This report presents the story of Justice Walter Onnoghen’s conviction by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT. It takes the reader through the 100-day ordeal – counting from January 9 – of the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, the intrigues, the desperation and the sloppiness of the entire episode, leading to his conviction last Thursday.
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
I have no comment”, was the exact response of the embattled former Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, after he was convicted by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, in Abuja on all the six-count charge the Federal Government preferred against him.
Many will, however, argue that he was not that punctilious in response, the day he was approached by officials of the Code of Conduct Bureau, CCB, to explain alleged infractions that were observed in his asset declaration forms.
In the interface that took place between him and CCB investigators on January 11, Justice Onnoghen, in a written statement that was marked as Exhibit C, which the Mr. Danladi Umar-led tribunal relied upon to nail him last Thursday, admitted that he forgot to declare five domiciliary foreign accounts he operated with Standard Chartered Bank.
The former CJN may have been spurred by his knowledge that the CCB Act created a window of opportunity for such admitted anomaly in asset declaration forms to be corrected.
Unbeknownst to him, while he was still interacting with the CCB officials at his cosy chambers at the Supreme Court, a charge had already been entered against him at the CCT.
In an unprecedented but calculated move, the CCT, on the same day the charge was filed, summoned him to appear before it on January 14 for arraignment. In a country where reckless appreciation of timeliness is the norm, this was strange.
The charge, marked CCT/ABJ/01/19, followed a petition dated January 7, which was lodged before the CCB by a group under the aegis of Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative. Remarkably, the Bureau which received the petition on January 9, with supersonic speed, concluded its investigations within 48 hours. Between January 9 and january 11, when CCB officials visited Onnoghen, there was only one day in between.
Meantime, Justice Onnoghen, on January 14, declined to appear before the CCT panel to enter his plea.
Instead, acting through his consortium of lawyers led by a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, and a former Attorney General of the Federation, Chief Kanu Agabi, SAN, the Defendant, challenged the jurisdiction of the CCT to handle the case against him.
He contended that FG’s failure to channel the petition against him, as well as the outcome of the investigation that was purportedly conducted on his assets declaration forms by the CCB, to the National Judicial Council, NJC, before it rushed the case to the CCT.
The ex-CJN further argued that FG failed to abide by existing judicial precedent as encapsulated in a recent Appeal Court decision in Nganjiwa v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2017) LPELR-43391(CA), 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.
He maintained that only after the NJC has pronounced against such judicial officer could prosecuting agencies of the Federal Government proceed to initiate a criminal proceeding.
Placing reliance on a recent decision of the CCT on a similar charge FG lodged against another Justice of the Supreme Court, Sylvester Ngwuta, the CJN’s legal team, insisted that FG’s decision to sideline the NJC, stripped the tribunal off its jurisdiction to entertain the instant case.
The same day, FG, filed a motion for the tribunal to compel Justice Onnoghen to step aside as the CJN and Chairman of the NJC, and for him to hand over to his next in command, Justice Tanko Muhammad.
While the former CJN was locking horns with the CCT, three separate high courts, as well as the National Industrial Court, issued interim injunctions stopping the tribunal from taking further steps in the matter. All these, did not matter.
On January 21, in a two to one split decision, the CCT panel, said it would proceed with the trial, despite the court orders.
Dissatisfied with the decision, Onnoghen, proceeded to the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal where he secured an order that suspended further proceedings at the CCT, pending the determination of an appeal he lodged against his trial.
Nevertheless, before the appeal could be heard, Justice Onnoghen, on January 18, filed the motion the appellate court, on January 24, relied upon to temporarily suspend further proceedings in the case.
In what appeared to look like a desperate move to get the CJN out of office any which way, unknown to both the appellant and the court, FG had the previous day (January 23), persuaded the CCT to issue an ex-parte order for the Defendant to be suspended from office, pending the conclusion of his trial.
Thus, in a move that took Nigerians by storm, President Muhammadu Buhari, on January 25, suspended Justice Onnoghen and swore-in the next most senior jurist of the Supreme Court, Justice Muhammad to take over the leadership of the judiciary as the Acting CJN.
