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Justice Onnoghen’s 85 days ordeal

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Justice Walter Onnoghen’s judicial career and his tenure as the Chief Justice of Nigeria ended abruptly on April 4, when he reportedly submitted his letter of resignation to President Muhammadu Buhari. ADE ADESOMOJU, in this piece, reviews the 85-day ordeal that saw him out of office prematurely

Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen
Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen

Justice Walter Onnoghen’s tenure as the Chief Justice of Nigeria has ended dramatically in the same manner his ascension to the office was enmeshed in controversy.

His 30 years on the bench and his entire 41 years in the legal profession has been eclipsed by the 85 days of the roller coaster that climaxed in his reported resignation from office last Thursday.

His last 85 days on the bench will define his post-retirement life.

Born on December 22, 1950 at Okurike Town, Biase Local Government Area of Cross River State, he was due for retirement on December 22, 2020 when he would have attained the mandatory retirement age of 70 years.

The 68-year-old graduated from the University of Ghana at Legon, Ghana in 1977.

He was called to the Bar after graduating from the Nigerian Law School in Lagos in 1978, about 41 years ago.

After practising for about 11 years as a lawyer, he was appointed to the bench as a high court judge in Cross River State in 1989.

He was on the high court bench for about nine years before he was elevated to the Court of Appeal in 1998.

He had spent barely seven years on the Court of Appeal bench when he was elevated to the Supreme Court bench in 2005.

As the next in line, based on the succession tradition in the Supreme Court, Justice Onnoghen was due to step in as the substantive CJN, when his predecessor Justice Mahmud Mohammed, retired on attaining the mandatory retirement age of 70 years on November 10, 2016.

But in what appeared to be the early sign of the fate awaiting him, his appointment in substantive capacity was delayed by President Muhammadu Buhari, for reasons not officially disclosed to the public.

Hence, he was appointed as the acting CJN, while the President was making up his mind on what to do about what was speculated to be “some reports” about him.

Onnoghen remained acting CJN until Buhari embarked on a medical vacation to London, where he remained for some time, thus paving the way for then acting President, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, to send Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation as the substantive CJN.

Following his confirmation by the Senate on March 1, 2017, Osinbajo, on March 7, swore him in as the substantive CJN.

Onnoghen was meant to remain in office till December 22, 2020 but his tenure has been cut short on account a petition filed against him in January by a non-governmental organisation, the Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative.

Before throwing in the towel last week, Onnoghen fought hard in court against the petition that threatened to bring him down from his exalted position.

While there has been no official statement from Onnoghen or his spokesperson, the Supreme Court, the National Judicial Council or the Presidency, announcing the resignation of the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria, neither too has there been any official statement denying the widely reported news of the sudden exit of the numero uno of the Nigerian judiciary.

Beginning of Onnoghen’s 85 days of nightmare

The scenario that submerged Onnoghen’s career, cutting his tenure as CJN short by about half, started with the petition by the Anti-Corruption and Research-Based Data Initiative, and its Executive Director, Mr  Dennis Aghanya, submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau on January 9, 2019.

Aghanya had accused Justice Onnoghen in the petition of violating the Code of Conduct for Public Officers in relation to assets declaration.

Based on Aghanya’s petition, the Code of Conduct Bureau immediately commenced investigation into the allegations against Onnoghen.

By January 11, the CCB had filed charges against the sitting CJN before the Code of Conduct Tribunal.

The six counts bordered on the alleged failure of Justice Onnoghen to declare his assets between June 2005 and December 14, 2016 and the allegation that he made false declaration of his assets on December 14, 2016 by omitting his domiciliary dollar, euro and pound sterling accounts as well as his two naira accounts, all maintained with Standard Chattered Bank (Nigeria) Ltd.

On January 25, President Muhammadu Buhari, acting on an order of the CCT, suspended Onnoghen and swore in the next most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Tanko Muhammad, as acting CJN.

The circumstances surrounding the issuance of the ex parte order of the CCT and its legality remain a subject of one Onnoghen’s appeals still pending before the Court of Appeal.

The President’s action suspending Onnoghen drew criticisms from within and outside the country.

The international community, including Nigerian major allies – the United States of America and the United Kingdom – joined in condemning the action.

