The suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, on Monday, at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, Abuja, opened his defence in his ongoing trial on the charges bordering on assets declaration breaches, calling his driver since 1999 as his first witness.
Onnoghen brought the 60 years old Lawal Busari to the tribunal as his first defence witness following last Friday’s ruling of the tribunal dismissing his no-case submission.
Earlier before Busari entered the witness box, the tribunal issued an order of subpoena, on a director at the Code of Conduct Bureau, Mrs. Theresa Nwafor, to appear as the suspended CJN’s next witness on Wednesday.
This followed an earlier oral application by Onnoghen’s defence lawyer, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), on Monday.
The lead prosecuting counsel, Mr Aliyu Umar (SAN), did not oppose the application for the subpoena.
In a bench ruling, the tribunal chairman ordered the issuance and service of the subpoena on Nwafor directing her to appear at 10 am on Wednesday.
Asked by the tribunal chairman, Awomolo said during the Monday’s proceedings that the defence had proposed to call “two or three witnesses for now.”
With Busari’s testimony concluded on Monday, it was not clear if the defence would close its case after Nwafor’s evidence on Wednesday or whether the suspended CJN himself would testify.
Testifying earlier, Busari, who described himself as the Chief Driver/Mechanic at the Supreme Court of Nigeria, said Onnoghen submitted his assets declaration form in 2010.
This was contrary to one of the six counts preferred against Onnoghen that he did not declare his assets between 2005 and 2016.
Led by Awomolo, Busari, who gave instances of how he had been well treated by Onnoghen, said the suspended CJN obtained his asset declaration form from the Asokoro office of the Code of Conduct Bureau in Abuja on July 28, 2010 and submitted same after completing it on November 4, 2010.
He said he drove Onnoghen to the CCB office where the suspended CJN also encouraged him to obtain his own form.
He added that on November 3, 2010, Onnoghen gave him N200 to pay for the oath-taking aspect of the assets declaration form at the treasury office of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory.
He said he was given a receipt by the cashier and later handed same to Onnoghen.
The defence team sought to tender the said receipt but the prosecution objected, saying it was not admissible on, among other grounds, that its authenticity was in doubt.
But the tribunal chairman overruled the objection by admitting the document as an exhibit, adding that the “weight” to be attached to it would be determined.
Continuing his testimony, Busari said he submitted his completed form and that of Onnoghen at the CCB office in Asokoro, Abuja on November 4, 2010.
Fielding questions from Awomolo, he said, “I don’t know the name of the person who collected the forms from me, but I know she was a woman, who was light in complexion.
“She received my form and that of my lordship.
“I was not given any acknowledgment copy that day. I was asked to come for it when it was ready.”
He said he later went back and collected the acknowledgment slip for his own submitted form.
Again, Awomolo sought to tender Busari’s acknowledgment slip.
This time, the objection raised by the prosecutor to the effect that it was not relevant to the proceedings was sustained and the document was rejected by the tribunal.
Under cross-examination by the prosecutor, Busari confirmed that he had been driving Onnoghen since 1999 while the judge was still serving on the bench of the Court of Appeal.
He confirmed that he drove him to obtain his asset declaration form in 2010.
But he said he did not go with the suspended CJN to the CCB office in 2005 to obtain the form for the assets declaration made by the judge after his appointed to the Supreme Court bench in that year.
Asked about his educational qualification, the 60 years old witness said he obtained his West African Examination Council’s certificate in 2004.
A piece of paper with some jottings which the prosecution accused the witness of relying on while giving evidence, was tendered by the prosecution and admitted by the tribunal as an exhibit.
Meanwhile, the lead counsel has expressed concern that while political and election matters were treated with dispatch, the Court of Appeal had not been able to give judgment in the appeals filed by Onnoghen six weeks after they were heard.
Awomolo said on Monday that the Court of Appeal in Abuja had been ordered to keep away in the files, the judgments on the embattled top judicial officer’s appeals.
Awomolo, in a press statement, copies of which he shared to journalists at the end of Monday’s proceedings, expressed concern that the Court of Appeal had not been able to give judgment in the appeals filed by Onnoghen six weeks after they were heard.
Speaking about the delay in delivering the judgment of the Court of Appeal, Awomolo noted that most Nigerian public officers and judges were as guilty as the suspended CJN, warning that nobody knew who would be the next after the precedent already laid with Onnoghen’s trial.
He said, “Whereas political matters and election matters were treated with dispatch, and judgment delivered within hours, the appeal of Chief Justice of Nigeria, six weeks after argument was ordered to be kept away in the file.
“There is no association of Nigerian judges to speak a word.
“Let no public officer or judicial officer at any level, throw stones because if not all, most are guilty as Onnoghen.
“Nobody knows who is next, a precedent has been laid.
“The honourable Attorney-General of the Federation seems pleased.”
He also said his client’s ongoing trial had exposed the Nigerian judiciary to be a weak institution.
He also expressed worry that the Nigerian Bar Association “has by reason of personal leadership ambition been rendered ineffective, divided and weak”.
He added that the framers of the Nigerian Constitution “omitted to give sufficient attention to the need for the Code of Conduct Tribunal to secure its independence, impartiality and non-interference”.
Worried that “the head of the judiciary will be treated the way Onnoghen was treated”, Awomolo said the CCT trial had shown that the judiciary was not independent and the security of tenure of judicial officers “is a mere wishful thinking”.
He said, “The third lesson is that the case has clearly shown that Nigerian judiciary is very weak, vulnerable and not independent.”