The action of the President elicited varied reactions from both within and outside the judicial circles, with the NBA, describing it as a coup against the judiciary.
Onnoghen was suspended barely eight hours after he announced his decision to inaugurate judges that will take charge of the 2019 election petition tribunals.
To further register its displeasure over the action FG took against Onnoghen, the NBA, ordered a 2-day boycott of court activities in the country by lawyers.
The legal body constituted a three member committee to liaise with the government with a view to finding an amicable resolution of the crisis bedevilling the suspended CJN.
Likewise, 25 constitutional lawyers, dragged President Buhari before the Federal High Court in Abuja to challenge what they termed as illegal suspension of the CJN, Onnoghen.
On January 30, the appellate court, cleared the coast for FG to open its case against the suspended CJN.
After a convulated game of legal hide and seek, Onnoghen, on February 15, eventually mounted the dock and pleaded his innocence to the charge against him, even as he was granted bail on self-recognition.
He surrendered himself for trial, about 48 hours after the tribunal issued a bench warrant for his arrest.
Meantime, Onnoghen’s 98 days torturous route to conviction came to a climax last Thursday after the CCT panel found him guilty on all the six-count charge.
The tribunal said it was satisfied that FG successfully proved its allegation that Onnoghen who had voluntarily resigned his position as CJN on April 4, acted in breach of the code of conduct for public officers in the country.
It held that evidence of three witnesses that testified in the course of the trial, were not discredited by the defendant.
The CCT Chairman, Mr. Umar, who read the judgement, maintained that Onnoghen’s admission that he forgot to declare the five accounts he operated since 2009, was “weighty enough” to guarantee his conviction.
He held that the defendant was unable to disprove “hard facts” that were brought against him by the prosecution.
“The prosecution has discharged the onus placed on it beyond every iota of doubt. It is clear that the defendant was in clear breach of the code of conduct for public officers. The prosecution successfully established its case, and the defendant is accordingly convicted”, the CCT Chairman added.
Consequently, handing its sentence after it declared the defendant guilty, the tribunal, ordered that he is “hereby removed from office as the Chief Justice of the Nigeria, Chairman of the National Judicial Council and the Federal Judicial Service Commission.
“Secondly, the defendant is hereby banned from holding any public office for 10 years”.
More so, the tribunal held that Onnoghen’s failure to explain how he amassed “huge amounts of money in his accounts”, was an indication that the funds were acquired illegally.
It therefore ordered that the funds should be “confiscated, seized and forfeited to the federal government”.
Mr. Umar had before he commenced the sentencing, asked the defendant if he would like to make a plea of allocutus (for mercy), but Onnoghen simply bowed his head and told him, “no comment”.
The tribunal had earlier, dismissed two preliminary objections the former CJN lodged to challenge the legal propriety of his trial.
Mr. Umar held that the CCT had the requisite jurisdiction to try the ex-CJN on the allegation that he falsely declared his assets.
He held that FG did not violate any portion of the law by bye-passing the NJC to file the charge.
A Controversial Umar And Tribunal Overruling Itself
Mr. 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 to the1999 Constitution, as amended, was not applicable in the case since 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.
In a second ruling, the CCT Chairman, said there was no merit in the former CJN’s application that he should recuse himself from the matter considering that he (Umar) was previously haunted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.
Mr. Umar admitted that though there was a bribery allegation that was levelled against him, he said the EFCC had in two separate letters dated March 5, 2015, and April 20, 2016, cleared him of any wrongdoing.
He said an initial charge that was entered against him was subsequently withdrawn by the EFCC on November 8, 2018.
This Judgment Cannot Stand – Onnoghen
However, in a swift reaction, the former CJN immediately approached the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal, adducing 16 grounds why his conviction by the CCT should be quashed.
Onnoghen contended that the tribunal erred in law and occasioned a grave miscarriage of justice against him when it failed to decline jurisdiction to entertain the charge.
He argued that the CCT Chairman ought to have recused himself from presiding over his trial.
