Onnoghen: A Justice in the Eye of the Law

Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen

Olawale Olaleye

Except the unintended shows up, the stage is set for the arraignment of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) tomorrow over allegations of false declaration of assets.

A statement by Ibraheem Al-Hassan, Head, Press & Public Relations at the CCT yesterday in Abuja, stated that “The Code of Conduct Tribunal has scheduled Monday, 14th of January for the commencement of trial against current Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon Justice Onnoghen Nkanu Walter Samuel for alleged non declaration of asset.

“This was consequent to application filed by the Code of Conduct Bureau to the CCT Chairman yesterday for the trial to commence against the Chief Justice of Nigeria on six count charges.”

A civil society group, Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative (ARDI), was reported by TheCable, an online news portal, as having launched the legal move against Onnoghen through a petition to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), listing a number of allegations against him, chiefly false declaration of assets.

In the petition dated January 7, 2019, the group accused Onnoghen of owning “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”.

For instance, the group said Onnoghen made five different cash deposits of $10,000 each on March 8, 2011, into Standard Chartered Bank Account 1062650; two separate cash deposits of $5000 each followed by four cash deposits of $10,000 each on June 7, 2011; another set of five separate cash deposits of $10,000 each on June 27, 2011, and four more cash deposits of $10,000 each the following day.

In addition, the group noted that Onnoghen did not declare his assets immediately after taking office, contrary to section 15 (1) of Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act; and that he did not comply with the constitutional requirement for public servants to declare their assets every four years during their career.

The group further noted that his Code of Conduct Bureau Forms (Form CCB 1) for 2014 and 2016 were dated and filed on the same day and the acknowledgement slips were issued for both on December 14, 2016 — at which point, they said, Onnoghen had become the CJN, having assumed office on March 6, 2017.

Although section 3 (e) of the Third Schedule (part 1) of the 1999 constitution, provides that the Code of Conduct Bureau shall “receive complaints about non-compliance with or breach of the provisions of the Code of Conduct or any law in relation thereto, investigate the complaint and, where appropriate, refer such matters to the Code of Conduct Tribunal”, however, since officers of the law are meant to be disciplined by the National Judicial Commission (NJC), the possibility that the CCB would refer this particular case to the CCT is unlikely even if the allegations were found to be true

What is likely to happen is that it might have to refer it to the NJC, which is chaired, incidentally, by Onnoghen. But at this point, he would have to excuse himself from the process, even though no CJN has been tried before apart from the arrest of some justices.

Interestingly, since the news of the move to probe Onnoghen came to the fore, it has been seen from different angles by different people, depending on which side the individual is speaking from.

There are those, for instance, who contend that the timing was first not right and that putting the CJN in such an obnoxious corner a few weeks to the general election, could mean stoking a needless constitutional row, with staggering insinuations about compromise or refusal to play ball.

The thinking in the opposition is that because the ruling party has seen that Onnoghen was not one to play balls with the ruling party on election matters and that should he remain in office till the time of the election, then presidential election cases might suffer terrible blow in court, because he would not tag along with them.

Already, the opposition has begun to drop the name of one Dennis Aghanya, who is said to be the author of the petition against Onnoghen, saying he was President Muhammadu Buhari’s media aide and former National Publicity Secretary of the defunct CPC.

This school however contended that the CCT could not try the CJN, because according to it, by virtue of the judgment of the Court of Appeal in respect of the case of Justice of Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa of the Federal High Court, any serving judicial officer could not be tried by the Code of Conduct tribunal or even court, until the NJC had dealt with the matter.

To that extent, this school contended that it was based on the judgment that the CCT discontinued the trial of a Supreme Court justice, Sylvester Ngwuta, who also was being tried for alleged false declaration of assets.
It is argued that it was in lieu of this that the Federal High Court once struck out money laundering charges against the Supreme Court justices.

There was yet another viewpoint, which argued that since the infraction committed by Onnoghen was constitutional, the politicisation of the argument was doing injustice to the constitution and other extant laws of the land, which forbid any public office holder from concealing their worth as part of the condition for such office.

Those in this school maintained that the argument about timing and compromise were being economical with the truth especially, since the presidential election has always been won and lost at the polls and not in court.

This group therefore maintained the position that dealing with constitutional infractions was an action that considered time as being of the essence and not such timing, which is being considered politically discomforting. Whether or not it was election period, the position was that there is a situation that must be addressed pronto.
In the final analysis, the ongoing move to try Onnoghen might have presented itself as a good test case for the constitution and the laws of the land, because after all, the President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki went through similar experience and came out unscathed.

Indeed, that the CJN would be taken through the curve of trial over allegation that could impugn his integrity and that of the judiciary as an institution could be considered a good bet for the development of the nation’s legal system and nation-building in general.

However, attempt to truly politicise this and vindicate the opposition would definitely backfire, the result of which would be dastardly for the ruling party and put to context, the political definition of the timing of the trial.