In a move speculated as plot to oust the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen out of office, the Federal Government will tomorrow arraign the number one jurist before the Justice Danladi Yakubu led- Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) in Abuja, on charges of failure to declare his assets, and for operating foreign currency accounts.
The CCT Headquarters in Abuja, yesterday, confirmed the planned arraignment in a statement signed by its Head of Press & Public Relations, Mr. Ibraheem Al-Hassan.
Ahead of his appearance at the tribunal, The Guardian reliably gathered that Onnoghen was on Friday, at his official residence served with charges of refusal to declare his assets in breach of the provision of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act, and that of operating foreign currency accounts.
As matters stand, Justice Onnoghen, whose appointment suffered unprecedented delay by President Muhammadu Buhari over undisclosed issues may end up as the first CJN to be arraigned for criminal charges by the Federal Government.
Apart from getting Onnoghen in the dock tomorrow, it is understood that the motion on notice has been filed against him by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), praying the CCT to order him to vacate office and recuse himself so as to prevent alleged interference in his arraignment and trial.
A civil society group- Anti-corruption and Research Based Data Initiative (ARDI) petitioned the CCB over some alleged illegal transactions discovered in the CJN’s bank accounts.
The letter dated January 7, 2019 bore a CCB “received” stamp, allegedly from the office of the Chairman of the bureau on January 9, 2019.
Contained in the petition include allegations that the CJN “is the owner of sundry accounts primarily funded through cash deposits made by himself up to August 10, 2016, which was allegedly operated in a manner inconsistent with financial transparency and the Code of conduct for public officials.”
The group also alleged that Justice Onnoghen made five different cash deposits of $10, 000 each on March 8, 2011 into Standard Chartered Bank Account No. 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.
The petition further stated that Justice Onnoghen did not declare his assets immediately after taking office. This, it held, was contrary to section 15 (1) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.
The CJN was also accused of violating the constitutional requirements for public servants to declare their assets every four years during their career.
Others include that the CJN’s Code of Conduct Bureau Forms (Form CCB 1) for 2014 and 2016 were dated and filed on the same day and that acknowledgement slips were issued for both of them on December 14, 2016, “at which point Justice Onnoghen had become the Chief Justice of Nigeria.”
It would be recalled that Onnoghen assumed office as CJN on March 6, 2017, and not in 2016 as quoted in the petition, even though he was serving in acting capacity at the time.
The group equally alleged that prior to 2016, Onnoghen appeared “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.”
ARDI in the petition listed that Justice Onnoghen is the owner of Standard Chartered Bank dollar account No.1062650 with a balance of $391, 401.28 as at January 31, 2011; Standard Chartered Bank Euro account 5001062686 with the balance of €49,971 .71 as at January 31, 2011, as well as, a Standard Chartered Bank pound sterling account No. 5001062679, with the balance sum of £23,409.66, as at February 28, 2011.
The petitioner described as “curious”, the fact that such domiciliary accounts were not declared in one of the two CCB Forms filed by Justice Onnoghen on the same December 14, 2016.
The group held that the petition has succeeded in establishing suspicious financial and other transactions against the CJN, stressing that the collusion between him and various banks related to “Suspicious Transactions Reporting (STR) and financial transactions not justifiable by his lawful remuneration at all material times.
The statement by Head, Press and Public Relations, CCT, Abuja, Ibrahim Al-Hassan, which informed that the tribunal has scheduled Monday, January 14, for the commencement of trial “for alleged non-declaration of asset,” added that “this was consequent to an application filed by CCB to the CCT Chairman last Friday for the trial to commence against the CJN on a six-count charge.
“However, service of summons has been effected to the defendant. The three-man panel led by Justice Danladi Y. Umar, will commence the trial on Monday, January 14, at its courtroom at about 10 am.”
The statement further read that the letter to the CCT, contained the six-count charge bordering on non-declaration of assets, was filed on Friday, January 11 by the operatives of the CCB, and signed by one Musa Ibrahm Usman and Fatima Danjuma.
Shock, Ignorance Of Plot
But in a move that shocked many, a very reliable Presidency source absolved the Presidency of any complicity in the unfolding plot, claiming that the “plan to drag the CJN to the Code of Conduct Tribunal does not enjoy the approval of the President who was shocked about the development.”
The Presidency confirmed last night that the plot may have been hatched by fifth columnists in the corridors of power, who designed it to embarrass the Presidency and create misunderstanding between the judiciary and the Federal Government.
Speaking on condition of anonymity last night, an official government source explained that the only impact such an action would generate at this time is distasteful.
“Let me tell you point blank, Mr. President is not aware and was shocked at the development. It is not going to fly,” said a top government official.
Another official added that whatever may be the merits of the case against the CJN, it is not advisable at this time. So, it is not about the rightness of the planned action.”
Asked whether the plot will go forward, the source said “what is certain right now is that this came as a shock to the Presidency and does not enjoy approval of any kind. You can figure out the rest.”