The European Union, like the US and the UK, expressed reservations about the legality of Buhari’s unilateral suspension of Onnoghen without the input of the National Assembly.

They also expressed reservations about the timing against the backdrop of speculation by the opposition parties that Buhari was out to take control of the judiciary ahead of the general elections in order to have it rubber-stamp his alleged planned rigging of the results of the approaching elections.

Locally, the Nigerian Bar Association, at an emergency meeting of its National Executive Committee, condemned what it described as “the assault, intimidation and desecration of the judiciary by the executive arm of the Federal Government of Nigeria…”

Weighing in on the matter, the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, through the Chairman of its Board of Governors, Mr Jiti Ogunye, faulted the filing of charges against Onnoghen.

The group cited the judgment of the Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal, which on December 12, 2017, struck out corruption charges against a judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Hyeldzira Nganjiwa.

The Court of Appeal had ruled that Nganjiwa could not be investigated or prosecuted by any law enforcement agency until he was disciplined by the National Judicial Council as provided under sections 153 and 158 of the Constitution, and Part 1, Paragraphs 20 and 21 of the Third Schedule to the Constitution.

The NADL also said it found “as bizarre the order ex parte that was said to have been obtained on January 23, 2019 by the executive branch of government,”  mandating the President to suspend Onnoghen and appoint the next most senior Justice of the Supreme Court as the acting CJN.

But despite its position on the charges filed against Onnoghen and his suspension by Buhari, the NADL called on the suspended CJN “to seriously consider a resignation from office in the interest of the Nigerian judiciary.”

It said, by exploring the option, Onnoghen could “earn himself a dignified and orderly exit from his current travails”.

But the Presidency, the Federal Government, through its Minster of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed,  and various allies of President Buhari, justified the suspension of the CJN, pushing back insinuation that it was a ploy to arm-twist the judiciary ahead of the general elections.

They alleged that the international community’s comments were not only hasty but also amounted to meddling in the internal affairs of Nigeria.

NJC wades in

While the debate over the propriety of Onnoghen’s suspension by Buhari raged on, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, through its acting Chairman, Mr Ibrahim Magu, sent a petition, dated February 4, 2019, to the NJC, accusing Onnoghen of “financial impropriety, infidelity to the constitution and other economic and financial crimes-related laws.”

The anti-graft agency sent what it called additional facts to the NJC on March 5, 2019.

Meanwhile, a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Dr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), and the Actions Peoples Party also sent petitions to the NJC against Justice Muhammad, whom Buhari sworn in as acting CJN after suspending Onnoghen.

Agbakoba and the APP accused Muhammad of encouraging an illegality by submitting himself to Buhari to be sworn in as acting CJN when he was not recommended by the NJC.

After receiving the petitions against Onnoghen and Muhammad, the NJC at its February 13, 2019 meeting considered the complaints against them worthy of being investigated.

The council then set up a five-man panel led by a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice S.A. Akande, to investigate the petitions.

The NJC, thereafter, ssued queries to the two apex court Justices.

 On April 3, the NJC reviewed the report of the investigation panel.

Its Director of Information, Mr Soji Oye, said in a statement that the council had sent its recommendations to the President.

Curiously, it said it would not share its recommendations with the public until after Buhari received it.

But the NJC clarified that it did not investigate the petition accusing Onnoghen of false asset declaration.

Negotiated exit?

The NJC is believed to have provided a soft-landing for Onnoghen in his recommendations to the President.

This perhaps was why his resignation, barely 24 hours after the NJC’s recommendations were sent to Buhari, did not come as a surprise to many who claimed to be privy to the NJC’s position on the issue.

The recommendations, although not yet made public, were said to have considered the allegations levelled against Onnoghen to be too weighty for him to remain in office.

But the council was said to have recommended that he be given time to voluntarily resign from office.

Whether or not the “soft-landing” would extend to his ongoing trial before the CCT is a matter of speculation, but the lead prosecuting counsel, Mr Aliyu Umar (SAN), confirmed to our correspondent on Saturday that he had not been notified of any deal to terminate the ongoing trial.

Onnoghen fenced in

The erstwhile CJN’s decision to promptly embrace the NJC’s option might have been informed by his assessment of the attitude of the courts to the pending litigation.

