EXCLUSIVE: Onnoghen reacts to allegations of paying wife estacode, receiving illicit payments

Suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen
Suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen

The embattled Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, has reacted to new petitions filed against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) before the National Judicial Council (NJC).

Mr Onnoghen is facing a separate trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, where he is accused of not declaring all his asset as a Supreme Court judge. He has denied the charge, but was suspended from office by President Muhammadu Buhari in January.

The allegations raised by the EFCC was heard by a five-member panel of the NJC led by a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, S.A. Akande. The panel concluded hearing of the matter on March 26, and directed the prosecution and the defence counsel to file written addresses and serve each other as well as the panel.

PREMIUM TIMES has exclusively obtained the written submissions of Mr. Onnoghen whose legal team on the case included R.A Lawal-Rabana, Okon Efut, J.U.K Igwe, George Ibrahim and Victoria Agi. Others are Opeyemi Origunloye, Orji Ekumankama and Temitayo Fiki.

The EFCC submitted two petitions against Mr. Onnoghen in February and March, listing various fraudulent practices allegedly committed by the suspended CJN.

In one of the petitions, the EFCC accused Mr. Onnoghen of receiving a Mercedes Benz Gl 450 valued at N7 million from Joe Agi, a senior advocate of Nigeria. It said Mr Agi later appeared in a matter before a panel of supreme court justices including Mr. Onnoghen.

The EFCC also accused the CJN of receiving monetary gifts from five lawyers including Paul Usoro, Emeka Etiaba, Onyechi Ikpeazu, Eze Duru Iheoma and Ogunsanya Adewunmi. The cash gifts which the commission said were traced to the account of Mr Onnoghen ranged between N250,00 and N300,000, and were said to have been deposited by the lawyers in 2015. EFCC said the gifts could have been to influence the CJN in some cases before the Supreme Court.

The anti-graft body also alleged that as a justice of the Supreme Court, Mr Onnoghen received estacodes running to hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, above approved limits, and that the CJN allegedly converted public funds under the guise of estacodes to the advantage of his wife.

It also alleged that between 2017 and 2018, the CJN received a total of N24,169,452 from the court’s Chief Protocol Officer, Ngozi Nwankwo. EFCC said it suspected the cash lodgements could be proceeds of illegal transactions.

Onnoghen reacts

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In his submission as obtained by PREMIUM TIMES, Mr Onnoghen debunked the allegations, describing them as “malicious and speculative” and queried the competence of the NJC panel to entertain such petitions.

Mr Onnoghen also argued that he was unsure whether the petitions went through preliminary assessments as provided by Rules 17 and 18 of the Judicial Discipline Regulations 2017, and that if not, they should be discarded.

His lawyers said the petitions “are not based on any direct complaint from anybody against the Respondent in the discharge of his official functions as a judicial officer but rather intelligence reports gathered by the EFCC, the Power of NJC is limited to the investigation of misconduct arising from or occurring in the discharge of judicial functions and not crime at large.”

Regardless of the argument about the tenability of the petitions, Mr Onnoghen responded to each allegation raised by the EFCC.

On the allegation of car gift by Joe Agi, Mr Onnoghen said the car was bought by the CJN and that it was never a gift. He dismissed the claim that the car was to influence the outcome of a case before a panel of justices he was a member of.

The CJN said other Supreme Court justices on the panel were Mahmud Mohammed, (who would later become CJN), Francis Fedode Tabai, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad (current acting CJN) and Christopher Michell Chukwumah-Eneh.

“It is thus, malicious to link the appearance of Joe Agi, SAN before the Supreme Court in the above matter to any purported gift to one of the Justices who sat on the Panel,” he wrote.

The defence team submitted that; “Mr. Agi in his appearance as a witness had informed this Honourable Committee that the car issue happened in 2008 and that His Lordship ordered for the car and paid for it by installments. The referenced case was in December 2010. Joe Agi, SAN also stated that the car was neither a bribe nor a gift but was purchased by His Lordship. He stated that he was the one that informed the EFCC voluntarily about the car His Lordship bought through his U.S Company which has a car dealership licence in the United States so to illustrate his long standing relationship with His Lordship. Surprisingly, the EFCC then turned around to label it as a bribe.”

Wedding gift

On the allegation of monetary gifts from five lawyers, the defence team argued that it was an unsolicited support for Mr Onnoghen during the wedding ceremony of his first daughter in 2015. It said the CJN had also presented the wedding invitation card as evidence while appearing before the panel. He said the gifts were “a part and parcel of the customs and traditions of the people”, which judicial officers are by law allowed to receive.

