Despite the contradicting claims by the key prosecution witnesses in the trial of the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) on Friday rejected his no-case submission, raising fears that it might be difficult clearing him of what is generally considered official conspiracy, writes Davidson Iriekpen
Not many Nigerians were shocked last Friday, when the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) rejected the no-case application filed by the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen to stop his trial. For them, it would be easier for the camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to let Onnoghen off the hook designed for him.
The embattled CJN had dismissed the charges of false asset declaration against him as “useless and invalid”, saying the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) failed to follow its standard operations procedure in raising the charges. He, therefore, argued that he had no case to answer, implying that the charges be dismissed.
But the three-member panel of the tribunal led by Danladi Umar dismissed the application, ordering that he enters his defence against the six-count charge of non-declaration of assets brought against him.
Umar, in the ruling, said the prosecution has provided sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case against the defendant to warrant his being called to enter his defence. He referred to a confessional statement made by the defendant in which he admitted forgetting to declare the five domiciliary accounts he has been operating at Standard Chartered Bank since 2009. He added that the confessional statement was sufficient to warrant the tribunal to ask the defendant to enter his defence if he had any.
The tribunal chairman made a case for the CCB, saying the argument that it failed to abide by its guidelines amounted to a mere internal communication flaw. He said the standard operational procedure of the bureau was faulty and must not be complied with by the prosecution. According to him, the procedure which is internal could not be above the Nigerian constitution.
As soon as Umar was done with the ruling, he adjourned the hearing to Monday, April 1 for the defendant to open his defence. This led to uproar in the courtroom, as lawyers from both sides confronted each other over the decision of the tribunal to give a short adjournment.
Many lawyers in the defence team shouted in protest when Umar ignored appeals by lead defence lawyer, Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN) that April 1 was too short for the defendant to adequately prepare for his defence. While Awomolo was still on his feet, asking the tribunal chairman to allow the defendant sufficient time to prepare, Umar stood up and walked away, leaving other members of the tribunal to chase after him.
A dejected Awomolo accused Umar of oppressing the defence. As Umar and the two other members of the tribunal walked away, Awomolo said: “If this is justice, then, God bless Nigeria.”
Specifically, the defence questioned the speed in the trial when the tribunal could have given them enough time to prepare their case.
Onnoghen is standing trial on a six-count charge of non-declaration of assets brought against him by the CCB. His travail started when one Dennis Aghanya, sent a petition signed by himself and on behalf of Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative to the CCB, alleging that the CJN did not declare his assets. This led to his suspension from office by President Muhammadu Buhari following a contentious exparte order by Umar.
In spite of a series of litigations challenging the constitutionality of the presidential action and jurisdiction of the tribunal to hear the case, the trial finally commenced on March 18, with a lot of dramas and revelations that dumbfounded a lot of Nigerians, who were anxiously waiting to see the federal government prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.
It was not until the trial commenced that Nigerians realised how empty and hollow the charges against Onnoghen were. First, the prosecution which said it would call six witnesses to prove its case against the embattled CJN, surprisingly, sensing that it was a lost battle, abruptly retreated and announced that it was closing the case after they finished cross-examining only three witnesses.
The first sign that the federal government was on mission to destroy the career of Justice Onnoghen came when the 1st witness, Mr. James Akpala, a Senior Investigative Officer with the CCB, in his evidence-in-chief informed the tribunal that he did not know whether the CCB had a central registry and register where returned assets forms were deposited and registered.
Responding to another question, the witness said investigation into the petition against Onnoghen was concluded within 24 hours, raising question as the why the hurry in a case of such magnitude.
Drama, however, started when 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, indicating a premeditated prosecution.
Also, when the witness attempted to deny the 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 the CJN were filed before the completion of the investigation and declined comments on the bank’s document addressed to EFCC.
From his testimony, it was clear that the charges against Onnoghen were filed before investigation commenced, which to many observers, showed that there was an ulterior motive in the prosecution of the CJN.
