The impending trial of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, over non-declaration of assets has become one of the top controversial developments to dominate the country’s political space ahead of the 2019 general elections.
The trial, scheduled for Monday, January 14, has been greeted with various interpretations, cutting across divergent interests – Political affiliations, ethnic interests, professional standpoint, personal opinion, and so on.
Here is what we know and what we do not know about the trail of the CJN.
Onnogen’s travail did not start now. In fact, it dates back to 2017 when he was appointed as the Chief Justice of Nigeria. His appointment suffered unprecedented delay by President Muhammadu Buhari over undisclosed issues.
Being the most senior justice of the Supreme Court, Onnoghen was sworn in as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) on the 10 of November 2016, subsequent to the retirement of the former chief justice, Justice Mahmud Mohammed at the statutory age of 70.
However, there was a prolonged delay in confirming Onnoghen as the substantive chief justice, the position he rightly deserved as the most senior justice of the Supreme Court.
The delay led to series of speculations. However, on the 7th day of March 2017, Onnoghen was sworn in as the 17th Chief Justice of Nigeria by Vice president Yemi Osinbajo, then as acting president.
The main allegations
On Thursday, January 10, the federal government filed charges against Justice Onnoghen, accusing of false declaration of assets.
The federal government said, against the provisions of the law, the chief justice only partially declared his assets in 2016 after the controversial crackdown on judges.
The government further said that the number one judge of the nation 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.
It consequently filed six charges of non and fraudulent declaration of assets by Onnoghen, with the trial expected to commence on Monday, January 14, at the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
The CCT has also confirmed that Justice Onnogen will be arraigned on Monday. This is an unprecedented development in the history of Nigeria; no chief justice of Nigeria has ever been subjected to trial.
The charges against the chief justice, Legit.ng learns, were triggered by a civil society group, Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative (ARDI).
The group sent a petition against the CJN to the CCB and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.
According to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), Dennis Aghanya, the executive secretary of the organisation, said the body had acted as a whistleblower.
Aghanya said the petition, which was filed on January 7, was an offshoot of a painstaking investigation into the dealings of the CJN.
He said the organisation was of the strong opinion that the allegations were weighty enough to compel an action against Justice Onnoghen.
The petition reads in parts: “We hereby petition you on suspected violations of the law and the Constitution of Nigeria by the Honourable Mr Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
“Specifically, we petition you based on the alarming facts detailed below, all of which indicate that the leader of our country’s judicial branch is embroiled in suspected official corruption, financial crimes and breaches of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.
“The particulars of our findings indicate that: 1. His Lordship Justice Walter Onnoghen is the owner of sundry accounts primarily funded through cash deposits made by himself, up to as recently as 10th August 2016.
“These appear to have been run in a manner inconsistent with financial transparency and the code of conduct for public officials.”
The body had alleged that Justice Onnoghen made five different cash deposits of 10,000 dollars each on March 8, 2011, into Standard Chartered Bank Account 1062650.
It also alleged that the CJN on June 7, 2011, made two separate cash deposits of 5000 dollars each.
It was also alleged that the June 7, 2011 transactions were followed by another four cash deposits of 10,000 dollars each.
Similarly, ARDI further alleged that Justice Onnoghen had on June 27, 2011, made another set of five separate cash deposits of 10,000 dollars each and made four more cash deposits of 10,000 dollars on June 28, 2011.
It also alleged that the CJN had failed to declare his assets immediately after taking office, adding that the inaction was contrary to Section 15 (1) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.
ARDI also alleged that Onnoghen did not comply with the constitutional requirement for public servants to declare their assets every four years during their career.
Another allegation by the group is that the Code of Conduct Bureau Forms (Form CCB 1) belonging to Justice Onnoghen for 2014 and 2016 were dated and filed on the same day.
The group alleged that the acknowledgement slip for Declarant SCN: 000014 was issued on December 14, 2016, while that for Declarant SCN: 000015 was also issued on Dec.14, 2016.
The petitioner alleged that the two CCB acknowledgement slips were issued to the Justice Onnoghen when he had been sworn-in as the CJN.
