The Malicious Prosecution of Onnoghen

Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen

The on-going trial of the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, appears to be reaching an anti-climax with key prosecution witnesses’ testimonies contradicting claims that the embattled number one judicial officer might have corruptly enriched himself way out of his income. Iyobosa Uwugiaren examines what appears to be a malicious prosecution of the CJN

For those who were still in doubt about the seemingly malicious prosecution of the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, the proceeding at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) last Thursday, cleared it all.
Three of the witnesses called by the federal government, on Thursday put lies to the claims by the prosecutor – the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) that the embattled CJN had 55 houses hidden across Nigeria; that Justice Onnoghen operated foreign accounts, where he hid away undeclared monies, running into millions of dollars.

These were the allegations drooped on Onnoghen’s neck by one seemingly political jobber, Dennis Aghanya, for himself and on behalf of Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative, which later won the executive arm of government support and dragged him before a quasi-executive-controlled tribunal – the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) – for trial. And in spite of the fact that the prosecutor had listed six witnesses against Onnoghen, it closed its case after three of the witnesses testified. They are Awal Yakassai, a former director in charge of political office at the CCB; Ifeoma Okagbue, a banker with Standard Chartered Bank and James Akpalla, a Senior Investigative Officer with the CCB.

Testifying at the CCT, Yakassai said the prosecutor – CCB, lied when it alleged that Onnoghen did not declare his assets, stating that the suspended CJN’s assets declared in 2016 were yet to be verified by the Bureau. The witness also affirmed that contrary to claims that Onnoghen owned 55 houses, he indeed has only five, one of which was sold to him by the federal government.
On her part, witness Okagbue attested that contrary to claims that Onnoghen operated a foreign account, all his accounts are domiciliary; and domiciled in the Wuse branch of the Standard Chartered Bank.

Reading out bank balance on Onnoghen accounts, she as well as confirmed that the bank advanced a $500,000 facility to Onnoghen, as of January this year. Okeagbue, who was testifying as the third prosecution witness in the trial of Onnoghen on charges of false and non-declaration of assets, also confirmed that the loan was guaranteed by his investments in federal government’s bonds and shares, among others.

She said this while being cross-examined by the CJN’s lawyer, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN). The witness, who had earlier said in her evidence-in-chief that Onnoghen had five accounts, said the ones in euro, dollar, and pound sterling, were domiciliary accounts and not “foreign accounts,” as alleged by the prosecutor.

Okeagbue in her evidence-in-chief told the tribunal that Onnoghen maintains five different accounts with her bank in Abuja: two of the accounts, naira accounts; one saving and the other current; while the remaining three in pounds, dollars and euro. She disclosed that as December 2018, one of the naira accounts has N2.6million while the other has N12.8million. Under cross-examination by Onnoghen’s lawyer, Okeagbue added that the five accounts had one Bank Verification Number (BVN).

She further admitted that Onnoghen as “a discipline account holder” was encouraged by bank to invest in profit-yielding investment with the interest in the investment regularly credited to his account, adding that the bank made investment on Onnoghen’s behalf from his account.

The social media has since screamed blue murder following these revelations before the tribunal. For many, who have always held a strong view that the CJN was being ‘persecuted’ for obvious political reasons, the testimonies by the federal government’s witnesses put a huge lie on the allegations against Onnoghen, showing that the federal government might have had other motives in moving against him other than fighting corruption.

As a political commentator, Jimmy Ameh, put it, “It simply says that the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, assisted by desperately mendacious officials, was fighting corruption by corrupt means. It also proves as truth, insinuations that Onnoghen was being hounded for fear he may lead the Supreme Court to redress planned fouling of the electoral process.

“The bigger question that still begs for answers is the new national demand on Dennis Aghanya to face Nigerians with proofs of his allegations against Onnoghen. He has to tell Nigerians, where the 55 houses he claimed in his petition belonged to Onnoghen, are located. He also has to come to terms with the reality of his claims of financial impropriety against the Chief Justice. At least, that is what honour demands.’’

To be sure, many believe that Aghanya and the prosecutor owe sensible members of the public, comprehensive clarification as to how they laid their hands on Onnoghen’s asset declaration form, given that the law establishing the CCB does not allow any official of the Bureau to release an asset declaration form to anyone.

Many legal experts, who spoke to THISDAY in confidence, said if the tribunal is to base its verdict on the facts before it, Onnoghen may have the last laugh.

“The prosecution’s case has crumbled and we have nothing to defend,” a senior silk in Onnoghen’s legal team told THISDAY last night.

The suspended CJN is facing a six-count charge bordering on incomplete asset declaration. Media reports, particularly in the social media, apparently stimulated by the federal government, had speculated that the CJN had fat foreign currencies-based accounts and scores of houses undeclared as required by law.

