On January 10, 2019, the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) filed six charges of corruption against the Chief Justice of Nigeria at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), accusing him of asset declaration offences.
The trial commenced, last Monday, at the premises of the Federal Capital Territory High Court in Jabi, commercial neighbourhood in Abuja, with Wole Olanipekun (SAN) leading more than 50 SANs and 70 other senior lawyers in defence of the Hon Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, who became the Chief Justice of Nigeria in March, 2017, less than six months after the homes of several federal judges, including those of the Supreme Court, were searched in an anti-corruption raid in October, 2016.
Two judges of the Supreme Court were amongst those whose houses were raided. They were charged for corruption, but none of them has been found guilty of any wrongdoing.
The government said it was only in 2016 after the controversial crackdown on judges that Onnoghen partially declared his asset, and cash in Union Bank branch in Calabar, but still failed to declare a series of bank accounts, denominated in local and foreign currencies, linked to him at a Standard Chartered Bank branch in Abuja.
The charges, triggered by a group, the Anti-Corruption and Research-based Data Initiative (ARDI), had sent a petition to the Code of Conduct Bureau and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), alleging suspected financial crimes and breaches of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act and provisions of the 1999 Constitution as amended against Onnoghen.
After laying bare the suspected transactions in the accounts between March, 2011 and August, 2016, the group accused Onnoghen of “Non-declaration of assets immediately after taking office in several capacities prior to becoming the Chief Justice of Nigeria contrary to section 15 of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act; Non-declaration of assets immediately after taking office as the Chief Justice of Nigeria contrary to section 15 of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act; Non-declaration of assets at the statutory intervals after taking office throughout his career as a federal judicial officer contrary to section 15 of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act; and False declaration of asset, and in particular, concealment of significant and declarable assets in the form of sundry bank accounts and the balances therein, contrary to section 15 of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act.”
The group also requested the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) to conduct comprehensive statistical analysis of cash transactions on all the accounts for cases of suspicious transactions; and determine whether Standard Chartered Bank has not breached statutory duties to the Nigerian State in favour of, or in connivance with, His Lordship on Suspicious Transactions Reporting (STR). It also urged the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC), the Supreme Court of Nigeria and the National Judicial Council (NJC) to determine whether the disclosed financial transactions are justified by His Lordship’s lawful remuneration.
Onnoghen was alleged to have failed to declare his asset upon assumption of office as provided in Section 15 (1) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act C15, punishable under Section 23 (2) (a) (b) and (c) of the same Act.
His reaction to the allegations, Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter S. N. Onnoghen, described his non-declaration of the domiciliary accounts as a mistake.
In a statement addressed to the CCB investigators, last Friday, Onnoghen also explained that the undeclared foreign currencies found in his Standard Chartered Bank were sourced from his estacodes and medical allowances, including funds from his days in private practice between 1979 and 1989.
He further explained that the withdrawals from his Pound Sterling and Euro accounts were for the school fees and upkeep allowances of his children abroad.
“My Asset Declaration Form No SC N 00014 and SCN 00015 were declared on the same day 14/12/2016 because I forgot to make a declaration of my assets after the expiration of my 2005 declaration in 2009,” the CJN stated.
“Following my appointment as Acting CJN in November, 2016, the need to declare my asset anew made me to realise the mistake.”
The CJN further explained that he did not include the funds in his domiciliary accounts because he believed the accounts were not opened during the period covered by the declaration.
Here are some Nigerians’ reactions.
Reacting, Human Rights Lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), asked the Federal Government to urgently withdraw the charges against Justice Walter Onnoghen as such move will amount to prosecutorial misadventure.
According to Falana, “The charge against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen ought not to have been instituted at the Code of Conduct of Tribunal in view of the case of Nganjiwa v FRN (2017) LPELR 43391 wherein the Court of Appeal held that a judicial officer who has not been investigated by the National Judicial Council and sanctioned for misconduct cannot be arraigned in any criminal court in Nigeria.
“As all authorities are bound by the Court of Appeal verdict, the case should be withdrawn by the Attorney-General of the Federation without any delay because it is likely to be a prosecutorial misadventure,” Falana added.
In a swift statement condemning the action, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Candidate in the 2019 elections, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar said, “I have received the news of the sudden charges about to be filed against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, with apprehension and suspicion especially as such a move against the head of an arm of our government is coming so close to an election in preparation of which the Buhari administration has shown growing desperation.
“My suspicions are further exacerbated by the fact that the Buhari government is pressuring an independent and self governing arm of government with the aim of getting CJN Walter Onnoghen to resign or be pushed aside.
“I stand on the side of the rule of law and believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty.
“If Justice Walter Onnoghen is guilty of the charges about to be preferred against him, let his guilt be determined by a competent court of law and not by the Buhari administration. The executive cannot usurp the role of the judiciary. Nigeria is still a democracy and not a fascist dictatorship as President Buhari may wish.
