saying is that the defendant is entitled to be heard on the application. We urge that the defendant be allowed to argue his pending applications.
“Every person charged with criminal offence is entitled to challenge the competence of the court. Where the competence of the court is challenged, it must first be resolved.
“We are also saying that the issue of jurisdiction is the life blood of any proceedings. Where there is no jurisdiction on the part of the tribunal, the proceedings becomes a nullity. Once it is raised, it is in the interest of justice to resolve it first.”
Awomolo noted that the tribunal granted the prosecution and ex parte application on January 23 without bothering about appearance.
He added: “The application of the defendant challenging the competence/jurisdiction of the tribunal, should also be taken in his absence. He should be accorded equal opportunity.
“We plead with this tribunal, with all sense of humility, that the issue of jurisdiction be first resolved before we proceed. We are pleading with this tribunal to give us opportunity to be heard on the issue of jurisdiction; show us compassion to make our case.
“We are praying that you exercise your power, magnanimity and humaneness to allow us argue our applications. It is not out of disrespect to this tribunal that the defendant is not here.”
Responding on point of law, Umar faulted all the authorities Awomolo cited and urged the tribunal to be swayed by the defence lawyer’s resort to appeal to its chairman and members.
Umar referred to some decided cases on the need for the defendant to attend proceedings before his applications are heard. He promised to supply the tribunal with the authorities on a later date.
At the conclusion of arguments by the lawyers, everyone in court thought that the three members of the tribunal would, as usual, either stand down proceedings to write the ruling or adjourn to a later date for ruling. But, the chairman took everyone by surprise when he reached under his note, brought out some written sheets and commenced reading.
Umar noted that he had, on the last date (February 4, 2019), insisted that the defendant must attend the next proceedings of the tribunal.
He relied on several authorities to justify the need for the defendant to attend proceedings.
It was when the CCT Chairman ordered the arrest of the defendant that it dawned on all that Umar (the CCT Chairman) has just read a ruling.
After issuing the bench warrant, Umar announced that the tribunal will reconvene on Friday for the defendant’s arraignment.
As he rose from his chair, Umar said: “Unfailing on Friday, we want to see the defendant here. We are not here to play. We are here to work. We mean business.”
Even when the lead prosecution lawyer drew his attention to the fact that Friday was too close to the day of election, Umar said: “I have given my ruling and adjourned to Friday. I am not going to reverse myself.
“You must all come here on Friday, including the defendant,” Umar said and walked towards his chambers, with the other two members of the tribunal in tow.