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Onnoghen and the trial of a top judge

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By Olisemeka Obeche

Justice Walter Samuel ’s rise to the pinnacle of Nigeria’s judicial echelon produced a spectacular power-play that has trailed him and is now threatening to bring his turbulent reign to a screeching halt, no thanks to questionable aggrandizement of wealth and faulty asset disclosure.

Justice became the first chief justice of Nigeria to face corruption when he was dragged before a Justice Danladi Yakubu led-Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) on January 14, 2019 over alleged false asset disclosure and suspicious earnings.

A six-count false asset declaration charge levelled against the jurist by the Code of Conduct Bureau revolves around his alleged failure to disclose some bank accounts which contained dollars, pounds, euro and naira denominations in excess of N300 millions shortly after he was appointed to preside over the country’s Supreme Court.

Onnoghen was alleged to have made five different cash deposits of US$10, 000 each on March 8, 2011, into Standard Bank Account 1062650, on June 7, 2011; two (20 of US$5, 000 each. He allegedly made another four cash deposits of US$10, 000 each, on June 27, 2011 and another set of five of US$10, 000 plus another four other cash deposits of US$10, 000 on June 28, 2011.

According to prosecutors, the cash lodgments were ethical crimes committed, not in the course of performing his duties, but as a public officer that ought to declare such available funds/deposits. Asset disclosure violations, which only apply to public office holders, do not necessarily attract jail terms, but a convict could face up to 10 years ban from public service, and sometimes heavy fines and forfeitures.

But, the embattled CJN, in his initial response to the corruption saga, claimed that he forgot to disclose the bank accounts and later added that he had since disclosed the asset in his most recent filings in late 2016. He clarified, in a letter to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), that his “asset declaration form numbers SCN 00014 and SCN 00005 were declared on the same day, 14/12/2016 because I forgot to make a declaration of my assets after the expiration of my 2005 declaration in 2009. Following my appointment as acting CJN in November, 2016, the need to declare my assets anew made me to realise the mistake.

“I then did the declaration to cover the period in default. I did not include my Standard Chartered Bank account in SCN 000014 because I believed they were not opened. I did not make a fresh declaration of asset after my substantive appointment as CJN because I was under the impression that my SCN 000015 was to cover that period of four years which includes my term as CJN….,” he explained.

Intriguing

The speedy prosecution of Onnoghen is based on a petition filed by a civil society group, the Anti-Corruption and Research Based Data Initiative signed by its Executive Secretary, Mr Denis Aghanya and dated January 7, 2019.  Most curious watchers were perplexed that the petition which triggered the trial was not only engineered by a former President Muhammadu Buhari’s aide but was treated with unprecedented haste. That a petition submitted to the CCB on January 8 and by presented to the CJN two days later for his reply, reportedly had the charges drafted that same day, January 10 and filed in the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) with the commencement of trial fixed for January 14, was interpreted in some quarters as a grand design to push the Biase, Cross Rivers state-born Onnoghen out of the most powerful judicial post in the land and install an amenable jurist.

The political undertone to the trial became manifest when the federal government, in an application dated January 11, 2019 and signed by two lawyers, Musa Ibrahim Usman and Fatima Danjuma Ali, raised a motion to compel the CJN to vacate his office to concentrate on clearing himself of the criminal allegations against.

And so, Nigerians watched with keen interest as the dramatic prosecution Onnoghen, the first judicial official from Southern Nigeria to attain the position of CJN in over 30 years, took off in Abuja last Monday, setting in motion an extraordinary legal battle that could change the dynamics and direction of the country’s judiciary.

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Expectedly, the case ran into first technical hitch on its debut, as lead defense counsel, Wale Olanipekun quickly faulted the arraignment of Mr. Onnoghen by the CCB, arguing that the CCT has no power to hear the charges levelled against him at all as the National Judicial Council had the allegations, and may not have been privy to the case.  According to the lawyer, the Nigerian Constitution Section 292 stipulated that a serving judge must first be investigated and indicted by the NJC before dismissal or trial for misconduct in open courts. The NJC regulates the Nigerian judiciary.

On the conspicuous absence of Onnoghen from the court, Olanipekun argued that the tribunal summons to the embattled CJN was delivered to his personal assistant and not him personally, describing it as ‘an anomaly’. The prosecution, led by Umar Aliyu from the Federal Ministry of Justice, first, dismissed the claims but, later, agreed that another summon could be dispatched to enable Onnoghen appear before the tribunal on the next hearing fixed for January 22.

Long road to CJN

Those who witnessed Onnoghen’s rough and endurance trek to becoming the 17th Chief Justice of Nigeria on March 6, 2017, may not be surprised that he had found himself on slippery terrain barely two years on the saddle. It may have been fortuitous as he emerged successor of Justice Mahmud Mohammed as the CJN during a spell of brief political turbulence and cold war between the executive judiciary.