South–South Govs Meet Today
MEANWHILE, the South South Governor’s Forum has scheduled an emergency meeting of the Forum today in Abuja.
A statement by the Special Adviser, Media Relation’s to the Governor of Bayelsa State, Fidelis Soriwei, said the recent development involving Justice Onnoghen will feature among other matters penciled for deliberation. Others are security of the Niger Delta, during and after the election, as well as the issue of derivation.
In his reaction to the CJN’s planned arraignment, Governor Seriake Dickson said that while he was yet to know the full details, the development could have grave implications and capable of escalating dangerously coming only a few weeks to the general elections.
He said that South South Governors would address a press conference after the meeting to convey the position of the zone to the Nigerian public, adding that all efforts must be on deck to prevent the subversion and desecration of the ethos of democracy in the country as the nation moves nearer to the 2019 general election.
Atiku Condemns Move
IN statement by Atiku Campaign Organisation entitled, “A Clarion Call In Defence Of Our Constitution,”the Peoples Democratic Party presidential candidate said, “I have received the news of the sudden charges about to be filed against the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, with apprehension and suspicion, especially as such a move against the head of an arm of our government is coming so close to an election in preparation of which the Buhari administration has shown growing desperation.
“My suspicions are further exacerbated by the fact that the Buhari government is pressuring an independent and self-governing arm of government with the aim of getting CJN Walter Onnoghen to resign or be pushed aside.
“I stand on the side of the rule of law and believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty.
If Justice Walter Onnoghen is guilty of the charges about to be preferred against him, let his guilt be determined by a competent court of law and not by the Buhari administration.
The executive cannot usurp the role of the judiciary. Nigeria is still a democracy and not a fascist dictatorship as President Buhari may wish.
“Any attempt to force Justice Walter Onnoghen to vacate his office, four weeks to an election for which the unpopular Buhari administration has shown every intention to manipulate, is a move pregnant with negative meaning.
“I see no reason whatsoever for the ongoing pressure by the Buhari government to force Justice Walter Onnoghen to vacate office when he has not been convicted for any offence. I therefore call on the President to respect the principle of separation of powers and abide by the rule of law on this matter and stop any interference or pressure on Justice Walter Onnoghen, or the judiciary and allow the law and the Constitution take its full course,” the statement concluded.
THE PDP National Chairman, Uche Secondus, in his speech at the party’s presidential rally in Jos, Plateau State, yesterday, alleged that “the Presidency, having hijacked security agencies, as well as the INEC was still not very sure of the outcome of the elections and so would want to have full control of the Judiciary as well.”
He further alleged that the Buhari Presidency is plotting to destabilise and annex the judiciary in order to achieve selfish political motives ahead of the 2019 general elections.
In a separate statement by the party’s national publicity secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, the PDP alleged that “the All Progressives Congress (APC) and cabal at the Buhari Presidency are hounding Onnoghen and seeking his removal so as to cause a constitutional crisis, instill fear in judicial officers, and pave the way for the foisting of a pliable CJN that will do their biddings on electoral matters”
“This is particularly following allegations that the APC seeks a new CJN that will aid its rigging schemes, as well as execute the plot to use the court to detain and put opposition members and outspoken members of civil society organisations out of circulation during the general elections,” the statement said.
According to the PDP, “This development is a clear recipe for anarchy and a huge crisis that is capable of fracturing our justice system and derailing our democracy as it portends a prelude to a total clamp down on institutions of democracy and rule of law in our country”.
The party, therefore urged all Nigerians, the United Nations and all international bodies to unite in the defence of democracy, especially at this very critical time in the country’s political development.
“Moreover, if President Buhari is committed to cleaning up the system as he claims, we challenge him to allow the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, whose tenure has expired, and who had also been rejected by Nigerians due to his manifest partisanship, to go.
“President Buhari should also ask Amina Zakari to recuse herself from INEC following her rejection by Nigerians over issues of impropriety in her appointment as chairperson of the presidential election collation committee.”
The PDP further challenged Mr. President to also commence plans for the immediate prosecution of members of his campaign organisation, including his co-Chairman, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, and the National Chairman of his APC, Adams Oshiomhole over allegations of corruption against them.
In his reaction to the development, an Abuja-based Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Mike Ozekhome, warned that the tradition of subjecting the leadership of other two arms of government to harassment and intimidation will result to heavy disinvestment in the country, as it will create the impression that Nigeria is not safe for investment.
The SAN described the charges of false assets declaration as vindictive, very political and showed that Nigeria has finally become an anarchical state, dictatorial, despotic, totalitarian and absolutist state.
His words: “It took about six months before President Mohammadu Buhari confirmed Justice Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria. He did not want to confirm his nomination. Nigerians cried out on the television, in the print and on social media against the injustice perpetuated by the executive.
“We argued that under the Constitution, Justice Onnoghen was the next in rank and having not done anything wrong, he should be confirmed, and finally, he was confirmed. I want to believe that they confirmed him because they did not find anything wrong against him.
