Former chief justice of Nigeria, Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen
By Kunle Olasanmi Abuja
Justice Walter Onnoghen’s almost 26-month reign as the chief justice of Nigeria (CJN) came to an inglorious end yesterday as the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), sitting in Abuja, convicted him for false asset declaration.
The tribunal, in its two-hour judgement, declared that Onnoghen violated the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) rules for public officers of his status by failing to declare all his assets.
The federal government had filed a six-count criminal charge against the former number one judicial officer in the country.
At the tribunal sitting yesterday, the three-man panel led by Mr Danladi Umar, ordered the forfeiture of the five accounts which the sacked CJN did not declare as part of his assets.
The 69-year-old Onnoghen was born on December 22, 1950 at Okurike Town, Biase local government area of Cross Rivers State. He was nominated as CJN by then Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, and was confirmed by the Senate on March 1, 2017, and sworn in on March 7 2017.
He had everything rosy for him until this year when a petition was filed by a civil rights group at the CCB alleging that he operated five undisclosed foreign currency accounts.
His trial started January 14, 2019 at the CCT and ended yesterday when he was convicted for the charges filed against him.
All through the period of the judgement, Onnoghen, who arrived at the court premises at about 9am, was calm.
The judgement which lasted for about two hours began at noon, two hours behind the scheduled time of the tribunal sitting.
Immediately the verdict was passed and the tribunal chairman and members rose, Onnoghen hurriedly left the venue sitting alongside his lawyers and aides.
In his judgement, Umar ordered the immediate removal of Onnoghen from office as the CJN and also stripped him of all offices he previously occupied. The affected offices are chairman of the NJC, chairman, Governing Board of National Judicial Institute (NJI), and the chairmanship of the Federal Judicial Service Commission.
Before going into the merit of the case, the tribunal had dismissed the preliminary objection filed by Onnoghen, challenging the validity of the six-count charge instituted against him by the federal government over allegation of non-declaration of assets.
Umar and two other members of the panel said that Onnoghen’s preliminary objection was lacking in merit and consequently dismissed it.
In dismissing the motion on notice dated January 14, 2019, the tribunal overruled itself on a judgement it earlier gave in the case of Justice Sylvester Ngwuta vs FG, wherein the tribunal held that it was wrong for the federal government to prosecute a serving judicial officer without referring the case, first, to the NJC.
The CCT chairman said that he would not hesitate to overrule himself on the Ngwuta judgement since he noticed that the decision was based on a wrong legal principle.
He also insisted that Onnoghen was prosecuted as an ordinary public officer and not as a serving judicial officer.
Umar dismissed the second leg of Onnoghen’s objection which challenged the competence of the chairman of the tribunal to conduct his trial in view of the case, he has with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
Without mincing words, Umar said that he was competent to hear the case because he had no case to answer before the anti-graft commission.
Umaru further said that the EFCC had written him severally and it was in the public domain confirming that he had no case to answer.
Among other charges, the government had told the tribunal that “between June 8, 2005 to December 14, 2016, being a public officer serving as a judicial officer in the Federal Republic of Nigeria as a justice of the Supreme Court failed to declare and submit a written declaration of all your assets and liabilities within the prescribed period of three months after being sworn in as the justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria on the 8th day of June, 2005 and your thereby contravened the provisions of section 15(1) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act Cap C15 LFN 2004 and punishable under section 23(2) a, b and c of the same Act.
“That you, Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen CJN, GCON being a public officer as Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria who is under a duty to declare his assets to the Code of Conduct Bureau Chief on or about December 14, 2016, falsely declared your assets in your Declaration of Assets Form CCB 1 (after you were sworn in as Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria) by omitting to declare a domiciliary (US dollars) account No. 870001062650 maintained with Standard Chartered Bank of (Nig) Ltd, Wuse 2, Abuja, which is being operated since 2011 and your thereby contravened the provisions of section 15(2) read along with section 15(1) 15(1) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act Cap C15 LFN 2004 and punishable under section 23(2) a, b and c of the same Act.
“That being a public officer as Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria who is under a duty to declare his assets to the Code of Conduct Bureau Chief on or about 14th December, 2016, falsely declared your assets in your Declaration of Assets Form CCB 1 (after you were sworn in as Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria) by omitting to declare a domiciliary (Euro) account No. 93001062686 maintained with Standard Chartered Bank of (Nig) Ltd, Wuse 2, Abuja, which is being operated since 2011 and your thereby contravened the provisions of section 15(2) read along with section 15(1) 15(1) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act Cap C15 LFN 2004 and punishable under section 23(2) a, b and c of the same Act.”
Apart from being convicted, he was also barred from holding public office for 10 years.
Sacked CJN Files Notice Of Appeal
Soon after the judgement was delivered, Onnoghen headed to the Court of Appeal, Abuja Division, to file an appeal against the verdict. He asked the appellate court set aside the judgement of the CCT.
In his appeal, Onnoghen, who had resigned his office before the CCT ruling, raised 16 grounds of appeal.
Through his counsel, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), Onnoghen said the tribunal erred in law when it dismissed the motion challenging its jurisdiction and, therefore, occasioned miscarriage of justice.
Awomolo said that the tribunal also erred in law and acted out of jurisdiction when it ordered that the assets of the appellant be confiscated and therefore occasioned miscarriage of justice.
He therefore asked the superior court to set aside the judgement of the tribunal and declare that the tribunal lacks the powers to entertain the case.
No date has been fixed for the hearing of the appeal.
Integrity Among Public Officials Important – Utomi, Lawyers
In separate reactions to the ruling, a professor of Political Economics, Pat Utomi and some lawyers called for integrity among public officers in the interest of nation building and unity.
In an interview with NAN, Utomi said: “The times suggest that the point that we have always made about the importance of integrity is critical for nation building and individual sense of unity.”
Also, Mr. Wale Ogunade, a lawyer and the president of Voters Awareness Initiative (VAI), said that Onnoghen’s conviction showed that no one should be above the law.
He said that corruption investigations should not be politicised.
Ogunade said: “For such a step to be taken against a high-ranking official, particularly against the head of the judiciary, then there is smoke behind the fire, I knew something was wrong and, indeed, he was found guilty.
“I was convinced that he was guilty when the EFCC wrote a petition to the NJC which recommended his resignation. I was one of those who suggested, when it started, that he should eat the humble pie and resign as an honourable man but unfortunately, he allowed himself to be misled by his kinsmen who believed that it was politics,” he said.
Also, Mr Wahab Shittu, a lawyer and EFCC counsel, said that Onnoghen might fight a protracted legal battle against the CCT’s conviction.
He said: “I believe that the CCT made its own pronouncement but that is not the end of the matter. I see Onnoghen exercising his constitutional right of appeal; the matter might be protracted and get up to the Supreme Court.
“It is a sad commentary on our judiciary as no one should celebrate what has happened in this situation where the number one judge in the country has found himself in this kind of predicament. It does not call for celebration, it calls for sober reflection and deep concern.
“I want to reserve further comments until the machinery of justice is fully exhausted because I feel the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court will make further pronouncements,” Shittu said.