The first hearing in the false asset declaration suit filed against Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen opens this morning at the Code of Conduct Tribunal in Abuja.
Asset declaration infractions are illegal under Nigeria’s code of conduct law.
The scheduled prosecution, which has sparked disparate interest amongst supporters and opponents of the Buhari administration, emanated from a petition filed against the top jurist by a civic group.
The tribunal is expected to open at 10:00 a.m. It remained unclear whether Mr Onnoghen would make appearance in person.
Dozens of senior lawyers have already packed the court to defend the chief justice.
Mr Onnoghen, Nigeria’s 17th Chief Justice, is the first serving Chief Justice to be arraigned for criminal offences. There is no immediate record of any former chief justice being charged in a similar manner, either.
How the charges were filed has been amongst the most controversial aspects of the development since its disclosure on Saturday.
The petition was forwarded to the Code of Conduct Bureau on January 9 by Dennis Aghanya, a former media aide to President Muhammadu Buhari and a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress in Enugu State.
Lawyers, including the Nigerian Bar Association, have argued that Mr Onnoghen’s trial would not stand because he has not been previously investigated and indicted by the National Judicial Council as required by an existing judgement.
They rely on a decent decision of the Appeal Court in Lagos, which said the NJC must first sanction a serving Judge before they can be arraigned in any court.
Although that Appeal Court judgment, which was delivered against the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, was appealed by the anti-graft office to the Supreme Court, no verdict had been reached on the matter.
Mr Onnoghen, who was confirmed Chief Justice in March 2017, is from Cross River State.
The case has generated intense political interest, with critics accusing the Buhari administration of trying to oust the chief judge shortly before presidential election, to ensure he faces no risk of unfavourable court decision should the poll be disputed.
On Sunday, five governors of the South South region, where Mr Onnoghen hails from, held an emergency meeting and urged the jurist to ignore the charges.
PREMIUM TIMES’s Evelyn Okakwu and Samuel Ogundipe are at the tribunal to run updates of the proceeding.
Walter Onnoghen, the Chief Justice of Nigeria due to be arraigned for alleged false assets declaration charges, was absent in call when his trial commenced on Monday morning.
Danladi Umar, the Code of Conduct Tribunal chairman, called Mr Onnoghen’s case at about 10:08 on Monday, and Mr Onnoghen was absent.
Wole Olanipekun, a senior Nigerian lawyer who is leading a team of 46 other senior lawyers to enter defence for the chief justice, began by challenging the jurisdiction of the case.
“You have to first determine whether you have the jurisdiction to try this matter,” Mr Olanipekun said to the tribunal chairman.
Mr Olanipekun said Mr Onnoghen has not been indicted by the National Judicial Council as legally required of serving judges before his matter was picked up by the tribunal following a petition filed by a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress.
Mr Olanipekun also said Mr Onnoghen was not given enough time to prepare for his arraignment before being summoned by the tribunal.
The prosecution lawyer, Aliyu Umar, says he has just been served with the application and argues that the arraignment ought to have taken place before any application is brought.
Defence lead, Mr Olanikpekun, asks if the tribunal had ordered a specific date for the arraignment.
Mr Olanipekun says the prosecution cannot be talking of the arraignment of the person who has not been properly served and who has even appeared in protest of the matter.
Mr Umar, the prosecution counsel, says there is no law that says a defendant shall refuse to appear before a court and say that he is contesting a suit.
“He should be here. He may refuse to be arraigned and say that he is contesting the case,” he said.
Mr Olanipekun answer, “My learned friend with due respect is talking of what he thinks. We are talking of the law”.
Reading through a 2018 judgement, Mr Olanikpekun insists that the arraignment cannot start where there is a problem with the process.
“He said the presence of the accused person is only mandated when the trial officially commences.”
Mr Aliu responds by saying that no application should be heard where a plea has not be taken.
He has asked the tribunal to give an order that the CJN be served again, but on a personal note.
Mr Umar is asking that a date be selected this week to serve the CJN.
But Mr Olanikpekun is insisting that the date cannot be within this week because the matter involves direct service to the CJN.
Following pleas by Mr Olanikpekun, the tribunal has adjourned the matter till next Tuesday.