Besides, the former CJN, in his notice of appeal, urged the appellate court to declare that the charge against him had become academic.
In his seven-point reliefs, Onnoghen, applied for his conviction and the order for forfeiture of his assets to be set-aside.
He further urged the appellate court to discharge and acquit him of all the allegations FG levelled against him.
Listing some of the particulars of error in the CCT’s verdict, Onnoghen, argued that he was at the time the charges were filed against him on January 11, a judicial officer and was therefore not subject to the jurisdiction of the lower tribunal.
He said: “On the authority of Nganjiwa v. FRN (2018) 4 NWLR (Pt. 1609) 30: at 340. 341 only the National Judicial Council has the power to discipline the Appellant for misconduct and not the lower tribunal.
“The lower tribunal had in the case of FRN V. Sylvester Nwali Nguta in charge No: CCT/ABJ/01/2017 delivered on 9th January, 2018, affirmed the position of the Court in FRN Nganjiwa v. FRN and dismissed the charges and acquitted and discharged Justice Ngwuta being a Judicial Officer subject only to the discipline of the National Judicial Council.
“The lower tribunal has no jurisdiction over serving judicial officers such as the appellant, save the National Judicial Council.
“The Motion on Notice dated 14th January, 2019, challenging jurisdiction ought to be granted in all material particular as it purports to save the lower tribunal of needless futile exercise.
“The lower tribunal erred In law when it dismissed the Appellant’s Application seeking the chairman to recuse himself from further proceedings on the ground of real likelihood of bias and thus occasioned a miscarriage of justice
“Once an allegation of real likelihood of the bias Is raised, the Court or tribunal will have nothing more to say except to watch its hands from further proceedings in the matter.
“The Appellant has alleged that the chairman of the lower tribunal is biased towards him as a result of open remarks in the tribunal as well as the manner in which the proceedings was being conducted”.
Moreover, Onnoghen, said he did not admit the fact of non declaration of Assets from year 2005 as the Justice of the Supreme Court.
“ The Appellant only stated that he did not declare in 2009 as required because he forgot. The evidence of witnesses and exhibit tendered has affirmed the statement of the appellant that he forgot to make a declaration in 2009 but did so in 2010 when he remembered, showing there was a declaration after all, contrary to count one of the charge.
“The lower tribunal erred in law when It held that the evidence of DW-I, did not create reasonable doubt on the evidence of the prosecution witnesses that the Appellant did not make declaration of assets since 2005 and thus occasioned a miscarriage of justice.
“The lower tribunal erred in law when it held that the Appellant is guilty of counts 2-6 of the charge in view of the fact that the Appellant made an admission that he did not declare the Standard Chattered Bank Account Numbers in the 2014 declaration and thus occasioned a miscarriage of justice.
“The Appellant’s statement that he did not declare the Account numbers in the Standard Chartered Bank in the 2014 Declaration because he never believed the account numbers were opened, does not amount to an admission in law that he made false statements as indicated in counts 2-6.
“The declaration for 2014 and 2016 were all made the same day being 16th December, 2016, but the disparity was that whereas the 2016 declaration had the account numbers, in Standard Chartered Bank, that of 2014 did not have but in any event, the said account numbers were declared.
“The Account numbers were the ones declared by the Appellant himself in the 2016 declaration and was not found out from any other source.
“The Appellant did not make any false statement or declaration by the omission to state the account numbers in the 2014 declaration.
“The lower tribunal erred in law when it held that the Appellant made false statement by the omission to declare the Account numbers in Standard Chartered Bank in 2014 declaration the same way he did in the 2016 declaration and held counts 2-6 to be proved and thus occasioned miscarriage of justice.
“ Section 15 (2) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act is very clear and unambiguous when it provides that there must be verification. The lower tribunal erred in law when it held that count one of the charge is valid and proceeded to convict the Appellant upon it.
“The Honourable Tribunal erred In law when it tried and convicted the Defendant/Appellant for failure to declare and submit assets declaration Forms, between 2005 and 2016, which alleged offence is unknown to law; and in total violation of Section 36 (12) of the 1999 Constitution”, Onnoghen added in the appeal he filed through his team of lawyers led by Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN.
