BREAKING: CCT Convicts Onnoghen, Bans Him From Public Office For 10 Years

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Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen,
Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen,

The Code of Conduct Tribunal, Thursday, found the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen guilty of false declaration of assets and ordered his removal from office.

Consequently, the tribunal has banned him from holding public office for the next 10 years for contravening the Code of Conduct for Public Officers .

Reading the lead judgment, Danladi Umar, the tribunal chairman, ordered the immediate removal of Onnoghen from office as the CJN, Chairman of the National Judicial Council and the Chairman of the Federal Judicial Service Commission.

The tribunal also ordered the forfeiture of the five accounts which defendant failed to declare as part of his assets since he did not show how he acquired the monies.

The tribunal also ordered the forfeiture of the money in the five accounts which Onnoghen allegedly failed to declare the monies to the Federal Goverment.

According to TNE, Walter Onnoghen, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, was on trial on Monday January 14, 2019 before the Code of Conduct Tribunal in Abuja, represented by at least 45 senior lawyers, and slammed with a six-count charge bordering on false declaration of assets.

On Sunday while urging the embattled chief justice not to honour the invitation of the tribunal, the South-South Governors Forum also called on President Muhammadu Buhari to save Nigeria from embarrassment by condemning move to arraign the Chief Justice of Nigeria .

Lawyers, including the Nigerian Bar Association, have said that Mr Onnoghen’s trial can not stand because he has not been previously investigated and indicted by the National Judicial Council as required by an existing judgement.

They rely on a recent decision of the Appeal Court in Lagos, which said the NJC must first sanction a serving Judge before they can be arraigned in any court.

Although the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has appealed against that judgment, no verdict has been reached on the matter.

When the charge was called up on Monday, Chairman of the Tribunal, Justice Danladi Umar, demanded to know why the CJN was not in court and if he was served with the charge.

The prosecution counsel Aliyu Umar, SAN, who led four other lawyers, told the court that the CJN was served through one of his personal assistants.

Mr Wole Olanipekun, a senior advocate who is leading a team of 45 other senior lawyers to enter defence for the chief justice, began by challenging the jurisdiction of the case.

“You have to first determine whether you have the jurisdiction to try this matter,” Mr Olanipekun said to the tribunal chairman.

Mr Olanipekun said Mr Onnoghen has not been indicted by the National Judicial Council as legally required of serving judges before his matter was picked up by the tribunal following a petition filed by a whistleblower.

The tribunal adjourned until Tuesday, Jan. 22.

The charges against the chief justice, were triggered by a civil society group, Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative (ARDI) which sent a petition against the CJN to the Code of Conduct Bureau and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

Dennis Aghanya, the executive secretary of the organisation, said the body had acted as a whistleblower. He said the petition, which was filed on January 7, was an “offshoot of a painstaking investigation into the dealings of the CJN”.

The petition reads in part: “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 the petitioner 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.

Onnogen’s travail 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 Nov. 10, 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 March 7, 2017, Onnoghen was sworn in as the 17th Chief Justice of Nigeria by Vice president Yemi Osinbajo, then as acting president.

On Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, the federal government filed charges against Justice Onnoghen, accusing him 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.

While presenting a communique of the South-South Governors’ Forum on Sunday, the Bayelsa governor Seriake Dickson said that the governors condemned the “assault on the CJN and the judiciary”, especially coming after similar assaults on the National Assembly, saying the action against Onnoghen constitutes a setback to the gains of the nation’s democratic experience.

He said that Buhari has a constitutional responsibility and huge moral obligation to defend the country’s democracy.

Dickson said that under Section 158(1) of the 1999 Constitution, the National Judicial Council (NJC), has ample powers to deal exhaustively with matters pertaining to allegations of misconduct and discipline of judicial officers.

“Specifically, the NJC has the powers and clear procedures for investigating allegations, and recommending appropriate sanctions or disciplinary measures against judicial officials as a matter of first instance before any further steps.

“The judicial pronouncements in the cases of FGN Vs Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court (January 9, 2018) and Justice Ngajinwa Vs FGN 2017 at the CCT have given validation to the express provisions of the constitution on this issue.

“We note that the attempt to drag the CJN to the CCT is also a grave and dangerous escalation of the assault on institutions of state including the National Assembly and the Judiciary.”

Dickson said that no democracy could survive without respect for the constitution, strict adherence to the rule of law, and separation of powers as enshrined in the constitution.

“We strongly believe that the regrettable development at the Supreme Court at this critical time, when preparations for the general elections are wobbling (with serious concern about INEC and security agencies) is capable of causing avoidable anxiety, tension and possible breakdown of law and order in the country.

“We note further that the action undermines confidence not only in the judiciary but also the electoral process that has already commenced, in view of the pivotal role that the judiciary plays in the process of electoral adjudication.

“Based on the foregoing, we hereby call on the President:

“To condemn without any equivocation, this assault on the CJN and the judiciary especially coming after similar assaults on the National Assembly, to save the country from this embarrassment and global contempt.

“We call on the CJN to ignore this so-called Court summon from the CCB and the provocative call for his resignation in some quarters.

“While we are not opposed to a genuine fight against corruption, such an action must always be anchored on the rule of law.”

Dickson said that the governors considered the step as directly aimed at humiliating the nation’s highest judicial officer and a prominent son of the region.

“This is totally unacceptable as it is reflective of the South South story of endless marginalisation and intimidation.”

He added, “the unceremonious removal of former Acting Director General of the Department of State Service, Mathew Seiyefa and his replacement is still very fresh”.

In attendance were Governors Nyesom Wike of Rivers, Emmanuel Odom of Akwa-Ibom, Prof. Ben Ayade of Cross-River and that of Delta Ifeanyi Okowa.

Edo governor Godwin Obaseki was absent.

The arraignment of the CJN stalled judicial activities at the FCT High Court, Apo on Monday as most court rooms did not proceed with cases as earlier scheduled except the Governorship Election Petition Tribunal for Osun State.

Recall that in a judgment which Onnoghen delivered on July 12, 2013, (SC.279/2012) he ruled that the CCT had exclusive jurisdiction to handle all violations of the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau, which of course, would cover false declaration of assets – the matter over which he is now being tried.
There are not a few legal authorities who argue that the NJC may be considered “an ordinary, regular court” and in the matter at hand, the unilateral decision of the Chief Justice to postpone its meeting exposes the Council’s vulnerability.