According to the defence team, by Rule 13.5(2) of the Revised Code of Conduct for Judicial officers (Published February, 2016) a judicial office is permitted to accept – “Personal gifts or benefits from relatives or personal friends to such extent and on such occasions as are recognized by custom”.

Mr Onnoghen added that linking the gift to cases before the Supreme Court was baseless, since he did not even sit on one of the cited cases. He listed the justices who handled the case as Musa Dattijo Muhammad, (presided), Clara Bata Ogunbiyi, Kudirat Motonmori O. Kekere-Ekun, Ejembi Eko, and Sidi Dauda Bage.

He also said the Supreme Court ruled on the case in 2017 while the “customary wedding gifts” arose in 2015.

More significantly, he said another case the EFCC linked to the gift was concluded in 2011, four years before his daughter’s marriage. The payment for the case was allegedly made by Usoro Usoro, the current president of the Nigerian Bar Association, who is facing a separate charges of corruption, according to the document.

Mr Onnoghen listed other members of the judicial team in 2011 as Aloysius I. Katsina- Alu (former CJN), Walter Onnoghen, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, John Afolabi Fabiyi, Olufunlola O. Adekeye, Suleiman Galadima, and Bode Rhodes Vivour.

“…the claim of the petitioner linking the customary gift of Paul Usoro, SAN to a member of the Panel of 7 Justices is in conflict with common sense,” he wrote. “Could Paul Usoro, SAN, have given a gift of N300,000 to 7 Supreme Court Justices through one of the Justices in 2015 due to a case he lost before the Supreme Court 4 years earlier?”

Estacodes

On the estacode, the defence said the evidence presented by one of the witnesses and director of finance at the Supreme Court was enough to exonerate the CJN.

Mr Onnoghen said it was the practice of the Supreme Court for judges to be paid estacodes, calculated by relevant accounting officials, in cash.

The Finance Director was quoted to have said before the panel that; “I am familiar with the practice of the CJN and Hon. Justices going on any official engagement outside the country or even a local travel. The CJN will give the nomination to the C.R. The C.R will be given the travel documents to process and the C.R will then approve the processing. The C.R. sends the approval to the Accounts to pay. Account will calculate the DTA. If it is outside the country, accounts will calculate the Estacodes. Vouchers will be prepared and sent to the cash office. Cash office will issue mandates. Then the forex will be sourced. When the process is completed, the Head of Estacodes together with the cashier will go to the Justice concerned and pay him the cash. The Justice will sign for the cash. We will take the cash in the currency to the Justice to sign. It is paid in foreign currency. It includes the CJN. He signs also.

“There is a register kept in the Supreme Court for that purpose where all Justices, including the CJN sign. Account does not determine the amount of the estacode. There is a circular we follow. The CJN does not determine how much he takes. There is a circular stating the amount payable to Justices by the Supreme Court. It was signed by the Hon. Justice Lejbo Kutigi… that is the practice I met at the Supreme Court. The practice of signing to collect cash did not start with the Hon. Justice Onnoghen.”

It was not immediately clear why estacode payments to the judges seemed higher than amounts approved by the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission. Payment schedules listed in Mr Onnoghen’s favour show he received between $20,000 and $36,000 for each trip made between 2017 and 2018.

Mr Onnoghen said he did nothing wrong as the same mode of payment applied to all Supreme Court Justices, serving and retired.

Wife’s estacode

On payment of estacode to his wife, the defence team lamented the ignorance of the accusers, saying the practice at the Supreme Court is that whenever the CJN or Justices of the Supreme Court are to attend conferences abroad, there are provisions for their spouses to accompany them. It added that half of the estacodes meant for the justices are paid to the spouses also as their estacodes.

“I remember my first international conference when I joined the Supreme Court. It-was held in the Czech Republic and I attended it with the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Mr. Justice Mohammed Uwais, one of his wives and my dear wife. We flew British Airways. At that time, the Chief Justice of Nigeria and all Justices of the Supreme Court, traveled first class together with their spouses. At least, they were paid the amount for first class tickets though some may decide to save money by traveling Business or even Economy Class. No one ever questioned them nor required a refund of the difference.”

Mr Onnoghen said he was not guilty of any misconduct and urged the committee to dismiss the allegations against him. He also said claims he received any illegal travel payments from the protocol officer, Mrs Nwankwo, were wrong. In two cases, he admitted receiving payments but said the trips were aborted. He did not explain what happened to the funds already paid.

The five-man-panel had commenced sitting on the petitions against the CJN on March 14, with the prosecution counsel calling seven witnesses while the defence had called three.

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