“Any attempt to force Justice Walter Onnoghen to vacate his office, 4 weeks to an election for which the unpopular Buhari administration has shown every intention to manipulate, is a move pregnant with negative meaning.
“I see no reason whatsoever for the ongoing pressure by the Buhari government to force Justice Walter Onnoghen to vacate office when he has not been convicted for any offence.
“I, therefore, call on the President to respect the principle of separation of powers and abide by the rule of law on this matter and stop any interference or pressure on Justice Walter Onnoghen or the judiciary and allow the law and the Constitution take its full course”.
In his reaction, Elder Statesman and Leader of the Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) and South-South Forum, Chief Edwin Clark, condemned the Federal Government decision to arraign the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, over assets declaration offences.
Clark said the arraignment of the CJN is a shock as Onnoghen has been carrying out his responsibilities as Nigeria’s top jurist diligently, adding that “PANDEF will resist any form of harassment of the CJN.
“The news of the arraignment of The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, before the Code of Conduct tribunal (CCT) on Monday has come to us as a shock because there is nothing to show that this man has not been doing his job properly,” Clark said.
”There is nothing to show that he is corrupt; simply because they want to rig this election, they want to remove him to put somebody who will do their bidding after the election otherwise there is no basis for harassing the judiciary.
“Yesterday, it was the acting director general of the Department of State Security Services (DSS), Matthew Seyeifa, who was removed and somebody who was retired was appointed to take his place. We deserve some respect. So, we will resist this one, and I understand that our governors had a meeting on this matter too and we will all come together,” he said.
Also speaking, a Journalist and Corporate Administrator, Chief Soye Wilson Jamabo said, “The strength of the Tripod upon which sits the pot of good governance depends on the balance and equality of all legs, but if a leg is unduly elongated and another shortened, its fall is eminent. Such is the move by the Executive to investigate, prosecute and judge the chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN).
“The military style fashion, the timing and urgency of the drama smacks of desperation and fear of the unknown, this is impunity stretched too far. And to be silent is to watch the man in us die without any rescue effort.
“None is above the law, but same law that grants the Executive immunity from criminal prosecution recommends the National Judicial Council (NJC) as the constitutional body to handle cases of judicial officers not the CCT, an arm of the Executive. That will make an arm to be a judge in its own case”.
Activist, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), accused the Federal Government of engaging in unnecessary political witch-hunt.
Ozekhome maintained that the six-count criminal charge FG entered against the CJN over his alleged failure to declare his assets, was politically motivated, querying the time the alleged infractions were discovered.
Noting that the CJN, by virtue of his position, will play a major role in constituting the 2019 presidential election petition tribunal, Ozekhome, insisted that under the 1999 Constitution, as amended, Justice Onnoghen could not be forced to vacate his office, until when his guilt is established.
According to him, “The CJN can be removed from office either if he has been convicted or if under section 291 of the Constitution, the Senate affirms a request by the President to remove him by two-third majority vote.
“Our system of justice being Anglo-Saxon based, which is accusatorial, meaning that the innocence of a person is presumed.
“It is different from the criminal justice system of the French model which is inquisitorial, wherein the guilt of an accused person is presumed.
“This doctrine has been encapsulated in section 36 of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, that the person’s innocence is presumed until he has been proven guilty.
“Assuming for example that Senator Bukola Saraki had been forced to resign his office when charges were brought against him before the same Code of Conduct Tribunal almost three years ago, what would have happened and what would have been his fate when the Supreme Court eventually discharged and acquitted him of the charge, following judgments and earlier order of the Court of Appeal and the Code of Conduct Tribunal itself?
“If you ask me, I sense serious political undertones oozing from this so-called imminent arraignment of the noble CJN. Question, when did they discover the alleged offence for which they now want to charge him on Monday?
“Was it just yesterday, was it last week, two weeks or six months ago? The CJN has been in office now for well over one year, how come that this misconduct or whatever offence that he is being alleged, was not seen up to now?
“How come, that it is just less than 40 days to the 2019 Presidential election, when the CJN is going to play the major role in constituting the Presidential election petition tribunal, that he is being moved against? Who is afraid of the Judiciary? Who is afraid of Justice Onnoghen and his impartiality and straight forwardness?
“How come we are reducing governance in Nigeria to one of impunity, one of despotism and one of absolutism.
“Don’t this people know that the world is laughing at us? Did we not see how Dino Melaye was yanked out from police hospital and taken to DSS quarters when he had no business or case with the DSS and DSS had no case against him.
“Did they not see Dino Melaye, a serving Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, sleeping in the open yesterday? Do they go on social media and do they watch international televisions?
“Do they know how the whole world is deriding us in this country? That governance has been reduced to mere witch-hunt, very opaque, very unaccountable, very un-transparent and very fascist! Can’t they see that?”, Ozekhome queried.