Assets Declaration Charge: Onnnoghen’s Trial Must Continue, FG Tells CCT

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Walter Onnoghen
Walter Onnoghen

The Federal Government, Monday, explained why it would pursue the six-count charge initiated against the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, to its logical conclusion.

The government, through its lawyer, Mr. Aliyu Umar, SAN, insisted that Justice Onnoghen, who was suspended from office by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 25, acted in breach of the oath he took as a public officer.

It maintained that contrary to Onnoghen’s contention, he was not charged for misconducting himself as a judicial officer, but for violating the code of conduct for public officers enshrined in the 1999 Constitution, as amended.

The government said it was, therefore, unnecessary for it to first, channel the allegation against the suspended CJN to the National Judicial Council, NJC, for consideration since the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, was statutorily empowered to investigate and prosecute such infraction.

Consequently, it urged the Danladi Umar-led three-man panel tribunal to okay full-blown hearing of the charge against Onnoghen.

Government took the position on a day the suspended CJN, who mounted the dock for the second time, challenged the powers of the tribunal to entertain the charge which he said was grossly bereft of any merit.

Onnoghen, through his lawyer Chief Adegboyega Awolowo, SAN, said he was afraid that he would not be accorded fair hearing by the tribunal he described as an appendage of the Presidency.

He insisted that he was entitled to fair hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, under section 36(1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.

Specifically, the defendant argued that the CCB which recommended his trial, the Attorney General of the Federation who is prosecuting him, and the tribunal itself, were all answerable to the executive arm of the government.

“The tenet of fair hearing is that no one should be a judge in his own case. It is our position that the principle of natural justice, equity and good conscience requires that the defendant’s right to fair hearing deserve a thorough examination by this tribunal,” Awomolo submitted.

He noted that chairman of the tribunal, Mr. Umar, had in a recent letter to the NJC, made it clear that he was only answerable to the Presidency.

“We agree with that position. In the interest of justice, we urge my lords to hold that from circumstances demonstrated in the affidavit, without freedom and impartiality of the tribunal, right of fair hearing of the defendant would be jeopardised,” Awomolo added.

Besides, Onnoghen queried the validity of the charge on the basis that the federal government failed to respect established judicial precedents by not allowing the NJC to first, investigate the allegation against him, before it rushed the matter to the CCT.

He argued that failure to channel the petition against him as well as the outcome of the investigation that was purportedly conducted on assets declaration forms he submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, to the NJC, rendered the charge invalid.

He urged the CCT to abide by a subsisting Court of Appeal decision in Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391, to the effect that any misconduct attached to the office and functions of a judicial officer, must first be reported to and handled by the NJC, pursuant to the provisions of the laws.

The embattled CJN argued that only after the NJC has pronounced against such judicial officer could prosecuting agencies of the Federal Government proceed to initiate a criminal proceeding.

Justice Onnoghen drew attention of the tribunal to a judgement it delivered on May 15, 2018, wherein it quashed a similar charge the government brought against a Justice of the Supreme Court, Sylvester Ngwuta, on the premise that the NJC ought to have been allowed to look into the matter before the case was filed.

He stressed that the two judgements were yet to be set aside by the Supreme Court.

However, in its three-paragraphed counter affidavit, the federal government urged the tribunal to dismiss Onnoghen’s objections to his trial.

It described as porous the suspended CJN’s argument that he would be denied fair hearing due to the fact that the tribunal was appointed by the President.

“We submit that the defendant failed to demonstrate any bias against either the chairman or any member of the tribunal. We urge the tribunal to dismiss this application as lacking in merit,” Umar submitted.

The prosecution urged the tribunal to overlook its previous decision in Justice Ngwuta’s case, saying it was made in error.

”’There is a difference between a judicial misconduct and a public officer not complying with provisions of the law.

“The powers of this tribunal is much more than that of a mere disciplinary body. It has powers under the constitution and therefore CCB&Tribunal Act.

“In the case of Ngwuta, the attention of the tribunal was not drawn to its powers under the constitution. Now that its attention has been drawn to it, the tribunal cannot with respect, proceed in the error,” the federal government argued.

Meanwhile, in a bench ruling, chairman of the CCT, Mr. Umar, relied on section 396(2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA,  2015, and Paragraph 5(5) of the Practice Direction of the CCT, and held that ruling on Onnoghen’s objections would be delivered alongside the substantive judgement.

Umar equally held that the tribunal was empowered under section 396(3) of the ACJA to conduct day-to-day trial of the matter.

He said the decision to conduct the trial with utmost dispatch was owing to the sensitive nature of the case and the pivotal role the leadership of judiciary plays in ensuring stability and preventing the nation from descending into lawlessness and chaos.

Government had in the charge marked CCT/ABJ/01/19, alleged that Onnoghen failed to declare his assets as prescribed by the law,  as well as operated five foreign bank accounts, contrary to section 15(2) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.

Already, FG has through the office of the AGF, directed the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit, NFIU, to freeze all the accounts, pending conclusion of the trial.

Onnoghen had in his statement of defence, insisted that he legitimately earned “huge funds” that were allegedly traced to the five bank accounts.

He justified series of deposits that were linked to the accounts, saying they were proceeds from his trade in foreign exchange (forex), AGRICODE, as well as proceeds of his investments

The government listed the accounts under investigation as Account No. 5001062686 (Euro) Standard Chartered Bank) (SCB), Account No. 5001062679 (Pound Sterling) (SCB), Account No. 0001062650 (Dollar) (SCB), Account No. 0001062667 (Naira) (SCB), and Account No. 5000162693 (Naira).

Onnoghen was suspended barely eight hours after he announced his decision to inaugurate judges that will take charge of the 2019 election petition tribunals.

President Buhari swore in the next most senior jurist on the apex court bench, Justice Tanko Muhammad, to take over as the Acting CJN.