Months before he became the Acting CJN, masked operatives of the State Security Service (SSS) had raided homes of seven federal judges in an overnight anti-corruption crackdown on October 16, 2016 that saw some of the judges dragged to court for disparate corruption charges. Three years after the bizarre crackdown and prosecution was launched, none of the judges has been convicted, including Justice Ngwuta who was cleared in 2018 largely on the grounds that the NJC had or indicted him.

From the moment of elevation as the acting CJN in November 2016 until ratification of his appointment by the Senate on March 6, 2017, Onnoghen’s position was a subject of widespread concern following speculation that the presidency was shopping for its candidate to take over from him. And that Onnoghen’s way had been strewn with banana peels waiting to orchestrate his slip.

In what seems to be an authentication of the story, President Buhari refused to send Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation for several weeks. It wasn’t until he was ill and went on medical vacation in the United Kingdom that the Acting-President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, summoned the courage to send his name to the senate for confirmation in early March in 2017, to end the nationwide umbrage over the brewing constitutional crisis of having no substantive chief judge in place for six months. When the dust finally settled and government top officials claimed that the delay was due to a rigorous vetting of Mr. Onnoghen by the secret service, many presumed that his travail was over. The raging corruption saga, which may ultimately pull him from the pinnacle of his career before his official retirement age of 70 in December 2020 has invalidated every notion of a cordial working relationship with the Buhari presidency.

Already, Buhari’s critics have been quick to say that the presidency threw up the charges at this point in time in their desperate bid to remove replace him with a judge from northern region who would be more amenable to its political influence in the aftermath of the forthcoming general election. The name of Justice Tanko Mohammed, an associate judge from Bauchi state has been bounced as the candidate the presidency has penned down as the next Chief Justice when Onnoghen is finally elbowed out of the seat.

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But the ruling APC and presidency have been swift and straight-faced in their denial of the allegations of presidential interference in the trial. The official claim was that the president and his vice were not briefed before the charges were filed and made public last weekend. It was an independent operation that did not enjoy presidential prodding. But those who understand the operations of the government would easily dismiss that claim with a wave of hand. And that is because The Code of Conduct Bureau Code of Conduct Tribunal are under the presidential control and can hardly treat a case with such speed without a presidential signal. Officials of the CCB and CCT are domiciled under the Secretary to the Government of the Federation.

Mr. Ugochukwu Ezekiel, a legal practitioner, described it as a hatchet job geared towards intimidating the judiciary. “Those who filed the charge know the current position of the law yet they took the action. Their target is not conviction or the eradication of corruption but to cow members of the bench ahead of the election. We must all rise to defend our profession, the democratic institutions and our country,” he said.

Moses Ochonu, a public affairs analyst, insists that even if Buhari and Osinbajo did not directly sanction the persecution, a cabal acting on their behalf was.  “The cabal thinks Onnoghen is not amenable to their agenda. They have the police, the army, DSS, INEC, and other apparatuses of power. The judiciary and the legislature are the only institutions they’re yet to capture. Of these two, the judiciary is more consequential, especially in election-related matters.

He claimed that the cabal operating inside presidential villa found an asset declaration issue and the domiciliary account issue and “pressured the CCT chairman to write a report, which they submitted to Buhari to nail force him out.”

Final showdown

Whether the allegations of presidential involvement are true or false, the refusal of the government to withdraw the case shows that its prosecutors are confident of nailing the embattled CJN and pushing him off in record time. And what happens next Tuesday would likely be a pointer to whether it would be a brief or prolonged legal battle.

But with the massive support of lawyers and opposition leaders and their supporters, beating Onnoghen, either in court of law or public opinion may not be an easy task for a government that has struggled to prove that its anti-corruption crusade was altruistic and fair. Certainly this may be the last battle for both Onnoghen and Buhari, which may have far-reaching implications for the post-2019 general election.  Judging from the outcome of the Senate President Bukola Saraki’s trail on 18-count charge on similar infractions in 2015, Onnoghen’s chances of triumph carry higher odds than loss.

However, until the case runs its cause, Onnoghen would mean different person to different people. To officials and supporters of the ruling party, the CJN remains a corrupt and powerful officer that must be dispensed with before the next term. Opposition players and southern leaders view Onnoghen as the latest lamb chosen for sacrifice by the country’s powerful ruling clique in their desperate bid to perpetuate Buhari’s reign beyond next May. Views are predictably varied amongst lawyers and elites. Buhari’s critics also view the CJN’s travails as continuation of his brash and parochial anti-corruption fight that had seen largely opposition leaders targeted for prosecution. Even religious and ethnic chauvinists see the man at the center of the storm differently.

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