Explainer: What Federal Government's 'closed case' against Justice Onnoghen actually means

On Thursday, March 21, 2019, the Federal Government of Nigeria “closed its case” against suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Walter Nkanu Onnoghen.

President Buhari swears in Onnoghen as acting CJN on November 10, 2016 (Presidency)

Onnoghen was suspended by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 25, 2019 for alleged crimes bordering on non-declaration of assets, maintaining bank accounts in foreign currencies and obstructing the course of justice.

Onnoghen has been facing trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal since his suspension.

During proceedings on Thursday, the prosecution led by Mr. Aliyu Umar (SAN) closed its case against Onnoghen after cross examining three witnesses out of a possible six. 

In this context, closing a case means that the government has finished tendering all the evidence and all the witnesses it has up its sleeves against Onnoghen. 

This means that it is now left for the defense to tender counter evidence and the court to rule in the case. 

Closing a case does not translate to ‘withdrawing the case’ or terminating the charges against the accused person.

On Thursday, prosecuting counsel Umar, announced his decision to close the prosecution’s case after the third witness, Ifeoma Okeagbue, an official of Standard Chartered Bank, concluded her testimony.

Onnoghen's trial will now continue, but this time, with the defense pleading its own case.

According to Abuja based legal practitioner, First Baba Isa, the case against Onnoghen “has not been withdrawn. To close a case and to withdraw a case are two different things. 

“Now, this is how it works. In a criminal case, we have the prosecution, usually the state or federal government through its agency like the Attorney General's office, the police or any other agency so empowered, that arrests or brings a person suspected to have committed a crime to court; then we have the accused or defendant who is the person suspected to have committed a crime and brought to court. 

“Of course both parties, the prosecution and the defendant, will be represented by lawyers in court. 

“In court, it is the duty of the prosecution to bring witnesses and tender evidence (in form of documents, audio, videos, etc) to prove that the accused or defendant is guilty. 

“When the prosecution is done calling all its witnesses or tendering all the evidence they have to prove that the accused or defendant is guilty, then it is said that the prosecution (which is usually the state or federal government) has closed its case. 

“So, to close a case means that the prosecution has called all its witnesses to testify and tender all its documents to prove that the defendant is guilty. It means that if you take someone to court to prove that he stole and you brought 5 persons (witnesses) to testify that indeed the person stole and 3 documents to show that the person indeed stole, once all the 5 persons you brought to court have testified and you have shown/given the court all the 3 documents, YOU HAVE CLOSED YOUR CASE. 

“So what happens when the prosecution closes its case? 

“The accused or defendant will enter or present his defense. That means that the accused or defendant will also call witnesses to testify and tender documents to prove that he is innocent or to prove that all what the prosecution witnesses said or the documents the prosecution tendered are not true”.

Some persons have mistaken ‘closing a case’ as reported in the dailies this week, for filing ‘a no case submission’.

However, both legal terms are completely different.

Isa says; "When a no case submission is made, it basically means that the defendant is asking the court for an acquittal without it having to present a defense. The defendant is literally saying to the court that there is no case to answer, that is, the prosecution has not sufficiently proven the legal threshold to establish the commission of a crime in the court of law.

“The submission is reliant on the strength (or rather, the lack thereof) of the prosecution’s evidence. When used, the results are extremely beneficial to a defendant because, when successful, it means that the case effectively stops without the need for the defendant to call any evidence at all.

“The defense makes the plea by filing an application before the court, and if the judge agrees, then the matter is dismissed and the defendant is acquitted without having to present any evidence in their defense. 

“If the judge does not accept the submission, the case continues and the defense must present their case. Therefore, because the defense really loses nothing by filing a no case submission application, it is a very common defense tactic used in criminal cases in Nigeria."

If you learnt anything today, it is that the federal government has not withdrawn its case against Onnoghen due to insufficient evidence, as has been misconstrued in certain quarters.

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