Akpala’s testimony was a tip of the iceberg as revelations of the 2nd witness, Awal Yakassi on March 22, put further dent to the prosecution. Under cross-examination, he messed up the case for the government, when he denied allegations that Onnoghen did not declare his assets in 2016. He admitted that two assets declaration forms submitted by the CJN three years ago have till date not been verified by the Code of Conduct Bureau.
Yakassi, a retired director of the CCB, when his attention was drawn to the column for remarks, admitted that no comment was made on the verification column indicating that the forms had not been verified. Fielding questions, he further confirmed from the forms that Onnoghen has only five houses contrary to allegation of 55 and that one of the houses was sold to him by the federal government.
The climax of the case was when Ifeoma Okeagbue, a Relationship Manager with Standard Chartered Bank mounted the witness box. Contrary to the allegations that Onnoghen had billions stashed in his accounts, Nigerians were shocked when the witness reeled off his accounts and the amounts therein.
For instance, she revealed that the CJN had five accounts. While three of the accounts are domiciliary, two are naira accounts. The three domiciliary accounts are euro, dollar, and pound sterling. The naira accounts are one savings and one current. She added that the accounts were not foreign accounts as alleged, adding that no foreign transfer was made into and out of the accounts.
Okeagbue disclosed that as at December 2018, one of the naira accounts had N2.6 million while the other had N12.8 million, the euro account as at December 2018, 10,187 euros, the pounds Sterling accounts as at December 2018, had 13,730 pounds and the dollar account as at January 2019 has $56, 878.
Reading from the statements of the accounts earlier admitted as exhibits, Okeagbue said, “On the account 5001062686, the opening balance in January 2018 was €30,178.58. As at December 2018, the balance was €10,187.18. On account 5001062693, at January 2018, it was with opening balance of N6,411,312.77. At December 2018, the balance was N12,852,580.52.
“On account 5001062679, the opening balance as at January 2018 was £39,456.08 and by December 2018 the balance was £13,730.70. On account 0001062667, the opening balance as at January 2018 was N24,280,904 and as at December 2018, the balance was N2,656,019.21. On account 0001062650, as of January 2018, the opening balance was $80,824.25, and by January 2019, the balance was $56,878.”
The witness said she met the defendant once in 2015 in her capacity as a Relationship Manager. She also confirmed that the five accounts have one Bank Verification Number (BVN).
The killer punch, perhaps, was when Okeagbue admitted that Onnoghen has a facility of $500,000 as at January 2019 with the bank secured by his investment in bonds and other investment. She further admitted that the embattled as a disciplined account holder, was encouraged by bank to invest in profit-yielding investment with interests in the investment regularly credited to his account, adding that the bank made investment on Onnoghen’s behalf from his account.
Perhaps, thoroughly embarrassed by the revelations, the witness had hardly concluded when the prosecution counsel immediately announced the closure of his case.
At this juncture, a bewildered Awomolo informed the tribunal of his intention to invoke section 303 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA), 2015. He pleaded that he be allowed to prepare a written address that would enable him file a no-case submission.
He also urged the tribunal chairman to order the registry to make record of proceedings available to him to guide him in the written address. With the prosecution not objecting to the application, the tribunal chairman, Umar ordered the registry to avail parties in the matter with the record of proceedings.
To many analysts, the testimonies put a huge lie to all the allegations against Onnoghen. It also showed that the federal government had other motives in moving against the CJN other than fighting corruption.
To them, the big question that still begs for answers is the demand that Aghanya faces Nigerians with proofs of his allegations against Onnoghen. They also want him to tell Nigerians the reality of his claims of financial impropriety against the CJN and how he laid his hands on Onnoghen asset declaration forms given that the law establishing the CCB does not allow any official of the Bureau to release an asset declaration form to anyone. This is moreso as there has not been any evidence of a Freedom of Information request from Aghanya to the CCB to make Onnoghen’s asset declaration forms available to him or any member of his supposed anti-corruption group.
Despite the fact that before the very eyes of the agents of the federal government, the allegations leveled against Onnoghen came crashing down like a pack of cards, Umar still rejected the no-case submission, giving the impression that there was more to the trial than the allegations of corruption against the CJN.