Accused of corruption, Nigeria’s Chief Justice fails to appear in court

The Nigerian government has begun the trial of the Chief Justice of the country, Walter Onnoghen for failure to fully declare assets and bank accounts in line with constitutional requirements for all public officers.

At the first hearing in the nation’s capital, Abuja, on Monday; Chief Justice Onnoghen was however not present to take his plea before Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), Danladi Umar. He was represented by over forty five senior lawyers led by Defence Counsel, Wole Olanipekun.

Court deliberates on the case of Judge Walter Onnoghen

The suit was filed on behalf of the government by Attorney General of the country, Abubakar Malami at the CCT which is a special court for trying public officials who fail to adhere to strict codes of conduct set out in Nigeria’s constitution for all public officials. With commencement of the case, Onnoghen’s lawyers immediately filed an application before the tribunal asking that the case be discontinued as the CCT has no jurisdiction to hear the case. They also said the chief justice was improperly served notice of the trial hence the case should be dismissed on both grounds. Prosecution Counsel, Aliyu Umar, kicked against the request by the defence stating that the failure of Chief Justice Onnoghen to appear before the tribunal to take his plea is a total disrespect for the court hence the two prayers should not be granted.

He said all procedures were followed in serving Onnoghen through his personal assistant who acknowledged receipt of the court documents notifying the defendant of the case before the CCT. After arguments by both parties especially pleas by the defence team for a longer time to prepare and file their responses to the six-count charges preferred against their client, the case was subsequently adjourned to Tuesday next week for the purpose of service to be made personally to Onnoghen and for all teams to properly prepare their briefs ahead of the full commencement of trial.

The three-man CCT judges urged both parties to ensure that there is no further delay concerning the appearance of the defendant to take his plea. Journalists, lawyers and civil society advocates had laid an early siege at the CCT headquarters in the Jabi district of Abuja with high hopes that the accused chief justice would show up before the tribunal. Security at the premises of the CCT was increased with policemen visible at all entry and exit points but only his lawyers showed up.

Defence team for Walter Onnoghen

Legal analysts are divided on whether the case should not have been referred to the National Judicial Council (NJC), that is constitutionally charged with the discipline of erring judges. But those against such moves say the case at hand is one of assets declaration and not a judicial malfeasance hence the CCT remains the appropriate court to hear the matter. They also said that as head of the NJC, Onnoghen would influence any matter taken to body, even if he recuses himself.

The charge against Nigeria’s number five citizen and head of the judicial arm of government comes a year after a similar charge was filed against Bukola Saraki who is the country’s number three citizen and head of the National Assembly. Saraki was later acquitted by the Supreme Court which coincidentally is headed by the same man being charged by the government too.

Following a huge public outcry especially from their people, governors of the oil-rich states of the Niger Delta where Onnoghen comes from had earlier asked him a day before, not to appear before the CCT, accusing the President Muhammadu Buhari-led federal government of political witchhunt and dictatorship. The legal fireworks resume next week.

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