“The affidavit for SCN: 000014 was sworn to on 14th December 2016; 2 of 6 b. The affidavit for SCN: 000015 was sworn to on 14th December 2016.
“Both forms were received on 14th December 2016 by one Awwal Usman Yakasai.
“The discrepancy between Justice Walter Onnoghen’s two CCB forms that were filed on the same day is significant.
“In filling the section on Details of Assets, particularly cash in Nigerian Banks, His Lordship as Declarant SCN: 000014 mentioned only two bank accounts,” the petitioner alleged.
According to the petitioner, the CJN runs Union Bank account number 0021464934 in Abuja, with a balance of N9, 536,407 on November 14, 2014.
The body alleged that the second account the CJN agreed to run was Union Bank number 0012783291 in Calabar, with balance of N11, 456,311 as at November 14, 2014.
The petitioner said the sources of the funds in the accounts were stated as salaries, estacodes and allowances.
The petitioner, however, alleged that Justice Onnoghen as Declarant SCN: 000015, had listed seven bank accounts that were in use.
The group said the CJN was linked to Standard Chartered account 00001062667, with a balance of N3, 221,807.05 as at November 14, 2016.
Another account they alleged was operated by the CJN included Standard Chartered account 00001062650, with a balance of $164,804.82, as at November 14 2016.
The other account linked to him is Standard Chartered with account number 5001062686, with a balance of 55,154.56 Euros as at November 14, 2016, among others.
What the CJN said
Upon receiving the query, Justice Onnoghen sent a statement to the Code of Conduct Bureau to explain his side of the story.
According to Premium Times, Onnoghen said he “forgot to update his asset declaration, after the expiration of his 2005 declaration”.
He also explained that he believed that the form SCN 000015 filed in December 2016 after he emerged acting CJN would cover for the period after his confirmation as CJN.
In his response to the queries raised by the CCB, Onnoghen wrote as follows:
“My asset declaration form numbers SCN 00014 and SCN 00005 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. Following my appointment as acting CJN in November 2016, the need to declare my assets anew made me realise the mistake.
“I then did the declaration to cover the period in default. I did not include my standard charted bank account in SCN 000014 because I believed they were not opened.
“I did not make a fresh declaration of asset after my substantive appointment as CJN because I was under the impression that my SCN 000015 was to cover that period of four years which includes my term as CJN.”
Reactions: The political undertone
Some believe that the trial of Justice Onnogen is a political plot to remove as the CJN ahead of the forthcoming elections.
What lends credence to this is the fact that the head of the group that petitioned the CJN happened to be a former aide of President Buhari.
Aghanya is a former media aide to Buhari and was also the publicity secretary of defunct Congress for Progressive Change (CPC).
He is also the current media adviser to Juliet Chikaodili Ibekaku, a senatorial candidate under the umbrella of the All Progressive Congress (APC).
However, Aghanya insisted that President Buhari has no hand in the issue contrary to insinuation.
He said he once took President Buhari to court in spite of the fact that he was his aide and claimed Onnoghen has owned up to the charges.
Aghanya said his organisation commenced investigation against the senior judicial officer about a year ago and dismissed the allegation that it was politically motivated.
The ethnic dimension
The trial has also exposed the ethnic politics Nigeria has grappled with since Independence. Shortly after the news broke out, governors from the south-south region of the country, where Justice Onnoghe comes from, summoned an emergency meeting over the reported plans by the federal government to remove Onnoghen as the CJN.
Governor Seriake Dickson in a statement by his special adviser on media relations, Fidelis Soriwei, on Saturday, January 12, said warned that the action against the CJN was a dangerous escalation coming a few weeks to the general elections.
While the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) endorsed the planned arraignment of the CJN, the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) said it is part of a plot by the APC-led federal government to destabilise the Judiciary so as to rig the 2019 general elections.
The PDP’s presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, in his own reaction said the “attempt to force” Walter Onnoghen, chief justice of Nigeria (CJN), out of office has a negative meaning.
