Finally, embattled Onnoghen docked, granted bail on self-recognisance
Justice Onnoghen is standing trial on six-count charge of allegedly refusing to declare his assets as required by the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) Act for public officers.
Since January 14 when he was scheduled for arraignment, efforts have been made by his team of defence to get him take his plea in absentia because of his exalted office. Several court orders were also obtained by concerned groups and individuals to halt the arraignment.
But at the last adjourned date, Umar insisted the CJN must be humbled and he consequently issued a bench warrant, ordering the Police and DSS to arrest and bring him to court if he failed to appear yesterday.
However, Justice Onnoghen arrived the tribunal premises in the Jabi area of Abuja at about 9.20am, and when the tribunal resumed, he was ordered by Danladi Umar to enter the dock so as to take his plea.
Smiling, Justice Onnoghen obeyed and was docked. Attempts by Umar to get him to sit on the chair proved abortive as he chose to remain standing all through. He told Umar that he was strong enough to be on his legs for as much as the proceedings last.
The charges were read to him and the suspended CJN pleaded not guilty.
He was afterwards admitted to bail in self-recognisance as prayed by his lead counsel, Chief Chris Uche (SAN).
With his appearance in court, the bench warrant issued on February 13 for his arrest, either by the Inspector General of Police (IGP) or the Director General of the Department of State Services (DSS), was vacated and set aside by the Tribunal.
Onnoghen’s counsel then applied for an adjournment for hearing of all pending motions in view of the general elections.
A mild drama, however, ensued when the tribunal Chairman unilaterally fixed February 21as the adjourned date. He insisted that the power to adjourn the matter as well as date of adjournment rest with him.
It took the intervention of the prosecution and defense counsels to make him see reason with others who would be travelling to cast their votes.
After the plea, Umar grudgingly set aside the February 21 date for March 11, as against the March 18 put forward by the prosecution and the defense.
Speaking after the adjournment, lawyers began to react over Onnoghen’s arraignment. Both the prosecution and defense counsels admitted that it was a sad day for the judiciary.
“Today, February 15 is a sad day for Nigeria, a sad day for the Judiciary and a sad day for the rule of law for Onnoghen to be treated the way he is being treated in flagrant abuse to due process of law”, said Chris Uche (SAN).
He added that Justice Onnoghen has been made to suffer indignity with the way he was made to take his plea in the charges against him.
He held that the struggle by concerned lawyers in the country was for the maintenance of the rule of law, separation of powers and survival of the Judiciary.
“The world will soon know the truth that there is more to the trial of Onnoghen before this Tribunal”, he said.
Also speaking, counsel to the Federal government, Ibrahim Musa, agreed that February 15 was a sad day for the legal profession but, however, said that the law must take its course.
Justice Onnoghen was charged to the Code of Conduct Tribunal by the Code of Conduct Bureau for allegedly failing to declare his assets in line with the provisions of the Constitution.
According to CCB, its action followed a petition against Justice Onnoghen by the Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative.
The group had claimed that the suspended CJN, Nigeria’s most senior judicial officer, maintained illegal accounts containing foreign currencies and did not declare them.
Although there were several court orders restricting CCT from proceeding with the arraignment and trial, chairman of the tribunal had refused to be subjected to the orders on the ground that the tribunal is a unique court, and that it is not to be subjected to orders of other courts of equal jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, while court orders still subsisted, President Muhammadu Buhari had gone ahead to suspend Justice Onnoghen and swore in Justice Ibrahim Tanko as the acting CJN. But following public outcry, the federal government recently forwarded petitions against Justice Onnoghen and others to National Judicial Council.
The Council has immediately forwarded the petitions to Justice Onnoghen for responds.
But while NJC was yet to take decision on the petitions, Danladi Umar insisted that the trial must continue.
Although petition of alleged corrupt practice brought against him was sent to National Judicial Service Commission, Umar has since told the Commission that it lacked the power to question him as according to him, the tribunal is domiciled in the Presidency and not under either NJC or NJSC.
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