The first day of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen’s alleged false asset disclosure trial took off rapidly on Monday morning, as the prosecution used the top jurist’s absence to begin mapping out a case for suspicious financial dealings against him.
Mr Onnoghen is the first chief justice of Nigeria to be put on trial for criminal charges, coming barely two years after he assumed office in March 2017, and a year after associate Supreme Court Justice Sylvester Ngwuta was discharged in a similar trial.
He was absent when first hearing opened at the Code of Conduct Tribunal at 10:05 a.m. on Monday, but a team of 47 senior lawyers, led by Wole Olanipekun, entered appearance to extricate him of the charges.
The charges have been overshadowed by partisan political rhetoric, with South-South governors demanding after what a source present described as “a livid” meeting on Sunday night that Mr Onnoghen should shun the trial they saw as a vindictive and undemocratic process.
It was not immediately clear whether or not the demand by South-South governors and other members and supporters of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party was amongst what informed the top jurist’s absence.
Mr Onnoghen is the defendant in six false asset declaration charges brought by the Code of Conduct Bureau. The allegations involved questions about whether Mr Onnoghen failed to disclose some bank accounts holding humongous local and foreign currencies while sitting on the Supreme Court.
The top jurist said in his initial response to the bureau, obtained by PREMIUM TIMES, that he forgot to disclose the bank accounts, which contained dollars, pounds, euro and naira denominations totalling more than N300 million. He, however, said in documents obtained by PREMIUM TIMES he had since disclosed the asset in his most-recent filings in late 2016.
Although considered criminal, asset disclosure violations, which only apply to public officeholders, do not necessarily attract jail terms, but a convict could face up to ten years’ ban from public service, and sometimes in addition to heavy fines and forfeitures.
Hammering on technicalities
But rather than offer categorical grounds for why Mr Onnoghen should not be convicted of the charges, Mr Olanipekun argued that the court has no power to hear the charges at all.
The senior lawyer said the National Judicial Council had not previously investigated the allegations, and perhaps had not even been informed of their details. The claims were raised in a petition sent to the Code of Conduct Bureau by Dennis Aghanya, leader of a civic anti-corruption group with long ties to President Muhammadu Buhari.
The Nigerian Constitution required in Section 292 that a serving judge must first be investigated and indicted by the National Judicial Council before dismissal or trial for misconduct in open courts. The NJC regulates the Nigerian judiciary.
Mr Olanipekun also said the tribunal summons to Mr Onnoghen was delivered to his personal assistant and not him personally, arguing that this was an anomaly and added to the reasons for his absence.
The prosecution led Umar Aliyu from the Federal Ministry of Justice rejected the argument, saying Mr Onnoghen was duly served and should be available for trial.
The prosecution also said Mr Onnoghen should not have been afraid if he really believed the charges against him were trumped up, suggesting that the judge’s failure to appear could mean a more rigorous probe of his past financial dealings. He, however, agreed that another summon could be dispatched to Mr Onnoghen to enable him appear before the tribunal.
Danladi Umar, the tribunal chairman, adjourned further hearing until January 22. He ordered that Mr Onnoghen must appear to be docked for the charges against him, as well as listen to arguments on whether or not the tribunal could assert jurisdiction.
An uncharted territory
Born on December 22, 1950, in Biase Local Government Area of Cross Rivers State, which is now one of the six states that make up Nigeria’s South-South, Mr Onnoghen became the 17th Chief Justice of Nigeria on March 6, 2017.
Before being elevated to the Supreme Court in 2005, he had served as a judge in his home state, as well as the Court of Appeal. He was educated in Ghana.
His road to becoming Nigeria’s chief judge came at a turbulent moment rife with fundamental disagreements between the executive and the judiciary.
Months before Mr Onnoghen was cleared to lead Nigeria’s judiciary, hooded operatives of the State Security Service (SSS) violently breached homes of seven federal judges in overnight anti-corruption raids. Some of the judges were arraigned for disparate corruption charges, but none has been conducted three years on, including Mr Ngwuta’s who was cleared in 2018 largely on the grounds that the NJC had not previously investigated or indicted him.
Mahmud Mohammed, who led the court from November 2014, was the Chief Justice when the coordinated raids were conducted on October 16, 2016. Mr Mohammed retired less than a month later on November 10.
Mr Onnoghen was subsequently made an acting-chief judge, a position he maintained until his appointment for ratified by the Senate on March 6, 2017. During the time Mr Onnoghen acted, his substantive appointment was a subject of widespread concerns amongst the country.
