Order CJN Onnoghen to step aside, Nigerian govt tells Tribunal

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

The federal government demanded the removal from office of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, in the false asset charges it filed at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), PREMIUM TIMES has learnt.

According to the second request, made through the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation, the government wants Mr Onnoghen to step aside for his immediate junior in the bench, Ibrahim Mohammed, who hails from Bauchi State.

Confirming the report earlier published by the Punch Newspaper, the tribunal said the request for Mr Onnoghen to vacate his office was made the same day the false asset charge was brought against him.

“I was just told now by the people at the registry that the motion was filed along with the charge,” said Ibrahim Alhassan, the head of media and publicity at the CCT.

According to the request, the AGF asked Mr Onnoghen to allow another judge head the NJC, “so that he (Onnoghen) would not be a judge in his own case.”

It is unclear whether the Nigerian government also petitioned the National Judicial Council about the allegations concerning Mr Onnoghen.

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Various lawyers have said the current provision of Nigerian laws only empowers the council to undertake any kind of disciplinary action against serving judicial officers.

While the media assistant to the AGF, Salihu Isah, refused to respond to calls and enquiries by PREMIUM TIMES regarding the matter, the CJN’s spokesperson, Awassam Bassey, said in a text message on Sunday that he had no comments on the issue.

However, copies of the motion published by the Punch Newspaper indicate that the government is asking the tribunal to order the vacation of Mr Onnoghen from office and direct President Muhammadu Buhari to take immediate steps to swear in a new acting Chief Justice.

“An order of the honourable tribunal directing the defendant/respondent to step aside as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and chairman of the National Judicial Council over an allegation of contravening the provision of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act CAP C15 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004 pending the determination of the case.

“An interlocutory order of the honourable tribunal directing the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to take all necessary measures to swear in the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court as an acting Chief Justice and chairman of the National Judicial Council in order to prevent a vacuum in the judicial arm of government pending the determination of the case,” the paper quoted the AGF as saying in the motion.

Mr Onnoghen was taken before the CCT by the anti-graft federal agency, the Code of Conduct Bureau, on January 11.

The bureau accused Mr Onnoghen of failing to declare his accounts used for the transfer of foreign currencies and delaying the renewal of his declaration form after same expired in 2009.

It also accused him of only making a complete declaration in one, out of two forms filled in December 2016 and submitted with the Code of Conduct Tribunal.

According to the charge, the failure of the CJN to include his domiciliary accounts in form 000014, while the details were only contained in form 000015, meant that the CJN attempted to conceal information and was liable, for false asset charges.

The charges were brought pursuant to a petition against the CJN dated January 7 by a former National Publicity Secretary of the defunct Congress for Progressive Change and a current member of the ruling All Progressives Congress, Denis Aghanya.

Reacting to criticisms that the federal government propelled the trial of Mr Onnoghen, the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, said Mr Buhari had nothing to do with it.

Responding to the charges against him, Mr Onnoghen had said he failed to renew his forms in 2009, after the expiration of his 2005 declaration form because he “forgot” to do so.
The CJN also said he had omitted the accounts in form 00014 because he believed that the said accounts were no longer functioning.

Some lawyers described the comments by the CJN as a confirmation of his guilt. Others, however, said section 3 (d) of the CCB Act renders the charge invalid after Mr Onnoghen’s explanation.

The section states thus: “Provided that where the person concerned makes a written admission of such breach or non-compliance, no reference to the Tribunal shall be necessary.”

The tribunal adjourned Mr Onnoghen’s trial till January 22.

Some courts have, however, issued restraining orders stopping the CCT from proceeding with the trial until the determination of related cases.

Mr Onnoghen was sworn in as CJN in March 2017, five months after he was nominated to replace the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mahmoud Mohammed.

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