‘How I Made My Money’
It will be recalled that Justice Onnoghen had in a ‘Cautionary Statement Form’ he filed at the Department of Intelligence Investigation and Monitoring, CCB, maintained that the alleged “huge deposits” in his account were from trading in foreign exchange (forex), AGRICODE, as well as proceeds of his investments.
In the statement, Onnoghen averred, “That the deposits made in my US Dollar account No. 87000106250 with STD. Chartered Bank of $10,000 at different intervals of June 28, 2011 were sourced partly from my reserve and saving from my estacodes, including medical expenses.
“The same applies to my deposit of July 28, 2011, of $10,000 twice. It is important to state that prior to my opening the US dollar account, I had foreign currency, which I kept at home, due to the fact that there existed a government that proscribed the operation of foreign currency account by public officers including judicial officers.
“It was when I got to know that the policy had changed that I had to open the said account. Upon opening the account, I was made to understand that I cannot pay in more than $10,000 at a time and per payment slip. I cannot remember the total amount I had on reserve at the time, but it spread from my practice days as a private legal practitioner from 1979 to 1989.
“Some of the deposits are a result of forex trading, AGRICODE, and other investment returns were from proceeds of my investments into them. The withdrawals in the account are partly to pay children’s fees, upkeep abroad and further investments. My British pound and euro accounts with Chartered Standard Bank are savings accounts.
“In the January 1, 2019 document, the suspended jurist, who wrote his statement on January 11, 2019, between 12:30pm to 1: 45pm added: “I, Walter S. N. Onnoghen, of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, hereby, voluntarily depose to the statement averred herein, knowing that whatever I write or state may be tendered against me as evidence in court.
“I also volunteer to state that the statement was not taken in evidence from me under duress but after the administering officer had explained and made known the details of the allegations against me.”
In response to allegations of non-declaration of his assets, justice Onnoghen said: “My asset declaration for numbers. SCN000014 and SCN.0000 5 were declared on the same day, December 14, 2016 because I forgot to make a declaration of May 2005 of my assets after the expiration of my 2005 declaration in 2009.
“Following my appointment as acting chief justice of Nigeria in November 2016, the need to declare my asset anew made me to realise the mistake and then did the declarations to cover the period in default.
“I did not include my Standard Chartered Bank Account in SCN. 000014 because I believed they were not opened during the period covered by the declaration.
“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 the period of four years; which includes my leave as CJN.”
The Sins Of Onnoghen – Petitioner
The petitioner had asked FG to investigate the origin of huge foreign currencies they said were found in Onnoghen’s accounts.
The petition read: “We write to bring to your attention serious concerns bothering on flagrant 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 are distressed that facts on the ground indicate the leader of our country’s judicial branch is embroiled in suspected financial crimes and breaches of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.
“The particulars of our findings indicate that: 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 which appear to have been run in a manner inconsistent with financial transparency and the code of conduct for public officials.
“To give specific examples, here are some instances of cash deposits by Justice Onnoghen: Justice Onnoghen made five different cash deposits of $10,000 each on 8th March 2011 into Standard Chartered Bank Account 1062650;
“On 7th June 2011, two separate cash deposits of $5000 each were made by Justice Walter Onnoghen, followed by four cash deposits of $10,000 each;
“On 27th June 2011, Justice Onnoghen made another set of five separate cash deposits of $10,000 each and made four more cash deposits of $10,000 each on the following day, 28th June 2011;
“Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen did not declare his assets immediately after taking office, contrary to Section 15 (1) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act;
“Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen did not comply with the constitutional requirement for public servants to declare their assets every four years during their career.
“The Code of Conduct Bureau Forms (Form CCB 1) of Hon. Justice Walter Onnoghen for 2014 and 2016 were dated and filed on the same day. The acknowledgement slip for Declarant SCN: 000014 was issued on 14th December 2016. The acknowledgement slip for Declarant SCN: 000015 was also issued on 14th December 2016, at which point Justice Onnoghen had become the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
“The affidavit for SCN: 000014 was sworn to on 14th December 2016; 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:
“Union Bank account number 0021464934 in Abuja, with balance of N9,536,407, as at 14th November 2014.