He perhaps came to terms with the odds stacked against him when on February 13, 2019, the CCT ordered his arrest.

The tribunal chairman, Danladi Umar, made the order following the prosecution’s application for the issuance of the arrest warrant on the grounds that Onnoghen had continued to snub the tribunal by refusing to obey summons to answer  to the charges of non-declaration of assets preferred against him by the Federal Government.

Onnoghen however averted the arrest by voluntarily submitting to the CCT on February 15, when the charges against him were read to him and he pleaded not guilty to all the six counts.

While the CCT’s ruling challenging the jurisdiction of the tribunal to hear the case was pending, the trial proceeded with the speed of light.

The proceedings held day-to-day except when it was practically not feasible.

The prosecution opened its case on March 18 and closed on March 21 after calling three witnesses.

The defence, led by Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), indicated that it was going to file a no-case submission and the tribunal chairman promptly ordered the parties to exchange their written addresses and fixed March 29 for hearing.

On the same day of the hearing, the tribunal delivered its ruling in which he held that Onnoghen had a case to answer.

What was more damning in the ruling was the CCT’s conclusion that Onnoghen had made a confessional statement in respect of the charges preferred against him.

“The defendant by himself made a written admission without duress that he has mistaken or forgotten to declare those five accounts maintained by Standard Chartered Bank, that is, the Euro account, the dollar account, the pound sterling account and the two naira accounts.

“This confessional statement is more than enough to require the defendant to enter his defence,” the tribunal chairman held.

After dismissing the no-case submission in its Friday, March 29 ruling, the tribunal ordered the defence to open its case on Monday, April 1.

In compliance with the tribunal’s directive, Onnoghen opened his defence on April 1, calling his driver since 1999, Lawal Busari, as his first witness.

In what turned out to be a time-buying strategy, the defence prayed for and obtained the tribunal’s order summoning a CCB director, Mrs Theresa Nwafor, to appear to testify as a defence witness on April 3.

Surprisingly, the defence closed its case on April 3, without calling Nwafor to the witness stand or any other witness to testify in defence of the former CJN.

The tribunal refused to grant the 14 days period requested by the defence to file their written address and ordered that the two parties should exchange their papers on or before April 15, the date he fixed for final argument in the trial.

As the trial continued, the Court of Appeal in Abuja continued to withhold its judgments on the various appeals filed by Onnoghen, one of which challenged the jurisdiction of the CCT to hear the non-declaration of assets charges instituted against him before the CCT.

Another of the appeals challenged the legality of the ex parte order of the CCT directing Buhari to suspend him from office.

The Justice Stephen Adah-led bench of the three Justices of the court has since February 27, heard the appeals, but has yet to give any date for judgment.

Earlier, Onnoghen’s lead counsel, Awomolo conceded that the Court of Appeal was entitled to three months to prepare its judgment but expressed “disappointment that the Court of Appeal has not delivered its judgments on the appeals by the CJN despite the far-reaching constitutional implication of the appeals.”

The posers

What are the likely outcomes of the the charges of false and non-declaration of assets preferred against Onnoghen at the CCT? Will the trial end in a guilty or acquittal verdict?

When will the Court of Appeal deliver its judgments that have been withheld for over five weeks? What will the judgments of the Court of Appeal be?

Uncertainties around these issues might have informed Onnoghen’s last Thursday decision to throw in the towel, to avert a more traumatic ending.

Belated resignation?

Reacting to Onnoghen’s reported resignation, Jiti Ogunye of NADL said, “I will hasten to point out that this resignation is perhaps coming too late in the day.”

He added, “As an organisation, and I am referring to the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, we had counselled the CJN to consider a honourable resignation from office, well before now, because of what we consider to the indefensibility of those allegations; because those allegations strike at the heart of the integrity of his office.

“We said we were not a court of law, we had not found him guilty, we could not find him guilty, but in the face of those serious allegations, he should seriously consider resignation.

“Now the NJC has made a recommendation and the CJN has resigned; this appears to be an afterthought and act of cowardly escapism.”

Ogunye however called on the executive arm of government to make the fight corruption holistic by beaming the searchlight on sharp practices within its fold and treating all cases with dispatch.

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