“How come then that more than one year into his tenure as the CJN and less than 40 days to the 2019 Presidential election when the Chief Justice is expected to play a major role of setting up a presidential election tribunal, they suddenly remembered that Onnoghen had operated a domiciliary account in 2010 and 2011, more than eight years ago.”
“How come they did not find out this fact or this so-called allegation in almost one and half years ago that he has been the CJN? How come it is coming on the eve of election?
“How come the so-called game show, the petition was written on January 7, two days later, it was received by CCB, two days after, the charges were filed and on Monday, the CJN would be put on trial? How come that they also quickly came up with another motion that the CJN should excuse himself?
“How come these things are done within the space of five days within which the CCB could not confront the person accused with the evidence or allow him to replay.
How come these people are undermining our criminal justice system, which presumes one innocent until proven guilty and they are turning to a French model where you presume an accused guilty before he is proven innocent?
“How come they are undermining Section 36 of the Constitution, which presumes one innocent until found guilty? How come these people are turning Nigeria into a laughing stock before the comity of nations? He asked.
According to him, “It was in a similar manner that the same government, through the police, laid siege to Senator Dino Melaye’s residence for over eight days, using over 300 policemen against an individual, thereby, wasting human resources.
“And even when I delivered the Senator to them, he collapsed in their hands. It was the same police that rushed him to the hospital and got three experts to diagnose him, and they confirmed that he was in a very bad state, and that he should be taken to the National Hospital.
“But the police defied this medical advice and instead, went and abducted him from his hospital bed and took him to the DSS. But Dino told them he had no case with the DSS. These people have turned governance and democracy into a laughing stock but I know that the God we serve will deliver us at the appropriate time.”
ANOTHER legal luminary, Chief Sebastian Hon (SAN), stated that even though the CJN does not enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution, the move by the Federal Government was dangerously political and tendentious.
“Suddenly, we woke to see a petition leaked to the informal or social media, allegedly received by the Code of Conduct on January 9. Suddenly, we are told charges have been filed against the CJN. Suddenly, the Presidency is reportedly asking him to step aside. Was he interrogated or interviewed and his own reactions obtained? Why this supersonic rush? Hon questioned.
“These steps are more political than honest. There is an attempt to destroy the judiciary or gag it, and in the latter situation, to hector it into submission. I personally say no to this. All Nigerians of goodwill must say no to this unprovoked assault on the judiciary.
“After unsuccessful attempts to rein in the National Assembly, the same unholy attention is beamed on the Judiciary. If this arm of government is destroyed, due process, constitutionalism and the rule of law will pave way to whimsical, narrow and brute force, at the instance of one man or a select few. I personally say no to this.
“Nothing stops the Federal Government from deferring, in the interest of national peace and cohesion, the filing of those charges till an opportune time – since there is no limitation of time in criminal proceedings. Why now?
“The federal prosecutors are also aware of extant decisions of the Court of Appeal, to the effect that unless and until the NJC pronounces a judicial officer guilty, he cannot be arraigned in court. Those authorities know full well that these decisions of the Court of Appeal have not been overruled; but they have decided to humiliate the CJN, by rushing some charges to the tribunal and leaking same to the press over the weekend.
“I strongly counsel the CJN not to heed the obviously unholy call that he should step aside. There is light, I am strongly persuaded, at the end of the tunnel”, he said.
WARRI, Delta State-based legal practitioner, Chief Albert Akpomudje, who described the situation as “very sad” added, “While I believe that nobody, no matter how highly placed is above the law, charging the CJN to court is an embarrassment to the administration of justice. People may read political undertone to it particularly when it took an unwarranted delay to confirm his appointment.”
DR. Abiodun Layonu (SAN) held that in spite of the threat of arraigning the CJN, he cannot be constitutionally removed without the endorsement of the National Judicial Commission (NJC), and the National Assembly.
He explained that his removal outside the constitutionally prescribed process could only happen if he resigns.
He said: “You cannot constitutionally remove the CJN without the NJC and the National Assembly. It is a lie. Unless he resigns, which I have not heard.”
ABUJA-BASED lawyer, Abubakar Sani, believes that the said arraignment would not happen because according to him, it is too controversial. But if it happens, he added, the worst-case scenario is that the matter will die a natural death.
“I don’t think it will happen because it is too controversial. At worst, the government will charge him before the Code of Conduct Tribunal where it will die quietly like that of justices Ngwuta and Ademola,” he declared.
JUSTICE Onnoghen’s battle for survival as the CJN began as soon as his predecessor, the former CJN, Justice Mahmud Mohammed retired from office in November 2016.
Onnoghen, who was expected to assume office immediately to avoid any vacuum in the judiciary, was however, left in acting capacity until March 2017, following the delay in transmitting his nomination to the National Assembly by Buhari, for screening and confirmation. It took the deft move by then Acting Presient, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo to save the country from an embarrassment and looming constitutional crisis.