Atiku said the move against Onnoghen fuels his suspicion of President Buhari’s “growing desperation” concerning the forthcoming elections.
Subsequently, opposition parties on the platform of the Coalition of United Political Parties are planning a one-million-man march to protest the planned trial of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, before the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
The coalition’s first national spokesperson, Imo Ugochinyere, said the protest was meant to save the nation’s judiciary and by extension, Nigeria’s democracy.
What the law actually says
The Nigerian Bar Association and Many prominent lawyers have condemned the planned arraignment of the chief justice by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).
“If one contemplates the fact that the CCT arraignment is scheduled to take place on 14 January 2019, we have in total a record number of 3 (three) working days between the receipt and processing of the petition, investigation, preparation of charge and ancillary processes and the arraignment!
“Such unprecedented speed and efficiency in Nigeria’s criminal justice administration! It is clear, given the rush with which this matter was conducted by the CCB, that the NJC was not privy to it and did not conduct its mandatorily required disciplinary processes
“As a final point, it is also difficult for a disinterested observer not to see a pattern of consistent assault by agencies of the FGN on the heads of the two independent arms of government,” the NBA said in a statement by its president, Paul Usoro.
While the statement by the NBA does not directly address the issue, the reaction of the prominent human rights lawyer directly addresses the contentious issue, with a legal validation.
Falana described the move as a “prosecutorial misadventure,” and called on the justice minister, Abubakar Malami, to immediately withdraw the charge.
“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.”
The position of another legal luminary, Afe Babalola (SAN), aligns with that of Falana. He described the proposed trial as “denigration of the country’s Judiciary and Constitution.”
He also noted the constitutional provision which stipulates that any infraction by judges must first be investigated and then resolved by the National Judicial Council, “to the exclusion of any other body or authority.”
Babalola said the law had made clear the processes for the trial of judicial officers and as well as their removal, hence the need to desist from “contempt and denigration of the judiciary.”
He said: “I am of the view that the Constitution requires that any infraction by the said judges be firstly investigated and resolved by the National Judicial Council, to the exclusion of any other body or authority.”
Babalola, who stated that the decision of the Court of Appeal in Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391(CA) “still subsists and has not been set aside,” said: “I, therefore, see no justification for the decision to arraign the CJN before the CCT.”
Continuing, he argued, “Again, the point must be made clear that the Constitution clearly provides for the procedure with which the CJN can be removed from office.
“Section 292 (1)(a)(i) and 292 (1)(b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (As Amended) addressed it.”
However, when the matter is referred to NJC, of which Onnoghen is the chairman, he would have to recuse himself from the process.
Meanwhile, at least 150 Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) have signalled interest to appear before the Justice Danladi Yakubu-led Code of Conduct Tribunal on Monday in defence of Walter Onnoghen, the Chief Justice Of Nigeria (CJN), in connection with allegations slammed against him.
Sabastine Tartenger Hon, a senior advocate, disclosed this to Daily Trust via a phone conversation.
Will the trial eventually hold?
The governors of five states in the south-south have asked Justice Onnoghen to ignore the court summons by the CCB.
The governors stated this in a communique issued at the end of an emergency meeting held at the Bayelsa Governor's lodge on Sunday, January 13, in Abuja.
The communique was read by Governor Seriake Dickson.
There are also speculations that the federal government may intervene in the trial, indicating that the arraignment may be aborted.
PAY ATTENTION: Download our mobile app to enjoy the latest news updates
The need for thorough screening before confirmation of public appointments
The ensuing drama which many consider embarrassing for Nigeria’s young democracy could be avoided if there is painstaking scrutiny of candidates before their appointments are confirmed. The current controversy is another call to all the relevant regulatory bodies, the Code of Conduct Bureau, the Department of State Service (DSS), the legislature, etc. to be painstaking and thorough in their screening before appointments are confirmed.
The current non-declaration controversy could have been detected and addressed earlier before now if there was a thorough screening before the CJN’s appointment was confirmed.
NAIJ.com (naija.ng) -> Legit.ng: We have updated to serve you better!
South-South governors condemn trial of CJN Onnoghen | Legit TV