Following arraignment and a contentious, questionable ex parte order by Danladi Umar-led CCT, the CJN was suspended by President Muhammadu Buhari. And in spite of a series of litigations challenging the constitutionality of the presidential action and jurisdiction of the tribunal, the trial commenced.

A constitutional lawyer and former President of Nigerian Bar Association, Chief Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, had dragged the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, to court over the arraignment of Onnoghen.

Agbakoba, in the suit he lodged before the Federal High Court in Abuja, maintained that the six-count charge was illegal, unlawful, wrongful, unconstitutional, null and void, praying the court to determine, “whether having regard to the decision of the Court of Appeal in NgajiwaV FRN (2017) LPELR-43391 (CA), the combined provisions of sections 6, 153,158,287(2), and 292(1) and Paragraph 21(b) of the 3rd Schedule to the 1999 Constitution, as altered and extant provisions of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers, the present charge in Charge No: CCT/ABJ/01/19 against Onnoghen, does not amount to flagrant and violent disregard of the provisions of the constitution, and due process of law.’’

Agbokaba had also prayed the court to decide whether the federal government can competently file and maintain charges against the CJN, before CCT, or indeed any court or tribunal without prior recourse to the National Judicial Council, in accordance with constitutional provisions.
The speed at which the CCB investigated Justice Onnoghen and dragged him before the CCT, raised suspicions among many legal experts and political monitors, with many of them reading political motives to it.

Last week, the first witness, Akpalla, made futile attempt to justify his action against Onnoghen at the tribunal. Akpalla in his evidence-in-Chief had told the tribunal that the CCB on January 10 referred a petition written by the Anti-Corruption and Research Database Initiative to his team for investigation.

He claimed that on the strength of the petition signed by one Chief Dennis Aghanya, he visited Onnoghen in his office at the Supreme Court, during which a cautionary statement was obtained from him while letters were also written to the Standard Chartered Bank for account details of the defendant with the bank.

He further stated that the following day, January 11, 2019, the bank responded, prompting the investigating team to conclude its investigation and prepare its report. But, under cross-examination, the witness informed the tribunal that he did not know whether the CCB had a central registry and register where returned assets forms are deposited and registered.

Responding to another question, the witness said investigation into the petition against Onnoghen was concluded ‘within 24 hours’.

However, there was drama at the CCT, when the suspended CJN counsel, Awomolo, confronted the witness with the charge against Onnoghen, proof of evidence, list of exhibits and witnesses, which were all dated January 10, when investigation into the petition had not been completed.

Also, when Akpalla, the witness, attempted to deny involvement of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in the CCB investigation, he was confronted by Awomolo, with documents from Standard Chartered Bank addressed to the EFCC but tendered by the witness.

In all, the witness said he was not aware that the charges against Onnoghen was filed before the completion of the investigation and declined comments on the bank’s document addressed to EFCC, giving an indication that the anti-corruption agency was also involved in the plot to nail Onnoghen.

And in what appeared to be a shopping for incriminating documents against Onnoghen, the anti-graft commission last week raided the farm of the CJN, carting away sales books, receipt booklets, its members of staff list and other documents.

About nine EFCC operatives: a cameraman and policemen in a Nissan bus marked Abuja BWR 627AT was reported to have raided Wanogan Farms Limited located in the Masaka area of Nasarawa State around 3pm and searched the entire premises for over three hours.

A relative of the CJN had told journalists that the EFCC operatives seized all the phones of the workers to prevent them from taking photographs of the operation, while searching the store houses and water tanks, perhaps, in search of dollars.

“We were at the farm on Saturday afternoon when operatives of the EFCC arrived in a white Nissan bus marked Abuja BWR627AT. They forced their way into the premises, harassing everyone.
“No document was presented to the manager under the claims that the EFCC doesn’t need a search warrant. They searched his office and made away with a list of staff members from around February last year.

“The manager was then made to write and sign a document that nowhere was broken into, and nothing was taken. The supervisor was made to countersign. Both were made to do this under duress”, Onnoghen’s relative stated.

The cashier was also said to have been harassed and made to turn over the sales record and all receipts and invoices in his keeping and forced to write an undertaking, releasing the sales book to them under duress and made to write his name and designation.With strong political motive, the seemingly strategy of President Muhammadu Buhari has always been to name and shame in the media, perceived political enemies it wants to pull down.

As a political commentator, Ameh said “It shows that most of the administration’s leadership strategy had been couched in lies, sold as lies and managed as lies to an undiscerning and noisy public that is blinded by devotion.”

If all things go well for Onnoghen, the embattled CJN might drag the petitioner and the prosecutor to court at the end of his trial, for malicious prosecution, false accusation and defamation of character.

Already, Onnoghen’s lawyer, Awomolo SAN, had informed the tribunal of his intention to invoke section 303 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA), 2015, to present a no-case submission before the tribunal.