How Appeal Court ruled against Onnoghen three months after reserving judgement

Suspended CJN, Walter Onnoghen arriving the Code of Conduct Tribunal today
Suspended CJN, Walter Onnoghen arriving the Code of Conduct Tribunal today

The Court of Appeal on Friday ruled on four motions that were due for judgement since February 27 concerning the trial of the embattled Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen.

A three-member panel led by Justice Steven Adah decided on the four applications, nearly three months after it reserved judgement.

The court condemned the various decisions by the Code of Conduct Tribunal regarding Mr Onnoghen’s trial, but gave most of its verdicts against the applications of the jurist.

Mr Onnoghen had approached the court in the wake of his trial at the tribunal for false asset declaration.

The applications

His lawyers led by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Adegboyega Awomolo, had asked the appellate court to rule on a number of issues, including the validity of the ex-parte order of January 23, which resulted in the suspension of Mr Onnoghen on January 25.

Mr Onnoghen also challenged the decision of the tribunal to issue an arrest warrant against him.

The embattled CJN also questioned the failure of the tribunal to decide on the motion challenging its jurisdiction before proceeding with the substantive matter.

In the fourth appeal, Mr Onnoghen questioned the decision of the tribunal to proceed with its hearing, despite separate court orders demanding that it suspended sitting.

The Judgments: Suspension order

In a unanimous decision on Friday, the three-member panel of the appellate court, led by Justice Steven Adah, said the order, following an ex-parte application which resulted in the suspension of Mr Onnoghen, “should not have been made in secret.”

Mr Onnoghen was suspended by President Muhammadu Buhari, who appointed Tanko Muhammad as acting CJN.

The appeal court said the current state of events regarding the appointment of Mr Onnoghen had ovrtakne the matter, apparently referring to Mr Muhammad’s appointment.

According to Mr Adah, the matter for determination bordered on a declaration on the status of the order suspending Mr Onnoghen.

The judge who read through details of the tribunal proceedings indicating that the order was made in secret, however added that “the matter before the court was now spent.”

Mr Adah, therefore, said that the court would not proceed to decide on the validity or otherwise of the decision made by the tribunal regarding the controversial suspension.

Arrest Warrant

In the second judgement, the appellate court said the application against Mr Onnoghen’s intended arrest was made without the copies of the order for the arrest of the jurist.

The court ,therefore, said it was impossible to rule on a matter without the details of that issue present in the court proceedings.

Jurisdiction

The third request attended by the Court of Appeal related to the application challenging the refusal of the tribunal to decide on Mr Onnoghen’s motion on the tribunal’s jurisdiction before proceeding with the substantive matter.

In its decision read by Justice Tinuade Akomolafe-Wilson, the Court of Appeal said the provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act already allows a court or tribunal to proceed with the substantive application in the face of an interlocutory request, in a criminal matter.

The court agreed with the decision of the tribunal to rely on section 306 of the ACJA, which prevented the suspension of a substantive matter following an interlocutory appeal in a criminal case.

Tribunal’s refusal to stay proceedings

The fourth issue determined by the Court of Appeal was the application against the failure of the tribunal to suspend sittings following the decision of separate High Courts against the tribunal hearings.

In its judgement read by Justice Peter Ige, the court said the tribunal had no right to sit on appeal on decisions made by the high courts.

According to the Court of Appeal, after the tribunal expressed dissatisfaction with the decisions of the High Courts, “the only option available to the tribunal was to ask the various courts to vacate them or proceed on appeal against the decisions.

“It is not for the tribunal to decide whether the courts acted within jurisdiction or not. The lower tribunal cannot sit as an appellate court against the decisions of those courts,” Mr Ige said.

The court, however, said the tribunal was right in its decision to rely on section 306 of the ACJA while refusing to suspend the matter.

The court corrected the notion created by previous reports announcing Friday’s judgement which tended to suggest that the appellate court was deciding on the substantive appeal.

According to the court, the issues decided on Friday were all on interlocutory applications. The court is yet to decide on the substantive application.

In a manner as if to explain the delay of the court in announcing its decisions, Mr Adah had noted while ruling on the first application that judges have a duty to prevent making pronouncements on interlocutory applications that would tend to dictate the tone of the substantive matter.

Mr Onnoghen was brought before the Code of Conduct Tribunal by the Code of Conduct Bureau, weeks before he was expected to inaugurate the panel scheduled to handle cases arising from various election petitions across the country.

Mr Onnoghen had approached the appellate court after his suspension on January 25, hours before the election tribunal was inaugurated by acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mr Muhammad.

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