Onnoghen: Guilty as charged

The Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) has ordered the removal of Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) after convicting

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Onnoghen: Guilty as charged

The Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) has ordered the removal of Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) after convicting him for breaching the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act for public officers.

The tribunal further banned him from holding public office for 10 years.

Although the tribunal had offered Onnoghen the opportunity to plea for mercy, but he simply stood up from the dock and said: “ I have no comment.”

In a unanimous judgment, the tribunal held that the former CJN would, in addition, forfeit to the Federal Government various sums of money found in his five bank accounts with the Standard Chartered Bank, which he was said to have failed to declare.

The chairman of the tribunal, Danladi Umar, who delivered the judgment in a six-count false asset declaration and non assets declaration, held that the admission by Onnoghen that he forgot to declare the bank accounts in the form CCB001 was a clear contravention of Section 23 of the CCB and CCT Act.

Umar held that the prosecution, through the witnesses and exhibits tendered and admitted, established beyond reasonable doubt that the convicted CJN was in grave error by his failure to declare the bank accounts as required by law.

Going by the judgment of the CCT, the convicted former CJN is to forfeit to the Federal Government a sum of N26.8 million, $137, 700 and £13, 730 found in his domiciliary account with the Standard Chattered Bank accounts, which were said to have been maintained since 2009.

The tribunal said it ordered the forfeiture of the various currencies in the accounts because Onnoghen did not disclose the source of the money throughout the trial.

Umar held that the CCT had the requisite jurisdiction to try the ex-CJN on the allegation that he falsely declared his assets. He maintained that the FG did not violate any portion of the law by bye-passing the National Judicial Council (NJC) to file the charge.

Umar said the tribunal was minded to overrule itself by departing from the position it took in a similar case the government instituted against Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court.

The CCT held that sections 158(1) and paragraph 21(6) of the Third Schedule of the1999 constitution, as amended, was not applicable in the case since the FG did not charge the former CJN as a serving judicial officer, but as an ordinary public officer that acted in breach of the code of conduct for public officers.

“The admission by the defendant in his own handwriting that he forgot to declare the five bank accounts in his asset declaration form CCB001 amounts to a partial confession that the defendant has breached the provision of the CCB/CCT Act as it amounts to refusal to declare assets.

“In the present case, hard facts have been adduced by the prosecution to establish that the defendant is in crystal clear of breach of the CCB provisions and the prosecution has therefore discharged the burden placed on it by law.

“Having examined the case of the prosecution against the defendant, this tribunal has come to a conclusion that the defendant falsely declared his assets and is hereby found guilty of contravention of Section 23 of the CCB/CCT Act.

“It is hereby ordered that the defendant be removed as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and as chairman of the National Judicial Council.

“He is also barred for 10 years from holding public office while the money in the five undeclared bank accounts is hereby seized, confisticated and forfeited to the Federal Government, having been illegally acquired, since the defendant did not disclose their sources”, Umar said.

Before delivering judgment in the substantive case, the tribunal had earlier dismissed the preliminary objection raised by Onnoghen challenging his trial before the tribunal.

The Federal Government had in the charge marked, CCT/ABJ/01/19, alleged that Onnoghen’s failure to properly declare his assets was in violation of section 15(2) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.

Whereas Onnoghen urged the tribunal to discharge and acquit him, insisting that the FG failed to prove that he committed any offence that is known to the law.

…Heads to Appeal Court, says judiciary battered and bruised

Meanwhile, Onnoghen has described his conviction by the CCT as a breach of his fundamental principles of natural justice, equity and good conscience.

Although he declined to speak to journalists immediately after the judgment, his counsel, Okon Nkanu Efut, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), alleged that the judgment was premeditated.

He disclosed that when on January 23 the CCT granted the ex-parte order, which President Muhammadu Buhari relied upon on January 25, to remove Onnoghen from office as the CJN, its position on the matter became a public knowledge.

Efut, who vowed to challenge the judgment at the Court of Appeal, said: “The journey has ended today because everything that has a beginning must have an end. So, this day, we have heard that the Chief Justice of Nigeria has been convicted and sentenced.

“The conviction is out of order, it is unconstitutional. It is a breach of fair hearing because before this day, on the January 23, the same judgment had been passed before now, removing the CJN without a fair hearing.

“So, it was a fait accompli, it was premeditated as judgment had been passed before today. Today’s judgment is just a formality and we hold the view that the tribunal has not only breached the constitution of Nigeria, it has breached the fundamental principles of natural justice, equity and good conscience. “It has not only been able to pass judgment, it has convicted for an offence that was never charged and this is an erosion of the fundamental principles of our constitution.

“Some questions need to be answered. For instance, why is it that the due course of justice was not allowed to flow? Why was judgement passed on January 23 before today, removing the CJN? Why is it that today, even after the CJN had tendered his notice of voluntary retirement and the NJC has taken a position, why is it that the tribunal has gone ahead to pass a judgement in total disregard of the independence of the NJC, in total disregard of the powers of the senate in this matter? We hold a view that the tribunal in reversing itself in the case of Ngwuta, has breached the principle that hold us together.

“This is a sad day in our nation’s democracy and we know that all is not over with this matter. The wheel of justice grinds slowly but surely. This is not a matter that will end here. We shall avail ourselves of all the processes, the hierarchy of the judiciary and we know that the judiciary will redeem itself even though seriously battered and bruised. The judiciary will do justice. Justice has not been done today, but it will surely be done tomorrow. If not by the tribunal, but by our God. Justice will be done by our God.”

…Senior lawyer reacts

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and former Attorney General of Imo State, Chukwuma Ma-Chukwu Ume, has condemned the judgment, describing it as “a computer well programmed to hit a target.”

Ume told Daily Sun: “Once a computer is programmed, it does not miss its target.

“More importantly, it is the heart and soul of Nigeria democracy and the independent of the judiciary that is wrongly tried and wrongly convicted, not Onnoghen.”