Court of Appeal sitting in Abuja, on Friday, dismissed four interlocutory appeals former Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Mr Walter Onnoghen, lodged to challenge the procedure Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, adopted in the trial that led to his conviction.
In a unanimous decision, a three-man panel of Justices of the appellate court, led by Mr Stephen Adah, in four separate judgments, held that issues the ex-CJN raised in his appeals had turned academic.
However, in the first appeal marked CA/A/70c/19, Adah who delivered the lead verdict, faulted Federal Government on how the ex-parte order President Muhammadu Buhari relied upon to suspend Justice Onnoghen as CJN, was secured.
The court noted that the order was clandestinely obtained from CCT, barely 24 hours after the tribunal adjourned to hear Onnoghen’s motion that challenged the competence of the six-count charge against him, as well as jurisdiction of the tribunal to entertain same.
It equally faulted the Mr. Danladi Umar-led tribunal for granting the ex-parte order against Onnoghen even before he was properly arraigned before it.
The court said it was wrong for the prosecution who was present in court when the matter was adjourned, to re-approach the tribunal and surreptitiously obtained interim injunctions Mr Buhari relied upon to suspend Onnoghen as both CJN and Chairman of National Judicial Council, NJC.
“The mode of securing that ex-parte order has raised some questions. Justice must never be shrouded in secrecy or clandestine manoeuvre by a prosecution.
“The Respondent went behind the Appellant to secure an order when parties had already joined issues. It is my considered view that the fundamental right of the Appellant to fair hearing was breached”, Adah held.
Nevertheless, he said the appellate court, being mindful of the pendency of Onnoghen’s substantive appeal against the final judgment of CCT, would refrain from going into the merit or otherwise of the charge.
“Since the substantive case has already been concluded by the tribunal, the ex-parte order is already spent. The interlocutory appeal cannot serve any useful purpose, it is accordingly struck out. Parties are to pursue their substantive appeal”, Adah added.
The court further dismissed the second appeal marked CA/A/114c/19, which Onnoghen filed to challenge the legality of a bench warrant CCT panel issued against him on February 13.
The appellate court said it could not find evidence of such warrant in the record of appeal transmitted to it from CCT.
“Moreover, the Appellant was before the tribunal and no warrant was executed against him. There is nothing in the appeal that requires any attention anymore. So the appeal is hereby struck out”.
Likewise, another member of the Appeal Court panel, Mrs Tinuade Akomolafe-Wilson, dismissed the third appeal marked CA/A/44C/19, wherein the former CJN queried decision of CCT to hear the motion he filed to challenge its jurisdiction, alongside application FG filed to remove him from office.
Though the court noted that the issue of jurisdiction was fundamental in criminal cases, it stressed that sections 221, 306 and 396 of Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, allowed the tribunal to hear Onnoghen’s objections and decide same at the judgment stage.
Akomolafe-Wilson held that the decision of the tribunal to suspend its ruling on Onnoghen’s suspension was in order, saying “the totality of the appeal is based on speculation, it is incohate”.
She held that Onnoghen failed to prove how that decision affected his right to fair-hearing.
On his part, the third member of the panel, Mr Peter Ige, dismissed the fourth appeal marked CA/A/63C/19, wherein Onnoghen sought to disqualify CCT Chairman, Umar, from presiding over his trial.
Onnoghen had contended that the CCT boss made prejudicial comments about the case, and also spurned three different court orders that directed him to temporarily suspend proceedings on the case.
Despite that the case was dismissed, Ige however faulted FG for insisting that the ex-CJN ought to have firstly secured leave of either the tribunal or the appellate court before he filed the appeal.
He held that section 246 of the 1999 Constitution gave unfettered right to any aggrieved party to challenge any decision of CCT at the appellate court.
More so, Ige held that the tribunal acted wrongly when it refused to “tarry awhile” in Onnoghen’s case, as it was ordered to do by both the Federal High Court and National Industrial Court.
“The law is settled that every order or ruling of court remains sacrosanct and valid until set-aside by a higher court. Parties are bound by it.
“The lower tribunal was bound by the orders immediately its attention was drawn to them. The only option open for it was to apply for the orders to be vacated.
“The tribunal ought to have tarried and abide by the orders, being a party to the suits.
“The lower tribunal cannot sit as appellate court over the various orders. Only the Court of appeal can exercise such powers.
” The rule of law must be allowed to percolate to ensure peace and effective administration of criminal justice”.
Nevertheless, Justice Ige held that the tribunal was right when it placed reliance on section 306 of ACJA to decline Onnoghen’s application for stay of proceeding.
He held that the former CJN was unable to establish how the said prejudicial comments by CCT chairman affected his right to fair hearing.
“The case of breach of fair-hearing was not proved by the Appellant. The reliefs sought by the Appellant are no longer feasible. The appeal is accordingly struck out”, Ige held.
Meantime, the panel stressed that it had yet to determine Onnoghen’s appeal against his conviction by CCT.
The tribunal had in a judgment it delivered on April 18, found Onnoghen guilty on all the six-count charge FG preferred against him.
The Umar-led tribunal said it was satisfied that FG successfully proved its allegation that Onnoghen who had voluntarily resigned his position as CJN on April 4, acted in breach of the code of conduct for public officers in the country.