After all it is not a pleasant day for Justice Walter Onnoghen, the suspended chief justice of Nigeria, whose reign as the foremost law official ends with a conviction for violating code of conduct for public officers
By Olu Ojewale
IT is just another day for many other persons, but it is not a good day for Justice Walter Onnoghen, the suspended chief justice of Nigeria. The Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, trying the foremost judicial officer has just found him guilty of asset fraud. The three-man tribunal led by Danladi Umar ruled on Thursday, April 18, that Onnoghen violated the code of conduct for public officers.
Umar in his judgment said that the prosecution had proved beyond reasonable doubt that Onnoghen is guilty.
Besides, the CCT said it had jurisdiction to try Onnoghen for making false asset declaration by deliberately omitting to declare the five domiciliary accounts he maintained with the Standard Chartered Bank, and in which huge deposits were found.
Further, the tribunal ordered among others, his removal from office, barred him from holding public office for the next 10 years and confiscated the funds in the five accounts, which the tribunal said should be forfeited to the Federal Government.
Onnoghen, who became Nigeria’s 17th chief justice in March 2017, was brought before the CCT on January 14.
He was arraigned by the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, following a petition brought against him by a group, the Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative, headed by Denis Aghanya, a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress in Enugu State and a former aide of President Muhammadu Buhari while he was in Congress for Progressive Change, CPC.
Onnoghen was charged on six counts, for allegedly failing to declare some of his accounts in the asset declaration form submitted to the CCB in December 2016.
According to the charge, Onnoghen also failed to declare his assets after the expiration of his declaration form filled in 2005.
Onnoghen, however, said he forgot to update the form. He told the tribunal that he was not guilty of the charges brought against him. His defence lawyers argued that the statement by the suspended CJN was not a confession.
Besides, the lawyers argued that the CCB act which formed the basis for Onnoghen’s trial was “significantly in conflict with the Nigerian Constitution.”
Hence, they cited section 153 and 158 (1) of the Constitution, which empowers the National Judicial Council, NJC, to be solely responsible for the affairs of its judicial officers, including their discipline.
They also argued that the removal of the CJN, which appeared to be a major request from the prosecution at the tribunal, could only be done by a decision of the NJC, or by a consensus of two-third majority members of the National Assembly.
According to section 292 (1) of the Constitution: “The CJN can only be removed from office by the President acting on an address supported by two thirds majority of the Senate for his inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment (whether arising from infirmity of mind or body) or for misconduct or contravention of the Code of Conduct.”
Nevertheless, the defence lawyers also queried the jurisdiction of the CCT to proceed with the trial since the tribunal itself had suspended a similar matter following the decision of a Court of Appeal.
Indeed, the Lagos division of the Court of Appeal had decided during the trial of Hyeladzira Nganjiwa, another judge, that the only body responsible for the indictment of a serving judicial officer was the NJC.
That decision had forced the suspension of the trial of Sylvester Ngwuta, another Supreme Court Justice, at the tribunal.
Ngwuta was one of seven judges whose houses had been raided by the State Security Service in October 2016, after President Muhammadu Buhari’s government accused them of fraud.
But, the CCT refused to give a pronouncement on Onnoghen’s submission that the tribunal was incompetent to proceed with the trial.
Umar ruled that the tribunal would decide on the matter, while delivering its verdict on the actual application as it had eventually done on Thursday, April 18.
The decision of the tribunal seems to have vindicated the position of a 20-man group of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SANs, under the aegis of the Justice Reform Project, JRP, which on Tuesday, April 16, said Onnoghen’s resignation was not enough in view of “the grave nature of the allegations” against him.
Urging the federal government to sanction other judges whose legitimate earnings do not justify their wealth, the group said justice should run its course in the Onnoghen matter.
According to JRP, extending the anti-graft exercise to other judges will restore confidence in the Judiciary and dampen the impression that the former chief justice of Nigeria, CJN, was being victimised.
The group, set up to push for reforms in the judiciary/legal profession, is led by Ebun Sofunde, one of the oldest SANs, with Jibrin Okutepa, Babatunde Ajibade, Ernest Ojukwu, Osaro Eghobamien, Funke Adekoya, Kayode Sofola, among others, as members.
In a statement, JRP said it noted Onnoghen’s resignation “with concern”, but added that the matter should not end there.
“His resignation/voluntary retirement is not an answer to these allegations and the JRP expects that justice, which is no respecter of persons or position, will be allowed to take its course,” it said.
The JRP urged the federal government to look beyond Onnoghen for three reason main reasons.
It said: “Beyond Honourable Justice W. S. N. Onnoghen, however, the JRP believes the revelations that have been made in the course of this affair necessitate that urgent steps be taken to identify and sanction all other Nigerian judicial officers who are found to possess inexplicable wealth that cannot be reconciled with their legitimate income or their asset declarations, two of the allegations made against Justice Onnoghen.
“These steps are necessary for a variety of reasons. First, to restore public confidence in the judiciary and disabuse the notion that all judicial officers in Nigeria are corrupt and that justice is for sale.
“Second, to disabuse the notion that Justice Onnoghen’s travails are a mere witch-hunt motivated by ethnic and political interests rather than the result of a genuine concern for sanitising and reforming the Nigerian judiciary.
“Third, to eliminate the suspicion that the Executive arm of government is using the information it has access to by virtue of its control over the apparatus of the state to take selective action only against those judicial officers that fail to do its bidding.”
Besides, the group said Onnoghen’s response to allegations by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, before the NJC, raises significant questions about how heads of courts manage judiciary’s funds.
“Without prejudice to the legitimate clamour for increased budgetary allocation to the judiciary, its financial independence and improvement in the working conditions of service of judicial officers, all of which JRP wholeheartedly supports, there must be better management of that which is currently allocated.
“The JRP calls on everyone with a stake in our judicial system (the public, the Bar, and the bench), to report their concerns, if any, to the relevant regulatory agencies so that they are investigated.
“The legal profession is a self-regulating one, so it behoves all its members to take an active interest in maintaining the standards of rectitude and integrity expected of judicial officers and legal practitioners.
“In making this call, the JRP merely exhorts every member of the legal profession to act as they are expected to act.
“If the profession does not regulate itself effectively, incidents such as those involving Justice Onnoghen will remain a fixture in our judicial system.”
Nevertheless, lawyers, who spoke with Realnews on the CCT judgement refused to comment, saying they have to read the whole judgement before offering an opinion. “I will like to read how the tribunal arrived at its decision before making a comment,” Lekan Bolarinwa said. They all agreed that Onnoghen could still appeal the CCT’s decision. Counsels to the suspended CJN were yet to indicate such move at press time.
In any case, one of the lawyers, who wishes anonymity, said rhetorically: “The judgement had been written long ago even before he resigned.” However, he refused to say what informed his opinion.
– Apr. 18, 2019 @ 17:29 GMT |