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Non-declaration of assets: Onnoghen convicted, banned from public office for 10 years

…as NJC meets next week over Justice Muhammad

 

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The Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) yesterday convicted the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen of false and non-declaration of assets.

Reading the lead judgment yesterday, the tribunal chairman, Danladi Umar, also ordered the immediate removal of Onnoghen from office as the CJN and the Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC) as well as the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC).

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With reference to Section 23(2) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, Umar also banned Onnoghen from holding any public office for a period of 10 years.

The tribunal also ordered the forfeiture of all the monies in the five accounts the prosecution said Onnoghen failed to declare. They are a domiciliary (US Dollar) account No. 870001062650, a domiciliary (Pound Sterling) account No.285001062679, a domiciliary (Euro) account No. 93001062686 and an e-Saver savings (Naira) account No.5001062693 and a Naira account No.010001062667 all maintained with Standard Chartered Bank (Nig.) Ltd.

Former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, during the judgment at the Code of Conduct Tribunal in Abuja yesterday.

The tribunal chairman held that the prosecution had proven the charge against Onnoghen beyond reasonable doubt.

“I hold the view that the defendant has undermined the provisions of the CCT with what was contained in exhibit 6 (the statement),” the chairman said, adding that the tribunal regarded the statement as confession since the defendant knew he opened the account since 2009 and had refused to mention the accounts in Exhibit 2 and 3 (assets declaration forms).

Before the punishments were read out after the conviction, the tribunal gave an opportunity to the defence to make an allocutus (a statement made by a defence to mitigate the sentence or punishment). However, Onnoghen’s counsel, Okon Efut (SAN), said the defence had nothing to say.

When the tribunal asked Onnoghen if he had anything to say, he replied, “My Lord, I don’t.”

Daily Trust reports that except the conviction is overturned by appellate court, Onnoghen cannot be pardoned by the president through prerogative of mercy. Section 23(7) of the CCT/B Act provides that: “The provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, relating to prerogative of mercy, shall not apply to any punishment imposed in accordance with the provisions of this section.”

Earlier, the tribunal dismissed the two interlocutory motions filed by Onnoghen, with the first challenging the jurisdiction of the tribunal and the second requesting the tribunal chairman to disqualify himself from the trial on allegations of bias.

The first motion was based on the decision of the Court of Appeal in the suit between Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which the CCT relied on in dismissing the charge against another justice of the Supreme Court, Sylvester Ngwuta on May 15, 2018.

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Ruling on the motion, the tribunal chairman held that it was well established that the Constitution stated that the CCT would not be subjected to the control of any authority including the NJC.

As regards Ngwuta’s case, he held that although the tribunal would respect its own decisions but would not hesitate to overrule itself in any case it felt necessary.

“The tribunal hereby reverses itself as regards its decision in the case of Ngwuta. The preliminary objection of the defendant lacks merit and it is hereby refused,” he held. On the second motion, the tribunal chairman held that the allegation that he would not be fair with trial because the EFCC had filed a charge bothering on bribery against him in 2018 was unfounded.

He said the charge against him was withdrawn by the EFCC and he had since been exonerated.

“Without the chairman, there is no CCT. Therefore, the tribunal rejects the application of the defendant and refuses the prayers therein,” he held.

The tribunal chairman also held that though the CCT is not directly under supervision of the NJC and FJSC, the fact that the CCT was placed under the presidency does not mean the CCT would be bound by the whims and caprices of the presidency.

Daily Trust reports that the tribunal verdict makes Onnoghen the first CJN to be arraigned and convicted for violating the provisions of the law.

 

Judgment unconstitutional, we will appeal – Onnoghen’s lawyer

Meanwhile, Onnoghen’s lawyer, Okon Efut (SAN) described the CCT judgment as unconstitutional and a breach of fair hearing, adding that the defence will appeal the judgment.

Addressing journalists after the judgment, Efut said, “Before this day, on 23rd of January, the same judgment had been passed before now removing the CJN without a fair hearing. So, it was a fait accompli, it was premeditated. So, today’s (Thursday) judgment is just a formality.

“So, we hold the view that the tribunal has not only breached the Constitution of Nigeria, it has breached the fundamental principle of natural justice, equity and good conscience. It has convicted on an offence that was never charged.

“Why is it that the due course of justice was not allowed to flow? Why was judgment passed on January 23 before today removing the CJN? Why was it that today even after the CJN had tendered his voluntary retirement and the NJC had taken a position, why is that the tribunal had gone ahead to pass judgment in total disregard of the independence of the NJC and the powers of the Senate?

“We hold the view 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 processes to the hierarchy of the judiciary and we know that the judiciary will redeem itself even though seriously battered and bruised. The judiciary will do justice. Justice has not been done today (Thursday) but it will surely be done tomorrow. If not by tribunal or our courts, justice will be done by God. That is out position in this matter.”

The prosecution counsel, Ibrahim Musa, however, said the prosecution was satisfied with the judgment.

 

‘Onnoghen’s risks losing benefits’

According to Abuja based lawyer, Hamid Ajibola Jimoh said despite the punishments pronounced by the CCT Chairman, the CCB Act states that the sanctions shall be without prejudice to the penalties that may be imposed by any law where the conduct is also a criminal offence. He said the EFCC may decide to file charges against Onnoghen relying on his conviction for non-declaration of asset.

Jimoh also said the implication of Onnoghen’s conviction could include the forfeiture of his financial benefits, adding that his resignation came too late in the trial.

Another lawyer and President of Voters Awareness Initiative (VAI), Mr Wale Ogunade, told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that Onnoghen’s conviction showed that no one should be above the law. He urged that corruption investigations should not be politicised.

“I was one of those who suggested, when he started, that he should eat the humble pie and resign as an honourable man but unfortunately he allowed himself to be misled by his kinsmen who believed that it was politics.

“Law and politics are like water and oil, there is no way you can mix the two, law will always stand and politics will fall like what you have seen,” Ogunade said.

Daily Trust reports that Onnoghen was named as acting CJN by President Muhammadu Buhari on November 10, 2016, following the retirement of former CJN Mahmud Mohammed upon reaching the age of 70 years.

On February 8, 2017, then acting President Yemi Osinbajo nominated Onnoghen for confirmation as the substantive CJN, which was done by the Senate on March 1, 2017.

On Friday, January 25, 2019, President Buhari suspended Onnoghen as CJN citing an order of the CCT earlier granted on Wednesday, January 23, 2019.

Buhari inaugurated Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammed as acting CJN, being the next in line to Onnoghen based on seniority at the apex court.

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