Onnoghen: Ignominious End to a Career

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Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen

The trial of a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, came to an ugly denouement last Thursday, writes Davidson Iriekpen

For Justice Walter Onnoghen, the way his 30 years on the Bench ended last Thursday was certainly not how he had planned it. But a different script might have been foisted on him. Even if the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court quashes his conviction, he would always remember Thursday, April 18, 2019 as the saddest day of his life.

On this day, the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), a quasi-criminal court saddled with the responsibility of handling complaints of non-compliance with the Code of Conduct for Public Officers, rubbished the 30 years he had put into his career as a judge of the Cross River State High Court, Chairman of Cross Rivers State Armed Robbery and Firm Arms Tribunal, Justice of the Court of Appeal, Justice of the Supreme Court and Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN).

Delivering judgment on the six counts charges preferred against him, the tribunal Chairman, Danladi Umar, ordered his removal from office. He banned him from holding any public office for a period of 10 years and also ordered the forfeiture of the funds in the five bank accounts, which he was said to have failed to declare as part of his assets in breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers.

For those who followed the proceedings at the CCT in the past three months, it was not a surprise that the former CJN was convicted. To them, from day one, it was evident that every step taken by those who wanted him removed from office had been carefully scripted and choreographed.

Onnoghen was appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court in 2005. He was the longest to serve as acting CJN in the country.

In line with the practice and in a bid to avoid a vacuum upon the exit of the then CJN, Justice Mohammed Mahmud, who clocked the mandatory retirement age on November 10, 2016, the NJC, forwarded two names to the Presidency – Onnoghen’s name and that of his next in rank, Justice Tanko Muhammad.

The tactical delay by President Muhammadu Buhari to transmit Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation as provided in section 231(1), fuelled insinuations of conspiracy to truncate seniority status of the Supreme Court.

Aside alleged plot to sideline the former CJN, who happened to be the first Southern jurist, in about 30 years, to attain such judicial height, insinuations were also rife that the second nominee, Justice Muhammad, who hails from Bauchi State, was President Buhari’s first choice for the position of the CJN.

The theories got a boost after President Buhari, who hesitantly succumbed to pressure by allowing Onnoghen to head the judiciary in acting capacity, deliberately ignored him in that position till he almost became statutorily ineligible to take over as the substantive CJN.

Onnoghen had till February 10, 2017, to get his appointment validated by the National Assembly or be removed from office, and President Buhari had then travelled outside the country on medical leave.

Perturbed by the situation, the NJC, at the end of its emergency meeting, wrote to the then Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, urging him to extend Onnoghen’s tenure as the Acting CJN.

According to Section 231(5) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, “Except on the recommendation of the NJC”, Onnoghen’s appointment by President Buhari, “shall cease to have effect after the expiration of three months from the date of such appointment, and the president shall not re-appoint a person whose appointment has elapsed.”

Unknown to the NJC, Prof. Osinbajo had on February 7, 2017, transmitted Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation as substantive CJN.

On March 1, 2017, the Senate screened and confirmed him as the 17th CJN, and on March 7, Onnoghen, who would turn 70 years mandatory retirement age on December 20, 2020, was sworn in by Acting President Osinbajo, while his boss was away.

The first streak of trouble for the new CJN started simmering after President Buhari, upon his return to the country, described the judiciary as the “major headache” of his administration. The lamentation of the president came not too long after operatives of the Department of State Service (DSS), raided homes of eight superior court judges.

It did not end there. From time to time, there were reports that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was investigating the embattled former CJN, but the commission would deny the reports.

He was however taken by surprise on January 9, after the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) acting with unprecendented supersonic speed, recommended him for prosecution on the strength of a petition dated January 7. The said petition was lodged against the embattled former CJN by a group known as Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative, promoted by a former aide to President Buhari, Mr. Dennis Aghanya.

It accused Onnoghen of corruption and failing to declare his assets as prescribed by law. The CCB, having recommended the former CJN for prosecution, the federal government immediately entered a six-count charge against him before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) on January 11.

Danladi Umar-led CCT quickly summoned Onnoghen to appear before it on January 14 to take his plea to the charge. Determined to fight back, the embattled former CJN declined to honour Umar’s summon but challenged the jurisdiction of the CCT to try him on allegations contained in the charge.

He contended that the federal government failed to follow the laid down 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.

The same day, the federal government filed a motion for the tribunal to compel Onnoghen to step aside as the CJN and Chairman of the NJC, and for him to hand over to his next in commend, who incidentally was the man Buhari had always wanted in the position, Justice Muhammad.

While the CJN was contending 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. On January 21, in two to one split decision, the CCT panel, said it would proceed with the trial the next day, despite the court orders.

Not relenting, Justice Onnoghen, through his team of lawyers led by a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) persuaded the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal to suspend further proceedings at the CCT, pending the determination of an appeal he lodged against his trial.

Though he succeeded at the appellate court, in a counter move, the federal government secretly obtained an interim order from the CCT, which empowered it to suspend the CJN and appoint Justice Muhammad in his stead.

It was later gathered that while chairman of the tribunal, Umar and another member, Mrs. Julie A. Anabor, granted the ex-parte orders sought by the federal government, the third member, Mr. William Agwadza Atedze, declined to accede to the request, insisting the applicant should go and put Justice Onnoghen on notice.

Placing reliance on the said ex-parte order, President Buhari, immediately suspended Onnoghen and installed Muhammad to take over as acting CJN.

For many who had followed the proceedings closely, it was not surprising that the CCT reached the verdict it did after using very questionable procedures from the very start. From day one, it showed it hands that it was bent on a particular outcome, and that it would look neither to the left nor to the right in the blind pursuit of that goal.

At several pivotal junctures in the course of the trial, it appeared to demonstrate that it was clearly on the same side with the government, and was not sitting as an unbiased umpire or judicial arbiter.

Nowhere was this more evident as when the tribunal displayed desperation to convict Justice Onnoghen, such that it had to overturn or side-step its previous judgments on similar matters, decisions such as those given in a prior case involving another Justice of the Supreme Court even when he knew that the cardinal principle of our Common Law system is that similar cases are decided alike in other to prevent arbitrariness and caprice in the adjudication of cases.

Many were also puzzled by the basis Onnoghen was convicted, when the evidence by the prosecution witnesses showed that the federal government did not have a case against the former CJN. For instance, from the testimony of the 1st prosecution witness, Mr. James Akpala, it was clear that the charges against Onnoghen had been prepared before investigation commenced, showing that there was an ulterior motive in his prosecution.

The 2nd prosecution witness, Awal Yakassi, put further dent to the trial when under cross-examination, he denied the allegation that Onnoghen did not declare his assets in 2016. He admitted openly that two assets declaration forms submitted by the former CJN three years ago had till date not been verified by the CCB.

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, she revealed that the former CJN had five accounts. While three of the accounts were domiciliary, two were naira 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 had $56,878.

The only defence witness in the case narrated how he drove his principal to the CCB and how he paid for and collected the assets declaration forms and how he completed as well as returned the forms.

Bad as the verdict is, many observers feel that since Onnoghen has already resigned from office before the verdict came, there is nothing else to do than to wait and see if there would be respite from the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court which is the terminal point, more so that the federal government had done everything humanly possible to damage him.