How ‘God help Nigeria’ resulted in war of words at Onnoghen’s CCT trial

March 30, 2019

God bless Nigeria.

The short sentence appears a seemingly harmless one, one which many Nigerians say in a deeply religious country.

However, on Friday, the statement led to a tug of war between top lawyers involved in one of Nigeria’s most controversial court cases.

Adegboyega Awomolo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and the counsel to Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen, made the statement in court in reaction to Friday’s ruling of the Code of Conduct Tribunal.

Mr Awomolo prayed for “God to bless Nigeria” in reaction to the judgement and attitude displayed by the tribunal chairman, Danladi Umar.

In a charged atmosphere, the prosecution counsel, Aliyu Umar, would however, have none of it. He questioned Mr Awomolo’s intention for making such statement and later suggested there was a religious connotation to the prosecution’s stance.

How It Started

Friday had been fixed by the tribunal for the defence team to raise their ‘no case’ submission that Mr Onnoghen had no case to answer in the charges filed by the federal government.

Mr Onnoghen’s team of lawyers had asked the tribunal to approve their application, which was intended to ensure that the case against the chief justice ended without having him defend himself.

Led by Mr Awomolo, the lawyers presented a well-marshalled argument to support their submissions that the evidence brought forward by the prosecution were very defective.

They argued that the case against their client was such that no reasonable tribunal would adjudicate in a manner that favours the prosecution.

Mr Awomolo argued that the charge and the evidence brought by the prosecution were presented in a manner that negated the laws under which the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) was created.

Mr Onnoghen’s assets declaration submitted to the CCB is the basis for his prosecution with the government arguing he failed to make some declarations.

Mr Awomolo argued that count one of the charge which bordered on the failure of Mr Onnoghen to submit an asset declaration form between 2005 and 2015, was brought without any document from the CCB to prove its point.

Mr Awomolo also submitted that the CCB acted against its own rules when it presented a set of bank documents addressed to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, during its nearly 24-hour investigation of Mr Onnoghen’s case.

These among other arguments formed the basis of Mr Awomolo’s submissions to support his claim that the CCB’s charge was not valid and the same could not be acted upon by the tribunal.

Mr Awomolo described the documents addressed to the EFCC as a set “strange piece,” that had no relationship with the instant case.

After concluding his argument, the tribunal chairman, Danladi Umar, acknowledged the intellectual industry with which the defence team tabled its points.

Mr Umar was so encouraging that Mr Awomolo ended by saying that he only decided against requesting for an apology from the prosecution, for bringing the charges, because he was willing to confront the matter with the calmness of his client.

Prosecution Speaks

In response, the prosecution counsel tried to dissuade the tribunal from allowing the requests made by the defence.

The prosecution lawyer, Aliu Umar, described the defects mentioned by the defence as a problem that only affected the “internal communication” within the bureau.

He said the issues bothering on “internal communication” within the bureau cannot form part of reasons why the defence should assume that their case had not been proven.

Mr Umar insisted that the charge against Mr Onnoghen bothered on two major issues: the assertion that he failed to submit his declaration form, till December 2016 and that he left out some issues in the form; an allegation described by the prosecution as amounting to a false declaration of asset.

The Verdict

After both parties had laid down their arguments, the tribunal chairman, Mr Umar, promised to return at 1:30 p.m. to give a verdict on the no-case argument of the prosecution.

Mr Umar returned at exactly 1:30 p.m.

In his ruling, he described the issues earlier called “internal communication” by the prosecution, as Standard Operational Procedures (SOP) of the CCB.

According to Mr Umar, the SOP was “very contradictory” and had not been respected by the current CCB leadership because they were designed to satisfy the “selfish motives of the former CCB leaders under its immediate past Chairman, Sam Saba.”

“The present board chaired by Isa Mohammed has not adopted the standard operational procedures (SOP). In essence, the standard procedure of the Bureau is not used currently at the Bureau because it was authored by the former administration at their own interest.