“Union Bank account number 0012783291 in Calabar, with balance of N11, 456,311 as at 14th November 2014.
“The sources of the funds in these accounts are stated as salaries, estacodes and allowances.
“As Declarant SCN: 000015 His Lordship however lists seven bank accounts: Standard Chartered account 00001062667, with balance of N3,221,807.05 as at 14th November 2016.
“Standard Chartered account 00001062650, with balance of $164,804.82, as at 14th November 2016.
“Standard Chartered account 5001062686, with balance of EUROS 55,154.56, as at 14th November 2016.
“Standard Chartered Bank account 5001062679 with balance of GBP108,352.2, as at 14th November 2016.
“Standard Chartered Bank account 5001062693 with balance of N8,131,195.27, as at 14th November 2016.
“Union Bank account 00021464934 with balance of N23,261,568.89, as at 14th November 2016.
“Union Bank account 0012783291 with balance of N14,695,029.12, as at 14th November 2016.
“The foreign currency Standard Chartered Bank accounts that were declared by Declarant SCN: 000015 have been in existence since at least 2011.
“Prior to 2016, His Lordship appears to have suppressed or otherwise concealed the existence of these multiple domiciliary accounts owned by him, as well as the substantial cash balances in them.
“The Standard Chartered Bank dollar account 1062650 had a balance of $391,401.28 on 31st January 2011;
“The Standard Chartered Bank Euro account 5001062686 had a balance of EURO 49,971.71 on 31st January 2011;
“The Standard Chartered Bank pound sterling account 5001062679 had a balance of GBP23,409.66 on 28th February 2011.
“It is curious that these domiciliary accounts were not declared in one of the two CCB Forms filed by Justice Onnoghen on the same day, 14th December 2016.
“The Naira bank accounts in b (i) and b (v) above are also omitted in the CCB form of Declarant SCN: 000014.
“It is our humble view that, with the foregoing, we have laid before you facts which support the assertion that Justice Walter Onnoghen may have committed a breach of the provisions of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act as follows:
“Non-declaration of assets immediately after taking office in several capacities prior to becoming the Chief Justice of Nigeria contrary to section 15 of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act;
“Non-declaration of assets immediately after taking office as the Chief Justice of Nigeria contrary to section 15 of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act.
“Non-declaration of assets at the statutory intervals after taking office throughout his career as a federal judicial officer contrary to section 15 of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act.
“False declaration of asset, and in particular, concealment of significant and declarable assets in the form of sundry bank accounts and the balances therein, contrary to section 15 of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act.
“Consequent to this information, it is our expectation and request that you will discharge the constitutional duty of your office and take the necessary lawful actions to uphold and enforce the law in this matter by involving sister agencies such as:
“The Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) to conduct comprehensive statistical analysis of cash transactions on all the accounts for cases of suspicious transactions.
“The Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) to determine whether Standard Chartered Bank has not breached statutory duties to the Nigerian State in favour of, or in connivance with, His Lordship on Suspicious Transactions Reporting (STR).
“The Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC), the Supreme Court of Nigeria and the National Judicial Council (NJC) to determine whether the disclosed financial transactions are justified by His Lordship’s lawful remuneration.
“As ordinary citizens, motivated by a clear belief that there must be high standards in public life, we have acted to expose a possible criminal breach of our laws. We believe it is now your duty to act, and to do so promptly”.
While Nigerians await President Muhammadu Buhari’s action on the investigative report of the NJC on the matter, which was transmitted to him on April 4, one immutable fact remains that the last has not been heard on ‘Onnoghengate’.
Unfortunately for the petitioner, the CCT and the FG, the clumsiness of the pursuit to get Onnoghen out of office and get him convicted, sometimes tended to cast a pall on the entire process. Whatever the crimes of Walter Onnoghen, the law needed to take it course. For now, it has.