Suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Walter Onnoghen lost yesterday the battle to affirm his integrity.
The Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) pronounced him guilty of violation of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers.
The CCT, in a unanimous judgment of its three-member panel, held that the prosecution proved beyond reasonable doubt, the relevant elements of the offences in the six-count charge on which Onnoghen was tried.
Onnoghen has appealed the judgment.
Tribunal Chairman Danladi Umar held, in the lead judgment, that the prosecution, led by Aliyu Umar (SAN), proved, with hard facts, devoid of technicalities, that Onnoghen made false assets declaration by deliberately omitting to declare the five domiciliary accounts he maintained with Standard Chartered Bank, and in which huge deposits were found.
Umar, who reviewed the evidence led by parties and the exhibits tendered, noted that while the prosecution established its case against the defendant, Onnoghen called only his driver as his sole witness, and in so doing, failed to discredit the evidence of the three witnesses called by the prosecution.
He agreed with the prosecution that Onnoghen’s claim, in his statement, that he forgot to declare the five accounts he opened between 2010 and 2011 in Standard Chartered Bank, which were found to have remained active since then, amounted to admittance of non-declaration and false declaration of asset.
Umar noted that since Onnoghen admitted that he forgot to declare the accounts, it means that the declaration he made was false.
“The prosecution has proved the charge any beyond any reasonable doubt. The preponderance of proof has been established against the defendant. The defendant falsely declared his asset by deliberately omitting to declare his five bank accounts, and he is found guilty of contravening the Code of Conduct for Public Officers.”
After holding that the tribunal has found the defendant guilty, the chairman asked Onnoghen’s lawyer if he had anything to say in the form of allocutus.
Lead defence lawyer, Okon Nkanu Efut (SAN) said he has nothing to say.
When Umar put the same question to Onnghen, who had all the while sat quietly in the dock, he (Onnoghen) stood up, bowed a little and said: “I have nothing to say, my lord,” and sat down.
The Tribunal Chairman resumed reading the judgment and said: “The tribunal has clearly examined the evidence of PW1, PW2 and PW3 and exhibits tendered by the prosecution, and come to the conclusion that the defendant has falsely declared his assets by deliberately omitting to declare the five accounts under consideration.
“And on that note, find the defendant guilty of the aforementioned breach of the code of conduct for public officers.
“By the provision of Section 23(2). Of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, the defendant has clearly violated the provision of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers and he is accordingly convicted as follows:
*The defendant is hereby removed from office as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman, National Judicial Council and Chairman, Federal Judicial Service Commission.
*The defendant is hereby barred from any public office for the period of 10 years.
*The money in the five accounts, which the defendant has failed to disclose and has not produced evidence as to how he amassed such amount of money not declared, the money in those accounts is hereby confiscated, seized and forfeited to the Federal Government of Nigeria as it is crystal clear that such money was acquired illegally based on the fact that the defendant has failed to produce any evidence as to how he acquired such huge sums of money in those bank accounts.”
Following CCT judgment, Justice Walter Onnoghen will forfeit N47, 878,933.87 to the Federal Government.
The cash is the total sum in the five accounts which the tribunal confirmed that Onnoghen did not declare.
The breakdown of the sums is as follows: $10, 187.18 (N3, 565, 513 @N350 to $); £13, 730.70 (N6,563,274.6 @ N478 to £); $63, 832.99 (N22,341,546.5); N2, 556, 019. 25; N12, 852, 580.52.
The case at the tribunal was “about failure to declare five accounts and alleged violation of the Code of Conduct Act.”
The account Exhibits the government presented to the tribunal were as follows:
CCB4o, CCB4p, CCB4q for Onnoghen’s Euro Account No. 93001062686 with NUBAN No. 5001062686 with a balance of $10, 187.18(USD) as at 11th January 2019
CCB4r, CCB4s, CCB4t and CCB4u for Onnoghen’s Pound Sterling Account No. 285001062679 with NUBAN No. 5001062679 with a balance of £13, 730.70 as at 11th January 2019
CCB4v, CCB4w, CCB4x, CCB4y and CCB4z, CCB4za, CCB4zb, CCB4zc, CCB4zd, CCB4ze, CCB4zf for Onnoghen’s Dollar Account No. 0001062650 with a balance of $63, 832.99 USD as at 11th January 2019.
CCB4zg, CCBzh, CCB4zi, CCB4zj and CCB4zk for Onnoghen’s Naira NUBAN Account No. 0001062667 with a balance of N2, 556, 019. 25 as at 11th January 2019.
CCB4zl, CCB4zm, CCB4zn, CCB4zo and CCB4zp and CCB4zq, for Onnoghen’s Nigerian Naira NUBAN Account No. 5000162693 with a balance of N12, 852, 580.52 as at 11th January 2019.
In two earlier rulings before the judgment, the tribunal dismissed two motions filed by Onnghnen in the form of preliminary objection to the charge.
The first challenged the tribunal’s jurisdiction to try Onnoghen when the allegations against him had not been presented before the NJC, in line with the Court of Appeal judgment in the case of Justice Hyeladzira Ajiya Nganjiwa against the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The second asked the tribunal Chairman to recuse himself from further sitting on the case on the grounds that he was allegedly charged with demanding bribe from a defendant, Rasheed Taiwo, a retired Customs officer, who was charged before the tribunal.
In dismissing the first motion, the tribunal said it had the power to try Onnoghen for the offences contained in the six-count charge before it.
The tribunal said it was trying Onnoghen as a public officer, not as a judicial officer, and hence there was no need to first refer the charge against him to the National Judicial Council (NJC).
It said, in the conduct of its affairs, the CCT is not under any supervision of anybody, including the National Judicial Council, and, therefore, not subject to the directive of the NJC.
The tribunal reversed its earlier judgment in the case of Justice Sylvester Ngwuta on the grounds that its finding in the Ngwuta case was based on wrong legal principles and narrow interpretation of statute.
In the Ngwuta judgment, the tribunal had upheld the Court of Appeal judgment in the case of Justice Nganjiwa, to the effect that any allegation of misconduct against a serving judicial officer must first be referred to the NJC.
In the second ruling, the tribunal said it was impossible to have its Chairman step down from a case, because where there is no Chairman, there is no tribunal.
The issue about the allegation of bribe against the Chairman has been fully investigated and effectively dealt with by the EFCC It said the EFCC cleared the Chairman on the grounds that the petitioners could not prove their allegation.
The tribunal dismissed the defence’s argument that the defendants was not likely to get a fair trial because the Executive was the investigator, prosecutor and judge in the case.
It noted that since the Judiciary, whose judges are appointed by the Executive, is not dictated to by the Executive, the defence’s fear that the CCT’s conduct of the trial would be dictated by the Executive is baseless.