The Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) on Thursday convicted suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, of all six count charge of failure to declare his assets in line with the provisions of the law for public officers.
The three man panel of the tribunal in a Judgment delivered by the chairman, Danladi Umar, held that from the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses and the statement of Onnoghen admitting that he made a mistake of not declaring his five accounts with the Standard Chartered Bank, the tribunal came to the conclusion that Onnoghen was guilty as charged.
Onnoghen was arraigned by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) for failing to declare some of his assets as judicial officer. The CCB acting on a petition filed by a non-governmental organisation, the Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative (ARDI), had slammed a six count charge of non asset declaration against Onnoghen at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).
Though he was initially scheduled for arraignment on January 14, 2019, he was however not arraigned until February 15, in response to a bench warrant issued for his arrest by the CCT boss on February 13.
Onnoghen in the charge was accused of maintaining five domiciliary accounts with the bank which he did not declare in his asset declaration forms to the CCB.
The accounts are in dollar, euro and pound Sterling while the remaining two are in naira.
He pleaded not guilty to the charge following which the prosecution called three witnesses to support its case against Onnoghen.
Onnoghen however called only one witness who testified how he obtained and submitted his assets declaration form in 2010.
However delivering judgment on Thursday in the matter, the tribunal held that the admission by Onnoghen that he forgot to declare the bank accounts in the form CCB001 was a clear contravention of Section 23 of the Code of Conduct and Tribunal Act.
The CCT having convicted Onnoghen of the charges went ahead to remove him as Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC).
Umar also ordered that in line with the section 23 of the Code of Conduct and Tribunal Act, the former CJN was barred from holding any public office for the next ten years.
Umar also held that since Onnoghen could not adduce any evidence as to how he got the money in the undeclared accounts in the Standard Chartered Bank, the money should be confiscated and forfeited to the federal government.
Tge judge held that the admission by the defendant in his own handwriting that he forgot to declare the five bank accounts in his asset declaration form CCB001 amounts to a partial confession that the defendant had breached the provision of the CCB/CCT Act as it amounts to refusal to declare assets.
“In the present case, hard facts have been adduced by the prosecution to establish that the defendant is in crystal clear of breach of the CCB provisions and the prosecution has therefore discharged the burden placed on it by law.
“Having examined the case of the prosecution against the defendant, this tribunal has come to a conclusion that the defendant falsely declared his assets as he is hereby found guilty of contravention of Section 23 of the CCB/CCT Act.
“It is hereby ordered that the defendant be removed as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and as chairman of the National Judicial Council.
“He is also barred for ten years from holding public office while the money in the five undeclared bank accounts is hereby seized, confisticated and forfeited to the Federal government, having been illegally acquired, since the defendant did not disclose their sources”, Umar said.
The amounts to be forfeited are N26.8m, $137, 700 and E13, 730.
Earlier, the CCT had overruled Onnoghen on his claim that he lacked jurisdiction to hear the charge.
Onnoghen in challenging the jurisdiction of the tribunal to try him being a serving Judicial Officer and the CJN, cited the judgment of an Appeal Court which held that no serving Judicial Officer can be tried in any court of law without first passing through the National Judicial Council (NJC) the body responsible for the discipline of Judicial Officers.
Onnoghen further reminded the tribunal that it had earlier observed the Appeal Court’s judgment when it dismissed the case of a Supreme Court judge, Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, for lack of jurisdiction.
However in his ruling, Umar held that Onnoghen was arraigned before him as a public officer and not as a judicial officer and as such, the tribunal was not under the obligation of the NJC.
Umar went further to overrule itself on its earlier decision on Justice Ngwuta, adding that the tribunal had right to reverse earlier decision made in error.
Umar in reversing itself held that the Constitution cannot be subject to any law or rule of the NJC.
Umar also overruled Onnoghen on the claim that the Chairman of the CCT was bound to be bias in the trial owing to the fact that he is being prosecuted by the EFCC on bribery allegations and that the CCT being under the supervision of the presidency was bound to do the biddings of the prosecution.
Meanwhile, counsel to Onnoghen at Thursday’s sitting, Okon Efut SAN, has said that the former CJN would appeal the tribunal’s judgment, which according to him is faulty, bias and premeditated.
Speaking to journalists shortly after the judgment was delivered, Efut said that the conviction “was out of order, unconstitutional and a breach of fair hearing because before this day, on January 23, the same judgment has been passed.
“Removing the CJN without a fair hearing was premeditated. Judgment has been passed before today. So, today’s judgment was just a formality and we hold a view that the tribunal has not only breached the constitution of Nigeria, it has also breached the fundamental principles of natural justice, equity and fair hearing and good conscience”.
According to the senior lawyer, onnoghen was convicted on an offence that he was never charged.
“This is an erosion of the fundamental principle of our constitution and until some questions are answered, for instance, why was a due course of justice not allowed to flow?
“Why was judgment passed on January 23 before today removing the CJN? Why is it that today, even after he has tendered his notice of retirement voluntarily and NJC has taken position, why is it that the tribunal has gone ahead to pass judgment in total disregard of the independence of the NJC and in total disregard to the power of the Senate in this matter”, he queried.
Efut stressed that the tribunal, having reversed itself in the case of Justice Ngwuta has breached the principles that hold us together.
“It is a sad day in our nation’s democracy, and we know that all is not over with this matter. The wheel of justice grinds slowly but surely, this is not the matter that will end here, we shall avail ourselves of all the process and hierarchy of the judiciary and we know that the judiciary will redeem itself, even though seriously battered and bruised”, he added.
“The judiciary will do justice.
Justice has not been done today but surely, it would be done tomorrow, if not by our court, justice would be done by God. That is our position in this matter”, Nkanu said.
It would be recalled that President Muhammadu Buhari had on January 25, 2019 suspended Onnoghen as CJN based on an exparte order of the CCT and sworn in Justice Tanko Muhammad to serve as CJN in Acting capacity.
While the National Judicial Council (NJC) was said to have recommended for the compulsory retirement of Onnoghen at its emergency meeting of April 3, 2019 in Abuja, Onnoghen was said to have turned in his notice of retirement to the President the following day.