President Muhammadu Buhari declined to send the top judge’s name to the Senate for confirmation for several weeks. It was Acting-President Yemi Osinbajo who ultimately took the bold step in 2017, apparently to stave off potential constitutional crises that could ensue if there is no substantive chief judge in place for six months.
Administration officials suggested at the time that the delay was due to a rigorous vetting of Mr Onnoghen being conducted by the SSS.
But barely two years into his term, which is expected to expire when he turned 70 and mandatorily retires in December 2020, the judge is facing corruption charges.
Asides being the first to be charged for corruption amongst serving or retired chief justices in Nigeria’s history, the charges against Mr Onnoghen do not seem to have been tested before at the tribunal.
The petition against Mr Onnoghen said the chief judge declared his asset in 2005 when he was elevated to the Supreme Court, but failed to do so in 2009. The code of conduct law requires a public officer to disclose fresh asset filings every four years.
Mr Onnoghen said he did not know he was supposed to renew disclosure of his bank accounts after four years, saying he had in fact forgotten some of the details. He, however, justified the humongous deposits he made in local and foreign currencies to the accounts, saying they were proceeds of his legitimate incomes, especially allowances and estacodes.
Adding to the legal confusions is the question over whether it was appropriate to charge a serving chief judge days into a general election. Nigeria’s presidential, parliamentary and state-wide elections are slated for February.
Critics of the administration are spreading suspicion that Mr Buhari was behind the move to remove a chief judge of southern origin in order to replace him with a judge from his northern region who would be more amenable to political influence.
Mary Odili is the most-senior associate judge from the South-South on the Supreme Court. She is a year older than Tanko Mohammed, another associate judge from Bauchi State whom the government had been rumoured to have penned down as the next Chief Justice.
Amongst the reasons ascribed to the government for taking the action were that many election-related issues would end up in court, and Mr Onnoghen could not be trusted with the judiciary at that critical stage. The ruling APC strongly denied all allegations of presidential interference in the trial, urging Nigerians to dismiss unfounded and divisive insinuations from partisan provocateurs.
An administration official also said in a message to PREMIUM TIMES that neither Mr Buhari nor Mr Osinbajo was briefed before the charges were filed and made public on Saturday.
The Code of Conduct Bureau and the Code of Conduct Tribunal are directly and absolutely under the executive control. The officers are domiciled under the Secretary to the Governor of the Federation. The tribunal has a coordinate jurisdiction with the Federal High Court, which means appeals from its rulings could only go directly to the Court of Appeal.
While details about whether Mr Buhari or other senior administration officers were involved have remain fuzzy three days after the matter first became public, the manner with which Mr Onnoghen is being targeted worries public policy experts.
“The timing of the indictment is suspicious,” Charles Omole, a public affairs analyst and national security expert, said in a message to PREMIUM TIMES. “The speed with which it is being pursued strengthens the suspicion as it is uncharacteristic of the slow approach of this administration to act on even far more crucial matters in the past three years.”
Mr Omole said Mr Onnoghen could be tried since he has no immunity from prosecution and not above the law, especially if there are serious grounds to arraign him. Questions about how Mr Onnoghen came about the humongous deposits he made at different backs over several years have been raised.
In some instances, Mr Onnoghen was said in the petition to have made $10,000 deposits in five different transactions, totalling $50,000. Extant financial regulations at the time said any amount beyond $10,000 would be subjected to further scrutiny to confirm legitimacy. It was not immediately clear whether Mr Onnoghen deposited in piecemeal to circumvent the requirement that could trigger further probe of his deposits at the time.
But even if Mr Onnoghen had engaged in underhand dealings as a top jurist, Mr Omole warned that the principle of separation of powers appears to have been defeated in the way the trial came about, especially because of the need to dispel insinuations of a sinister ethnic agenda.
“If the attack on the CJN is perceived as having an ethnic or religious motivation amongst Nigerians in any shape or form, then this may have a debilitating impact on the national security,” Mr Omole said. “The government should not compromise the cohesion of national security activities.”
False asset charges can be particularly difficult to prove, as when Senate President Bukola Saraki was arraigned on 18 counts of similar infractions in 2015. The matter ended without any of the charges being substantiated either at the tribunal or appellate courts, with the top lawmaker saying the trial established his long-standing view that the Buhari administration filed the charges as a witchhunt rather than in pursuit of justice.
If the charges force Mr Onnoghen out of office, he would be the first Chief Justice to be ousted since Teslim Elias was hounded by Murtala Muhammad’s military junta in 1975.
“That former Chief Justice Elias was removed from office by a reckless military junta and not on corruption allegations actually calls for a more careful handling of Mr Onnoghen’s matter,” the expert added. “You do not set a powerful precedent with a faulty and clumsy allegation.”
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