“The constitutional provisions are superior to the SOP which is internal. The Bureau is not bound by it,” Mr Umar said.

Consequently, Mr Umar agreed with the submissions of the prosecution that the SOP which were internal in nature, could not override the provisions of the constitution.

He ruled that the allegations against Mr Onnoghen had been proven by the defendant’s submissions in his statement to the bureau.

Mr Umar said the submissions by Mr Onnoghen were strong enough to warrant opening his defence.

Speaking in Arabic, Mr Umar said the only person deserving a special reverence in life was God Almighty. He added that the tribunal viewed all Nigerians as equal and would not ascribe to any man a special treatment, regardless of his position in the country.

Tensions rise

After delivering the verdict, Mr Awomolo requested for copies of the ruling and some time to study same.

Mr Umar responded saying he would direct the registry to provide the copies but added that the case was going to be adjourned till Monday.

Mr Awomolo then repeated his request for time to study the ruling and advise Mr Onnoghen on the next step.

He said the provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act allowed them to request for an adjournment, not exceeding 14 days.

But Mr Umar would not adjust the date for the next hearing. His reason was that the matter had been heard on a day-to-day basis, as required by ACJA, since the start of the case.

Subsequently, Mr Awomolo whose mood had slowly began to change attempted to persuade the tribunal and pleaded with the bench not to “oppress” them.

“Give us, Give us, Give us,” Mr Awomolo said emphasising his legitimate request for time.

In a reaction, Mr Umar, who himself is enmeshed in a corruption scandal, denied the allegation that the tribunal’s bench was seeking to oppress the defence.

Without making further comments on the next date of hearing or closing the session formally, the tribunal chairman left the conference room of the tribunal, almost unnoticed.

God help Nigeria

Mr Awomolo, who was speaking while Mr Umar left, thanked the tribunal chairman and added a prayer for “God to bless Nigeria.”

He was still speaking when suddenly miffed by the words of the defence, the prosecutor, Aliu Umar, snapped at the defence team.

The tone of language soon became confrontational, with both parties talking back at each other for almost 30 seconds.

While addressing journalists, the defence team described the ruling as an outright demonstration of injustice and accused the tribunal of “importing arguments” that were not raised by the prosecution.

“He brought his personal opinion into a judgement,” said Mr Awomolo who added that Nigeria was on sure path to destruction if any court should hold that Friday’s judgment of the CCT was legitimate.

When the prosecutor began addressing journalists, he made a comment which suggested his reasons for the outburst a short while earlier.

“Why should you (Mr Awomolo) be saying that ‘God help Nigeria’. Of course God has always helped Nigeria. What is the meaning of that? Mr Umar queried.

Mr Umar insisted that the tribunal was just in its approach to the issues. He reiterated a point earlier made by the tribunal chair that only God should be regarded as higher than any man.

As they approached the car park, another round of argument ensued.

Although it was not clear what the reason for the fresh argument was, the confrontation took a religious connotation. Mr Umar was insisting that he was a proud northerner and Muslim.

“I am from the north and I am proud of it. I am a Muslim and I am proud of it,” Mr Umar said.

There have been allegations that Mr Onnoghen is being so treated by the federal government because he is a Southern Christian. The person favoured by the presidency to take over as chief justice from Mr Onnoghen, Tanko Muhammad, is a Northern Muslim like Mr Buhari.

President Buhari has been repeatedly accused by some Southern and Christian leaders of being unfair in his appointments, an allegation the presidency has always denied.

Whether that allegation by some Nigerians influenced the prosecutor’s remark on Friday was not clear.

Reacting to the prosecutor’s remark, however, a lawyer who was obviously among the defence, tried to explain to Mr Umar that they were not referring to him and that nothing was said to warrant such an outburst.

Still angry about the argument, Mr Umar continued talking in anger, returned to his car and drove off.

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